Recession? Valet Parking Arrives

However improbable the timing, a service many would call a luxury is starting to appear on campuses.
June 24, 2009

For some college students, "roughing it" may be a thing of the past.

When the concept of starting a valet parking service came up at a recent Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees meeting, it seemed less out of place than one would think. With the number of students growing, and the number of convenient parking spaces on campus unchanged, the idea to charge students and faculty for such a convenience did not seem unreasonable.

Florida Atlantic is just talking about valet service. Other colleges have implemented it. Florida International University and Columbia University introduced valet programs this spring. The University of Southern California has had a program in place since 2008, and High Point University brought in valet at the behest of its president, Nido Qubein, to provide a better student experience. California State University at Sacramento has also begun a premium parking program.

At Florida International, valet service started this spring as a way for visitors to find convenient parking. The valet stand was set up on a busy part of campus -- one where a lot of visitors arrive, according to Bill Foster, executive director of parking and transportation. The service was meant for visitors, but students, faculty, and staff were not precluded from using the service, and commuter students had a particular demand for it. With over 38,000 students at Florida International, only 4,000 of whom live on campus, the university sees an influx and exodus of students daily.

"It's like driving on the turnpike where there's less traffic versus the freeway where there's a lot of traffic. It's just got a lot of convenience," Foster said, noting that for some it is worth paying money to save time.

Foster was ambivalent about calling the program a success, but the service will continue to operate in the fall, as the university has entered into a contract with the same valet service. Though Florida International never had any intention of making money from the arrangement, it will get a small sum -- about 10 to 15 percent of the profit -- from the venture. The service currently costs $5 per hour or $20 per day.

Judy Ollivierre, a junior at Florida International, stated in an e-mail that she had not known that the program existed. Lamenting the fact that it is difficult to find parking on campus, she said that the valet service is something people should use.

Following the debut of the valet service, Florida International opened up a three-month pilot car wash program, in which students, faculty, and staff can get their cars washed while on campus.

The University of Southern California's valet service, which has been around since 2008, advertises on its Web site "Running late to class? Late for a meeting? Can’t find parking? Don’t stress!" Though the site markets itself to faculty and students, Tony Mazza, director of marketing, says that the main purpose of the service is for VIPs, visiting professors, campus visitors, and people with disabilities.

Southern California began the service by contracting with an outside company that had previously done valet for university basketball games. It costs $10 for three hours of valet compared to $8 for a one day pass in a periphery garage. The university generally makes no profit on the service.

Adam Weissman, a senior at Southern California who had not previously known of the service, could not see a use for valet on campus, besides possibly for guests and campus visitors. He added that any money spent on the service "should be used on more housing for USC students," as only a small minority of the student body lives on campus.

Columbia University made a deal with a parking service earlier this year to manage the university's parking needs for faculty and students taking evening classes. Some of the parking facilities have valet service while others are self-park, according to Robert Hornsby, Columbia's director of media relations. But with space so tight in New York City, very few students have vehicles to park.

Valet service -- sometimes seen as a luxury -- tends to be associated with fancy restaurants and hotels, leading some to question whether a college campus is a suitable place for uniformed car-parkers. On the press release announcing Florida International's choice to begin valet service, the comments section was littered with negative responses.

One comment read: "I’ve asked many colleagues and they think it’s absolutely absurd. Is this an academic institution or a club on South Beach?"

Another comment lamented that the service would make parking even harder: "How about building a new parking garage or making more spots for us? Instead, they take them away!"

But at High Point University, a small liberal arts college in North Carolina, spoiling the students may be exactly the point of valet. The campus, in addition to boasting a valet service, is home to a free ice cream truck, a concierge desk, and a giant hot tub in the middle of campus. Since the beginning of the administration of High Point President Nido Qubein, the noted businessman and motivational speaker has sought to "wow" students in order to encourage their learning.

High Point media relations did not return a call from Inside Higher Ed.

Several other college officials, however, have stressed that campus valet was a convenience factor, not a way of spoiling students.

"I think that some could get the wrong idea, but I think that with the price point we have, people see that it's barely more than the normal price point," Mazza said, adding that "we view it as an amenity versus a luxury."

At Cal State Sacramento, Nancy Fox, director of university transportation and parking services, began a valet service that has since turned into a no-frills type of "premium" parking. With over 24,000 cars coming and leaving the suburban campus on a daily basis, Sacramento has an abundance of parking spots. So campus constituents have the option of paying an additional three dollars to park in a lot closer to the center of campus.

"We got some suggestions and comments from community members saying, 'Wouldn't it be nice, why don't you guys offer valet parking?' " Fox said. "We didn't feel like we could take spots away from customers who normally park there. When we opened [a new] parking structure, we had ample parking, [so we started the program]. We have continued it for five semesters successfully and we plan to continue."

Fox added that California State University Fullerton is thinking about modeling a program after Sacramento, but has yet to do so.

Parking has long been a concern on college campuses, and as Fox says, people generally only speak up on parking issues when something is going wrong. This program has drawn praise from across campus, which has been a welcome change for campus personnel. But the service's most loyal customers are students, Fox says, most of whom are late to class.

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