Automation Realizations

Technological streamlining can make facility management easier and more efficient

By Kyle Ryan

To call the old program-registration system at Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation "inefficient" would be too generous.

"We had continual complaints from patrons because they'd have to physically go to a site in order to register to go to a summer camp at one facility," says Michael Brett, Smartlink manager for the Prince George's parks department. "They'd have to go stand in line there. In some cases, the lines started forming at 4 or 5 in the morning."

It gets worse.

"If they wanted one two-week session there and another two-week session somewhere else," Brett continues, "they'd have to physically leave that site and go to the other, which also probably had a line. So they certainly wouldn't get in."

This is the system the Prince George's parks department used for years, up until December 2002. The county, located just outside Washington, D.C., on the Maryland side, is home to nearly 900,000 people. The parks department runs 37 recreation centers, nine pools, an equestrian center, a large community center and even an airport.

Considering the system they had in place, the Prince George's parks department is lucky they only had complaints, not armed uprisings. Brett knew it would have to change.

"The driving force in that was customer service primarily," Brett says. Now the department's 110 remote sites connect to a centralized Windows database. People can register in person, on the Internet or over the phone using the same database the parks department uses. Customers can register at one facility for a program at another. It's streamlined, it's efficient, it makes for happier patrons.

That's what it boils down to, really: Happier customers make for better business. Behind the scenes, efficient technology management can save you money and time, no matter what type of recreation facility you run.

SHINY, HAPPY PEOPLE

Hoping to please patrons as much as possible, the Prince George's parks department didn't want to hold back when it upgraded. That meant implementing four different software modules: program registration, point-of-sale systems, membership and task management, and facility booking/rental.

"We decided to go whole hog all at once, connect everybody," Brett says. "And the driving force for that piece of it was more from the staff side and automating all the accounting and processing and doing away with the forms and onerous cash-reporting system that we had."

It took about 18 months for Prince George's parks to implement the system once they decided to do it. Despite a rough start, the centralized database they now use is infinitely better than its predecessor, according to Brett.

Part of that has to do with the experiences of literally thousands of other similar businesses. Today's software companies create programs based on what they've learned and the feedback they've received from their clients—so you don't have to be the trailblazer.

It's something Rich Hale, director of LA Workout clubs, discovered when implementing a new system for his company. Located in and around Los Angeles, LA Workout has three clubs, including one that uses the name but is independently managed. Prior to deciding to work with a software company, Hale would manually generate business reports in programs such as Filemaker Pro and Microsoft Excel. While such a stopgap solution worked, it left a lot to be desired.

"[We didn't] have the experience of thousands of other clubs around the world," Hale says. "Whereas the types of things this club-management software offers to us are things that someone had decided when they were two or three clubs…so by the time we reach that level, it's ready for us. We don't have to create it every step along the way."

ORGANIZED AND CENTRALIZED

Those other businesses discovered as they blazed the trail the benefits of a centralized database. The difference in workload is startling, as Dave Gray, senior community services supervisor for the City of San Mateo (Calif.) Parks and Recreation Department discovered. The city, located about half an hour south of San Francisco, has one full-service recreation center, a pool and numerous, tiny, no-frills recreation centers.

"We had a registration program that was developed in-house, but it didn't keep track of customers," he says. "So every time a customer came in, we had to re-enter the information. So that's a lot of wasted time, and there's a lot of mistakes being made in that. We had no way of tracking the customer other than print-outs at the end of the year."

All facility rentals were handled on paper calendars, which, not surprisingly, led to double bookings. The department's accounting software also had problems, like staff members' ability to override any aspect of the program.

"When we started, it was an excellent program," Gray says, "but technology passed us by."

That was then. Now San Mateo uses a centralized database to track customers, facility rentals and program registration. All the different aspects of the software communicate with each other to share the same information. Not only does this prevent double bookings at facilities, but it means Gray can work from one center and see what's going on at another.

Thanks to a push for credit-card payment, customers can log onto the city's Web site any time to register for a class, a benefit that's been "huge," according to Gray.

"We have a store," Gray says. "Customers can come to our store, pick out the merchandise, pay for it and walk out, and for the most part, we don't have to have a clerk in the store, if you consider the Internet a store."

GETTIN' PAID

Gray has seen the biggest benefit in the department's monetary procedures, from cash handling to credit-card payments.

For example, at the end of every day, clerks at San Mateo's various rec centers run a report to see how much money they took in. The system keeps track of every purchase, so the balance has to match the cash at hand. Management runs the same reports every day at the recreation department's headquarters, so they know exactly how much money to expect.

