For Southern California attendees, the last big step toward San Diego Comic-Con 2014 is the annual parking pass sale, which is scheduled for May 20. Ace Parking, which has handled parking passes the past three years, is attempting to erase the problems which plagued last year’s sale — and avoid the fate of badge and hotel sales before it — by implementing a brand new system for 2014.
How did this all begin?
“If you would have asked me last September how this was going to all play out, I would have said, ‘no, we’re not going to design our own system for Comic-Con’,” Jon Gjerset, Chief Information Officer at Ace Parking, said. “But it actually starts at Seaport Village. We won the contract at Seaport Village and we were asked if we could come up with a system to manage the parking for them. So they made an arrangement with Ace Parking that we would sell discounted parking at the Convention Center to the employees.”
That system, which began development in September 2013, went live by the end of the year for Seaport Village employees, and is the foundation for what was eventually developed for this year’s Comic-Con parking sales.
“Somebody brought up the idea [in late January] about using the system for Comic-Con, and I thought, ‘that sounds like a pretty good idea, that’s a big one right there’. And so that became the entire focus of the program once that was brought up.”
This Comic-Con event for Ace Parking and for online permit sales, it’s kind of like our Super Bowl or our World Series…
Referring to Comic-Con as the “big one” is a reference even Gjerset doesn’t take lightly. “I was thinking,” he says, “this Comic-Con event for Ace Parking and for online permit sales, it’s kind of like our Super Bowl or our World Series, you know? It’s a huge event. It is the biggest, most popular online sales of parking permit sales that we have, that we experience in any given time. So this is the big one.”
To take on such a tall order, Gjerset set forth with a team of developers and testers from FreshForm Interactive and used the established and reliable Amazon Web Services as the backbone to create a system that could withstand the Comic-Con onslaught. “When I was thinking about using [Amazon Web Services] for Comic-Con I was really happy that I’d started with that as the foundation,” Gjerset said, “and just really thought about how I could take advantage of the services that AWS offers and make this work for Comic-Con. So I had no reservations about the horsepower that I could tap into with AWS, and that gave me the confidence to kind of move forward with this, to tell you the truth.”
The last two years, Ace Parking used a third-party system, iParq, to handle its parking sales. On Friday April 19, 2013, system crashes and prolonged outages – something that has grown synonymous with Comic-Con – forced iParq to delay parking sales until the following week. Many attendees might remember this day vividly, but none better than Gerset.
“I was actually off that day on Friday when we decided to have the permits go on sale,” Gjerset said, “and I got a call at nine in the morning and they’re like, ‘Jon, our website’s down!’ It brought our website down, and all we had was a link to the iParq website. At that time, there was no horsepower behind the website at all, it was just a corporate website and didn’t expect to get this mass onslaught of traffic. And there wasn’t anything I could do. The iParq website also went offline, and that one was a little more of a concern for me and other people within Ace, because I really didn’t care that our website was down because we could redirect them over to iParq. But when iParq went down? It meant that the permits weren’t being sold. And that turned out to be the big publicity disaster for us.”
The way things went last year, where we just fell flat on our face, it was an embarrassment for everybody here.
We asked Gjerset what made last year so different. “I don’t think anybody expected it [last year],” he said. “There had only been one previous year’s sale, so this is the third year, and the first year I think that it was new and it didn’t really get a lot of attention, and the iParq website was able to cruise right along…and I don’t think the crowd hit en masse like they did the second year. I think the second year, people really paid attention to the parking permits because they realized, ‘wow, this makes getting to Comic-Con so much easier’, and so the sale became a [really] popular event. And [at] 9am, people realized it’s a constrained resource so they want to get in there and be first in line. And so they were waiting, and man, it was like right at 9am, the website was off the air. It is funny that parking became as popular of a situation as it is, because I don’t think, from our perspective, we didn’t expect it to end up like this. And with the way things went last year, where we just fell flat on our face, it was an embarrassment for everybody here.”
As much as Gjerset wants to forget last year’s problems, he knows that the only way to prevent them from happening again is to remember what went wrong and fix them. “So this year, when I started thinking about selling the Comic-Con permits, one reason I signed up for it and thought, ‘okay we can do it with this system we developed,’ is because I wanted to have control over it. Last year, after the permits went on sale I was calling the people at iParq but I couldn’t do anything about helping them with their systems. They were all on their own. I feel like if I’m in control, it’s going to get fixed. I’m going to fix it at all cost, especially for such a big event. I just wanted to have that control, and this year I’m going to have it.”
Not only will the new system be more reliable, but it will also contain several improvements which should please those who will be participating in this year’s sale. Among them is a convenience that had been mentioned by an Ace Parking FAQ a few days ago, where users will no longer need to enter in their automobile information at the point of purchase. Gjerset elaborated for us. “Each user will have a unique barcode assigned to them. That barcode then will remain the same for each day of parking and every day of parking that they purchase in the future. Even if they come back to the system next year, it will be the same barcode. You’re setting up an account with days that are valid for parking, and when you get to the lot they’ll scan this and if you actually have a valid permit for that day that you’ve purchased, it will scan and be redeemed and be good. And if not, it’s going to flash red to them and they’ll turn you around. Last year it was a different pass for each day and you’d have to print out.”
A point of contention among attendees is the extra transaction fee that gets added on to each parking pass purchased. As Gjerset was giving us a tour of the new system and purchasing some choice Convention Center parking (on a test environment, of course), he pointed out the transaction fee, and we couldn’t resist to dig a little deeper into the subject. “I know the service fees are very unpopular with everybody,” he said, “and I’ve already been hit a few times on Twitter about them. I can say we are paying the credit card fees and the development for this website out of those fees. But that is how Ace makes it’s money. We pass this amount, the $15, through to the Convention Center. And we’re developing a system. Last year I thought iParq was a little excessive with their fee at $5.95, so this year we decided to set it at $4.95.”
I feel like if I’m in control, it’s going to get fixed. I’m going to fix it at all cost, especially for such a big event. I just wanted to have that control, and this year I’m going to have it.
Gjerset’s team has been load testing the new system with thousands of concurrent users, with the goal of running a scenario with 10,000 concurrent users leading up to the May 20 sale date.
“We’re now pounding it with 5,000 [concurrent] users and it’s running perfectly,” says Gjerset confidently. “My plans are to keep pounding this thing and just pushing it up until we get like, I think ten thousand is the goal that I’ll go for. I don’t really have a true idea of how many people will be trying to hit the website when we go online at 9am at 5/20. There’s a lot of uncertainty and I’m going to do the best I can. You did quote me on one of your blog articles that I’m shooting for 100% [uptime], but just to put that in context, I’m shooting for 100% for the day of the event, because no service has 100% forever. But for the day of the event, I want it to be up the entire way through, and if it gets slow, I’ll be okay with that, but I don’t want it to crash. Because last year? You know what happened last year.”
What do you think of the changes Ace Parking is making for 2014? Let them know in the comments.