November 2022, Virtual
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Meet and greet valet parking can save travellers valuable time at the airport. Dave Richardson examines the concept, which offers cost-effective convenience and reduces stress.
WRITERS ON BUSINESS travel are used to the high life. There is never much reluctance to sip champagne in Premium Class or try out the duvets and gadgets in an executive room, but when it comes to meet-and-greet services there's very little glamour to write about.
I booked through Meteor to be met at Gatwick South Terminal and followed the instructions. My wife phoned from the M23 10 minutes before our arrival to say we'd be on time.
A couple of minutes after pulling in at ground level outside the terminal, a uniformed driver approached to compliment me on my easy-to-spot car - nothing special, but a mustard-coloured 207 described by Peugeot as "Salamanca Orange". He took my details and checked over the car for damage before driving it off.
On my return three days later, I phoned whilst still in the baggage hall and returned to the same spot, where a couple of minutes later my car arrived. Both drivers were friendly and punctual, and that was it. End of story.
Which is how it should be. The whole idea of meet-and-greet is to save you time and hassle of jumping on and off transfer buses with your baggage, and when it works, it works a treat.
Meet-and-greet is an increasingly important option for business travellers, and is sometimes written into travel policies as a perk that many executives are officially allowed. The alternative is the park-and-ride service, which could add half an hour at each end of the journey, but whichever option is chosen, savings are possible by pre-booking rather than simply turning up and leaving the car in a short- or long-term park.
Airport parking went through a big shake-up in October with the acquisition of a major operator, BCP (formerly British Car Parking) by a rival, Holiday Extras, from Dutch parking giant Q-Park. The former Q-Park facilities at Gatwick, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow airports have taken on the name of Holiday Extras brand, Airparks. Q-Park Heathrow, however, retains its name although it was also part of the deal.
Airparks now controls 28,000 spaces at nine UK airports, and it has doubled in size to over two million cars parked each year after swallowing BCP. Holiday Extras also acts as an agent for car parks run by BAA and other airport authorities, and it can book airport hotels and airport VIP lounges throughout the country.
BCP had a major focus on business travel, but Holiday Extras intends to stay true to its name by continuing to focus on the leisure market, as it has strong relationships with travel agents and tour operators. As commercial director Ian Stewart explains, focusing on business travel is not necessarily profitable. "BCP did a lot of things that weren't making money, so we are not planning to develop business-based products although we are reviewing what we offer at each of our Airparks.
"We are continuing with BCP's meet-and-greet operations at Gatwick and Manchester, and we continue to have access to all BAAs parking and meet-and-greet operations. Business parkers are usually short duration and low revenue and frankly, are not very profitable," he says.
Airparks provide various extras, as the parent company's name would suggest.
Airparks Express is available for an extra £20, meaning you park your own car, but have it delivered outside the terminal on your return. Car valeting while you're away is being extended, and in winter it offers the Ready and Waiting service to defrost, warm up and check over the car before you drive off.
Airparks are all off-airport, with vehicles left at reception to be "block parked" by staff according to when customers are due back - so it's difficult to extract a car if a traveller returns early. Staff are being issued with cameras to record the condition of vehicles when they arrive, to avoid any subsequent arguments about damage.
"The message about pre-booking is getting through, with about half of our customers saving money by doing this," says Stewart. "Airport parking is very competitive with many agencies and Internet comparison sites involved.
HolidayExtras has been in business for over 20 years and warns customers to book only with a reputable company. Meet-and -greet at Gatwick was featured on the BBC's Watchdog programme last year after investigators found cars were being raced and parked miles from the airport, and BAA urges passengers to book with approved companies.
Pre-booking can save over 50 per cent of the pay-at-gate cost, but prices vary constantly according to demand. Holiday Extras is unusual in offering cancellation insurance for only 75p, but in many cases you won't get your money back if you don't show.
Holiday Extras research shows that prices are falling because of competition, and that the average price of a week's parking is considerably less in winter at around £40, than in the summer holiday peak when you can expect to spend over £50.
The disappearance of BCP means that Purple Parking and Meteor are the main companies targeting the business market, although there are also several niche operators, especially at London Gatwick.
