Airports looking to boost customer satisfaction levels would do well to remember motorists and the importance of the car parking experience in passenger journeys, writes Chris Girling.
In a world where customer experience is king, airlines have been improving their aircraft, whilst airport operators have focused on terminals.
Indeed, both have invested heavily in services to make the journey better, but often the start and end of a journey is forgotten – the parts that can be the most stressful and make or break the overall experience. That is why car parks are a vital element in the overall experience.
Car parking is an important revenue earner for airports across the world. Denver (DEN) and Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), for example, generated $172 million and $135 million respectively from their car parks in 2015 and London Gatwick (LGW) makes over £60 million annually.
However, but with low-cost, off-site parking often providing a cheaper alternative and governments encouraging public transport links, arguably this valuable source of revenue is under threat like never before, which is why airports need to ensure a positive passenger experience.
A positive car parking experience gives airports a competitive-advantage, not only reinforcing the operator’s brand, but further increasing passenger buy-in.
Benefits include increased occupancy by winning new customers who are currently using low-cost car parks, taxis, shuttle buses or rides from friends or family and, subsequently, more revenue.
But what does the ‘customer experience’ mean in the context of parking? Research will help operators understand their challenges, fears, likes and dislikes to create that better experience.
Consider booking (increasingly in-advance and online), directions and entry, the facilities themselves and the connection to the terminal itself. Parking should be considered as part of the end-to-end journey.
Booking should be an intuitive process that builds confidence and leaves customers satisfied that they have chosen the right official car park for the best price available.
Drivers should be given simple instructions on how to reach the right car park, and this needs to be consistent with any messaging on the approach roads and car park entrances. This ensures quick decisions are made, which reduce driver-error whilst lowering stress levels. Getting these basics right is key to passenger satisfaction.
Passengers in a bad mood are unlikely to make informed decisions, which denigrates their experience and perception of the airport.
Pre-booking is often supported by number plate recognition technology, but should this go wrong, drivers need to know how to resolve the situation quickly and easily. This is where a regular maintenance programme can improve the customer experience.
Finding an empty space is often a major headache for drivers, which is why airports such as Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood are investing in new technology to help. It has opted for Park Assist, which utilises sensor technology that informs drivers which of the airport’s 5,500 parking spaces are available.
In China, Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport uses similar technology to free people from the rush and anxiety to find empty parking spaces while hurrying to catch their flights. Digital signs indicate how many parking spaces are open and red and green lights throughout the aisles show available spaces.
Another common problem is that passengers often forget where they have parked. Location information can be written on the ticket, but this is a long way behind the latest ANPR technology, which uses video cameras to locate a vehicle.
One company, at least, is testing technology that links the boarding pass with your car registration, enabling you to scan your pass to locate your car on return.
Carefully placed visual cues, totems and memorable naming/imagery can aid unconscious memorability and help passengers find their car on their return. Images can also add colour and style to an otherwise bland environment.
Likewise, the clever use of lighting can be used to enhance the look and feel of dark and poorly lit multi-storey car parks as well as aiding intuitive wayfinding.
Additionally, coloured lighting can be used to affect human behaviour. Certain hues, for example, can create a more relaxed and calming environment, which place passengers in a good state of mind before they enter the terminal.
In some cases, older multi-storey car parks can be very tight, and the sight of scrapes on protective barriers can cause concern.
Another issue to consider is that the line of sight is often poor in car park environments, with signs blocked by cars, people, pillars and bulk heads. Therefore careful sign placement with consideration for reading distance, visibility and illumination can make a significant difference.
Examples of how to improve the brand experience can include simple devices such as well-placed welcome and departure messages with careful consideration of tone of voice.
Tailored patterns and textures – perforated or etched cladding, for instance – can be used to enhance wall and floor finishes. These improvements create a higher quality environment that better fits the aspirations and brand image of the airport and can act as memory-joggers that go well beyond the usual use of colour-coding to differentiate individual car parks.
The area between the car park and terminal building can also be significantly improved with the addition of unique graphics or sculptural pieces that can be used to create a sense of place to aid orientation and increase memorability.
They create good photo opportunities and useful meeting points to turn the journey from park to terminal from a chore to a positive experience.
Where transfer is by bus, bus stops should be well maintained and offer proper protection from the weather. The vehicle itself should reflect the operator’s brand values and be used to provide additional, helpful information to passengers, such as advice on airline terminals or flight departure times rather than the latest special offer in duty free.
Wayfinding certainly plays a key role when designing a better parking experience with passengers, given the right information at the right time, breaking down complex journeys into a series of connected stages.
After all, people prefer consistent and predictable information, which they find easier to recognise, understand and act upon. In this regards, the scale and position of information should be in accordance with its importance relative to the location, and there should be seamless information beyond the immediate vicinity of the car park.
Passengers need to trust the information they are given, as confidence in its accuracy and consistency will give a positive boost to customers. The use of symbols to guide passengers is common, however, these need careful consideration as too complex or abstract can add another level of user thinking.
The key to successful wayfinding is providing information that can be quickly understood to aid decision-making. Additionally, staff can play a key role, as can well-placed web promotion and marketing.
The return journey to the car park should be equally trouble free – including having sufficient payment machines that are easily understood and used, to avoid queues and frustration.
In a world of where the importance of brand is paramount, this needs to be reflected in all aspects of the parking experience – both visually and in terms of service level.
But beware, even the best of intentions can backfire sometimes as Frankfurt Airport discovered when it was accused of sexism and reinforcing the myth that women are bad parkers after announcing that it had created spaces just for female drivers that were “bigger, nicer and close to the terminals”.
At a time when the customer experience is a key business driver, it is often the things that get forgotten about that make the difference between a good customer experience and a poor one.
Devoting sufficient planning time to understanding the behaviour, wants and needs of car park users will help airports build long-term relationships with travellers and ensure that parking continues to contribute towards their financial success for many years to come.