Success Is Attendant on 'Valet Parking'

What two words spell the difference between an A bash and a B bash, a classy and a declasse restaurant, a gym and a sports club?

Valet parking.

Without it, the most glorious do becomes a drag. In Orange County, it's unheard of for an A-list hostess to expect guests to drive their fancy cars to a party and then have to park them themselves. For one thing, it means wasted party time if guests are driving around searching for parking spaces. For another, it might mean the end of a party if guests find no place to park. And what self-respecting owner of a showy car wants to drive it to a party, stash it blocks away, and then spend the night wondering whether it's safe?

Enter Private Parking Services, the company that parks cars for A-list hostesses and hot spots such as the Irvine Hilton, the Irvine Marriott, Prego, Bistango, and Sports Club/Irvine. Their 400 attendants--"runners," as they call them--will not only park your car, they'll also touch up its dirty windows, retrieve items from it during the course of the evening, even try to persuade a tipsy owner to hand over the wheel to someone else ("That one's tricky," says Steve Paliska, PPS general manager. "You have to be very diplomatic. I tell them something like: 'There's a lot of police activity on the surface streets. It might be wise for your spouse to drive.' ")

"Waiting for your car to appear after a social event has become a social event in itself," Paliska says. "So many people leave a party at the same time that, suddenly, you have a few hundred people standing curbside. They have a great time talking about the party or the new club they've joined. Mostly they love watching the gorgeous cars pull up and watching who climbs into what ."

Which brings us to one of Paliska's valet consumer tips: "If you know you're attending a party with a very large group and you want to avoid a wait, leave the party five minutes before it's over or 15 minutes after it breaks. The worst time to leave is smack in the middle of the break."

Paliska says he'll never forget the mob scene after a Ray Charles concert in Los Angeles a few years ago. "One man was so irate at having to wait for his car that he took off running after the valet. The crowd got so mad at him getting mad at the valet, they started chasing him. There was an altercation, and then the guy just got in his car and left."

The average wait for a car after a big party should be no more than 15 minutes, Paliska says. "But people in Orange County can get annoyed having to wait even that long. In Los Angeles after attending a performance at the Music Center, it's nothing for people to have to wait 40 minutes. But in Orange County, there is a different set of expectations. People here can be very demanding. And because they have high standards, we've raised our standards."

But, says an insider, people here can be small tippers. "Doctors are the worst and most demanding. Society women only tip $1, if they tip. And they're always saying they need their car in a hurry because they have some place to go and you know darn well they have no place to go."

(I'll never forget the sight of one very busy socialite, who most definitely had someplace to go, getting the best of the valet attendants at the Balboa Bay Club after a huge luncheon. While other women waited and waited for their cars to appear, she waltzed up to the valet key board, grabbed her huge rabbit's-foot key chain, and trotted off to her car. "That's the secret to getting your car in a hurry," she said. "A key chain you can spot!")

Another sure-fire way to get your car in a hurry is to hand the valet a $20 bill. "That happens often after boxing at the Irvine Marriott," says Steve's brother Paul, director of operations for Private Parking Services. "People who hand you a $20 bill know what it takes to get your car up front in a hurry."

Are tips expected? Not to retrieve your car. But after it's been pulled up, "Yeah, pretty much, " Paul says. "A lot of our locations have a service charge for parking. But that goes for the operating costs of providing our service. The tips go to the valets. They put them all in a pool and split them up at the end of the evening." Valet attendants get better tips when the bash has been a freebie, Paul says. "The less people have had to spend, the more they tip."

The current rate for "good etiquette" tipping is $2, says Michael Rothman, valet manager for the Ritz restaurant in Newport Beach. "We don't require any tip," says Rothman, adding that about 2,000 cars a week are parked at the popular restaurant. "We're there to serve the customer, keep him from having to find a place to park. But if a person wants to be on top of what to tip, it's $2."

But valets get more than tips when they park cars, Rothman says. They get the chance to get behind the wheels of Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Mercedeses, Porsches, Ferraris, Jaguars.

The thrill car is the 1990 Mercedes 500SL, he says.

The most recent hot spot to join the ranks of courtesy parking is the Sports Club/Irvine.

Why does a sports club need valet parking? Silly question. "They have a restaurant," Steve Paliska says. "They set the standard for valet parking when they opened their Los Angeles club." Paliska admits it can be a little unnerving seeing a woman waiting for her car in a thong leotard rather than a flowing ball gown. "But it's our job to remain professional at all times," he says.

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