Purple Parking has a roughly 50-50 split between business and leisure bookings, and meet-and-greet represents roughly half of its business. It operates at 19 airports with a major focus on Heathrow, where it has recently added operations at Terminal 5.
Consultant Ken Rayne says: "We work mainly through travel management companies as we can accept bookings on Galileo and Sabre, but that is becoming less important now that more customers are using self-booking tools.
"Meet-and-greet is being written into more travel policies, especially at Heathrow. Partners and affiliates are increasingly important, and we work with airlines, including Virgin Atlantic."
Meet-and-greet operators serving Heathrow survived a scare recently when London's Evening Standard newspaper ran a story suggesting that all cars picking up or dropping off passengers outside terminals - including meet-and-greet - faced a £zo charge. That has been refuted by BAA, but with increasing congestion and security concerns we may not have heard the last of it.
"With the security levels over the last year, it has been important for us to differentiate between travellers with hand luggage only, and those with luggage in the hold," adds Rayne.
"Purple Parking has introduced new software to perfect the timing of the release of cars depending on this, so we can synchronise the return of the car to the forecourt as closely as possible with when the traveller is leaving the terminal building."
He admits last year's controversy over a rogue meet-and-greet operator at Gatwick tarnished the reputation of the whole sector, but says perceptions are improving.
Meteor set up a meet-andgreet operation last year having acquired Chauffeur Parking Services and PAS. This service operates at fully owned and managed facilities at Heathrow (including Terminal 5), Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham.
Meteor also operates the Pink Elephant on-airport parks at Heathrow, Stansted and Southampton airports, and is part of a large parking organisation with customers ranging from local authorities to train operators.
Sales and marketing director of Meteor's meet-and-greet division, Steve Waller, says: "The service has to be cost-effective, but corporate social responsibility is also having an impact as corporations can't afford to use an off airport operator without the right credentials. Our drivers are easily identifiable, and they are all professionals.
"CSR means corporations are aware they have to look after their employees when travelling. Meet-and-greet is a great thing for lone female travellers, and our online booking service means a customer's movements are traceable.
"Meet-and-greet is rather like travelling in Premium Class. Once you've tried it you don't want to go back to park-and?ride, and the price differential is minimal for the time saving and peace of mind."
Gatwick, focus of the BBC Watchdog enquiry, is a particularly competitive market with several operators vying for your business. One way of distinguishing yourself is to link up with airline or hotel partners, as you can be sure major brand names won't want to be associated with just anyone.
Help-Me-Park was set up three years ago and operates the ValetPark Advance service for the Gatwick Hilton, notching up 2,000 bookings in its first year of the partnership. It has since added a similar service for the Felbridge Hotel & Spa in East Grinstead.
A meet-and-greet operator stands or falls on its reliability, and Help-Me-Park claims to be unique in offering a money-back guarantee if customers are kept waiting for more than 15 minutes on pick-up or return.
Sales director Sean McCarthy says: "Some companies take too many bookings for the number of drivers they have available. We don't take on too much work and are prepared to put our money where our mouth is.
"We sell on service rather than competing on price. Many customers come to us through making a holiday booking, and then wonder why they've never done it before. We are now targeting the business market with corporate accounts and rates, dealing mainly with smaller companies who are interested in service."
So how much roughly does the service cost? It's impossible to be precise as parking rates change daily, but as the comparison table shows, meet-and-greet could cost only around £20 on top of the long-stay parking charge, and that could definitely be seen as a bargain.
But if you do get things wrong, arriving so late that you have to use the short-stay car park for several days, you'll have some explaining to do to your boss. Parking can, in some situations, actually cost more than your flight.
No-one really enjoys seeing their prized car being driven off by someone else, even if it's Salamanca Orange. But if this is the case, you want at least to trust the driver you hand the keys to, and be confident in how it will be looked after. The last thing you want to be thinking about while away on business, is how your car is doing.
Car parking isn't glamorous and is regarded as a necessary evil... you could call it a grudge purchase.
PLANNING YOUR PARKINGThis example was taken from the BAA website for five days' parking at Heathrow Terminal 5 in early April
* The Short Stay Saver must be booked three days in advance and is non-refundable. ** The Short Stay Special must be booked at least 24 hours before arrival.