BOSTON (June 10, 2002)—It's an idea that, like many of its patrons, is waiting to take off.
Bob Katz, president of Nu-Tread Tire and Auto Service Center, had the brainstorm several years ago to combine long-term airport parking with his Boston tire dealership. Since its infancy, he wanted to franchise the concept and is still looking to do so. Meanwhile, he finds it hard to believe the idea hasn't taken off elsewhere, or at least taxied down the tarmac in preparation.
“They're out there,” he said of the possibilities. “It won't work in every single city. But in some cases it could work at more than one (dealership) in each city.”
Mr. Katz saw airport parking and auto service as a logical marriage. After all, when can people afford to leave their cars more than when they're traveling and don't need them anyway? Throw in the fact they can get free shuttle service to their terminal at Boston's Logan International Airport, and the fact they save a potential bundle on parking and it's seemingly a no-brainer.
Mr. Katz thought that six years ago when he started the Air Travelers Service Corp. portion of his business. He had the idea to franchise soon thereafter, before a couple of snags delayed his plans. He lost the larger of his two locations when his lease was bought out in early 2001. The contract still had 6½ years left, but Mr. Katz wasn't overly disappointed, since the price was to his liking.
“We lost a big area of land,” he said. “We're looking for an expanded location. We've got our eye on a couple of spots as we speak.”
With his store located basically at the end of one of Logan's runways, Mr. Katz is sitting on a potential marketing gold mine. He believes anyone with a location at or near an airport is in a similar position, with few alterations necessary to become a park-and-fly auto service provider.
Having a location in the neighborhood of an airport is one-third of the battle. He said the other two essentials are having enough parking to make it worthwhile and having good people working for you.
The parking is self-explanatory. If you're going to run a parking service, you need room to keep customers' cars on site for extended periods. Mr. Katz said a minimum of 20 to 25 extra spots, in addition to daily business parking space, would be necessary.
As for employees, well, good people are important to any business. But Mr. Katz said it's imperative in this instance, since travelers tend to be upscale clientele. “If it's not professionally done, it's not going to work,” he said.
Air Travelers works simply enough by ensuring a minimum expenditure by customers: “Parkers” get a vehicle inspection for $44.95. In this case, if they are going away for two days, based on Logan's $22-a-day parking rate, it's a push. Anything beyond that, and Mr. Katz's customers benefit financially.
If problems are detected during the inspection, the inspection fee is deducted from the repair bill. If the vehicle requires $150 worth of work, the customer would only owe an additional $105, since the initial charge would be applied. Something as simple as a $30 oil change would cost $15, and the car would be safely parked the entire time.
“What we do is develop a loyal customer. Then they start timing things with what they need,” said Mr. Katz, who added that some patrons initially find the arrangement too good to be true. The service's gimmicky nature may steer a few folks away at first, but once they're in, they're hooked. He estimated his return business at 80 percent and said the average return customer will spend double what a first-timer will.
“It takes a while to build the trust,” he said, noting that the parking portion of business accounts for 10 percent of the dealership's inbound revenue—a figure Mr. Katz said “is growing.”
“It could be a lot more,” he added. “We're somewhat restricted and we weren't sure what direction we were going to go in. We haven't gone out to get any large clients, per se.”
With the number of travelers—and potential dealership customers—Mr. Katz is somewhat surprised that nearly every airport in the nation doesn't have a tire dealer/service center on every adjacent corner. It's also why he is still looking to franchise the approach in the near future.
“To my knowledge, nobody's really done it in a large way,” he said. “We've got some cities we're looking at and cities I've actually visited.”
He has a vision where his Boston store would be home base, handling reservations and appointments for all other sites. A Web site, where travelers could book their service/parking, would manage the network.
He has other ideas, though maybe not for himself. He sees a day when existing park-and-fly businesses will lease space to auto service providers, who could build service centers on small areas of parking lots and provide basic services, if not have full-service capability.
“They're never using all their parking spaces, so it wouldn't really cost them anything, and they could be paid based on how much business (the service center does),” he said.
In Seattle, Thrifty Corp. has an airport parking facility with a full-service (minus tires) automotive center that has been up and running for about five years, according to Sandy Sidell, director of sales and marketing for Thrifty Northwest. The shop charges $13.95 a day for parking—a $6-per-day savings over the SeaTac Airport's rate—and offers complete underhood and around-the-wheel service, in addition to auto detailing.
Mr. Sidell said that once customers “start using the service, they see it's a value.” He also expressed surprise that more airports weren't surrounded by similar businesses because it simply “makes sense.”
Manassas, Va.-based Merchant's Inc. had a similar store on the drawing board three years ago at the Richmond, Va., airport, before airport expansion and construction led the idea to the shelf. Steve Steffens, Merchant's vice president of marketing, said it wasn't in the company's or customers' interest to open such a facility at that point. However, the Virginia retailer was clearly intrigued by the idea at the time.
The effects of Sept. 11 also have to be considered, since the travel industry took a hit in the wake of the terrorists attacks. But Mr. Katz said, in some ways, that may have helped. At Logan, a valet service was done away with and the parking rates increased, with no discount for longer stays. That makes his parking lot all the more appealing.