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Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, recently offered this information regarding the progress surrounding the Downtown Lakeland valet parking initiative. These are the facts as they stand today.

How it all started:
At least one new Downtown restaurant plans to include valet service as part of its business plan. Others have expressed interest in adding it to their existing plans. As Downtown grows in the next 18 months with four new restaurants and at least two entertainment Valetestablishments, parking will certainly become a challenge at peak times. The number of spaces in the core of Downtown – around Munn Park from Lemon Street to the railroad tracks that currently serve the existing restaurants and bars – will see demand for those finite spaces increase. That means everyone’s customers, not just the new businesses’ customers, will compete for those spaces. Instead of having just one or two businesses provide valet service for only their customers, it was decided to look at  a more universal service that could benefit all of Downtown.

An overview of how it might work:
From the customer point of view
Customers who have no interest in using the valet service will see no changes to their Downtown experience. They can still self park.  With the exception of a few spaces reserved for the valet stand in each location during valet operations only, all of the “best” parking – Main Street Garage, Munn Park parking lot and on-street parking will remain available for self-parkers.

The idea is to begin the initiative with two valet stands that serve the core restaurant/entertainment area Downtown.  The locations are proposed to be on Main Street and on Lemon Street. The valet companies responding the Request for Proposal may have different ideas. At this point, these are suggestions. Customers would leave their cars with the valet and walk to their nearby destination. The valet experience would be ticketless. Customers would give their cell number to the valet, receive a text message with their valet code, and retrieve their car through text message when ready. You can text for your car as you are paying your bill, shortening your wait time. If the customer visits a business who participates in the validation program, the customer gets that valet experience free (customers are still asked to tip). The business would validate their “ticket” using the customer valet code and the business’ validation code. The valet stand’s technology gets notification that the parking was validated and no payment from the customer is required. The customer could retrieve their car from either valet stand because the ticketless text technology allows the customer to communicate that request with the valet.  If the customer did not patronize a business who participates in the validation program, the customer would pay for the valet parking via cash at the stand or credit via their phone or the valet stand. This is not an app. There is nothing to download, and a smart phone is not required.  The customer would be educated about the participating businesses, so this would not be a surprise. Also, customers without a cell phone or who choose not to give their cell phone number would be offered the traditional ticketed valet experience.

The chosen valet company will be reputable and have full insurance.  The valeted cars will be parked in city lots out of the core Munn Park area, but not in remote, unsafe areas. Customers are expected to tip the valets, but  the valet companies responding to the RFP also have been asked to provide a no-tip price structure for comparison.

From the business point of view:
As part of the tracking of customers and the ability to collect validation data, the LDDA is looking into text technology that provides a ticketless valet experience for the customer.  The technology also has the ability to collect needed customer vehicle information, assign unique validation codes for businesses and collect payments. Businesses that participate in the validation program would only pay for their valeted customers. No new hardware or software is needed; just Internet access.
Here’s and example experience:
A couple patronizes Harry’s and uses the valet service. The server asks as part of the greeting if the couple used valet. If yes, the server can ask for that code and write it on the order ticket for reference later.  After the meal and when presenting the check, the server can  validate the parking, or, for an extra layer of customer service, ask the customer if they’d like for the server to call for their car. Who does the actual validating will be up to the business. As long as that person has Internet access  and can have the valet website available, validation and calling  for the car is a easy as typing in the customer’s code. Businesses are not obligated to participate.

How much? 

That’s the big question.The answer is – we don’t yet know. The RFP’s purpose is to get a clear picture of how the valet companies propose to deliver the service and how much it will cost. The LDDA doesn’t want to speculate and circulate an unrealistic number. The plan is to make the cost equitable. If POSTO 9 has 100 customers valet parking on a Friday night and Palace Pizza has 20, then POSTO 9 pays the per car cost multiplied by 100, and Palace pays the per car cost multiplied by 20. (The per car cost is yet to be determined, pending RFP results). Validation won’t make sense for every business. Price points and customer volumes vary.

The LDDA is responsible for the contract with the valet company. The businesses participating in the validation program would be billed by the LDDA based on the volume of validations. The LDDA has not worked out yet if that will be monthly, bi-weekly, etc. The goal is to have the system pay for itself through validations and customer payments. Staffing will be monitored to ensure it  matches volume and demand. There will  be a minimum number of employees required to staff the system. If  volume isn’t met to cover the costs of those minimums at first, that may be where the LDDA supplements the system for a time. These are  unknowns until RFP responses are received.

What’s next:
Responses to the RFP are due by the end of July. The selection committee will review the proposals.  Once a company is selected, the LDDA will meet with the Downtown businesses to share a detailed explanation of how  the service is expected to work.  The selection of the valet company does not mean the service is approved to move forward. That will depend on many factors.  Once the LDDA has the financial analysis of the program, it will be able to determine a per-car cost for validation and the cost for the service for the customer who pays it himself. This is where the rubber meets the road. Both of these numbers have to be attractive or the “universal” program will fail. The LDDA Board must also vote to enter into the contract. Cost to the LDDA will also play a role in how the program moves forward.

Worse case scenario is that a handful of businesses work out a way to share the cost among themselves and only their customers can use the service. But to set Downtown apart from other entertainment destinations, to raise the bar of customer service, we are hopeful this will be a universal Downtown program.

Please contact Julie Townsend if you have questions: julie.townsend [at] lakelandgov [dot] net.

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