If the parks department organized a teen dance at a high school, it used to make a separate deposit for the money collected at the dance. Now, though, clerks just open the same point-of-sale program they use every day to add the extra revenue, and the money gets bundled into the same daily deposit.

What all of it adds up to are fewer opportunities for mistakes: one database, one deposit, all of it tracked by headquarters.

How the city handles credit-card payments has changed as well. Each center used to have a small credit-card terminal, the type you see at restaurants. The transactions were processed in batches, meaning all the payments on Tuesday were sent to a clearing house on Wednesday for approval. If someone's credit-card payment was declined, staff members would have to follow up with the person to rectify it.

The new system immediately processes credit-card payments, so staff members know if there's a problem now, not later.

"You want your money right away," Gray says. "Being a bill collector is a very unpleasant and time-consuming process."

Not to mention expensive when the staff could be doing something more productive. Where the savings have been most dramatic, though, has been with the credit-card terminals.

"When the software came along, then we were able to accept the payment through the software in a point-of-sale module," Gray says. "We didn't have to rent those terminals anymore—that was thousands of dollars a year to rent those terminals. We got rid of those terminals at every rec center and used one central terminal."

LA Workout saved money in a similar way by replacing its time clocks. Instead of paying to rent a time clock and a dedicated phone line for it, the company uses terminals integrated into their software database. "Right there we're saving $500 a month," Hale says.

The savings could increase if LA Workout incorporates new thumbprint-recognition technology for time clocks. Hale uses this example: Someone is running late, so he calls his friend at work and asks his friend to punch in his code so the system shows he arrived on time. Thumbprint-recognition technology eliminates that possibility.

"They have had incredible results with clubs around the country," Hale says. "[Clubs] say 'My employee costs are going down, the front desk is staffed better, and my salesmen aren't gone one-and-a-half hours for lunch. And if they are, I simply don't pay them for that half-hour.'"

That kind of thing may help keep employees honest, but technology can help streamline employee activities to make them cheaper and more effective.

After implementing an online registration procedure during a technological upgrade, the Elk Grove Park District (a Chicago suburb) discovered it didn't need as many people working the front desk. They also saw a growth in sales.

"We're in the process of restructuring facility and program areas to align staffing around customer demands," says Barbara Heller, executive director of the Elk Grove Park District. "Front-desk operations have been streamlined because we're at 42 percent online registration, so we changed the dynamics of the front desks."

In such a situation, layoffs are perhaps inevitable, but it doesn't necessarily have to come to that.

"Let's say it takes [the software company] one hour to accomplish an issue, but it takes this person three hours to resolve [the same] issue," Hale says. "That person isn't doing something positive. So we're not necessarily going in and cutting heads at all the clubs and getting rid of staff; we're now better able to use our staff in different areas."

The monetary savings can come from other places as well. With their previous setup, the San Mateo parks department would send a confirmation letter in the mail to each person who registered for a program. Now customers receive an e-mail and print their own confirmation—meaning the city saves a dollar every three registrations.

excavating the data mines

One of the biggest benefits to centralizing and upgrading databases comes from vast amounts of data collected in them. Contained in people's ages, home addresses and whatever else is an incredibly detailed look at your customers and what they want.

"That is an active and ongoing and growing project—and I think rightly so," says Bryan Andrus, vice president of business development for health-club chain 24 Hour Fitness. "As we become more familiar and understanding of behavior and activity…the better off we're going to be as an organization and, frankly, the better off a member's going to be because we will be able to anticipate some of their needs for them."

With more than 300 clubs and 3 million members nationally, 24 Hour Fitness has a lot of data. The company uses a centralized, Web-browser-based system for everything from club administration to personal training. All of 24 Hour's facilities, from their 100,000-plus-square-foot ultrasport centers to their neighborhood "express" locations, report back to a central database in Carlsbad, Calif.

"It's fairly basic business, but within the fitness industry, there's a very short list of folks that are using their internal databases to be able to do that," Andrus says. "In many cases, many of the smaller facilities may not be as fortunate to have the resources that some of the larger facilities have. I will say this as an overall comment: There is quite a chasm [between] the haves and the have-nots in terms of technology."

Elk Grove Park District's Barbara Heller speaks of aggressively competing with clubs like 24 Hour Fitness in a way seldom heard among municipalities. At the heart of her strategy is the reporting and data-mining that comes from the district's management software.

"We're showing downward trends in revenues, so we're going to be beefing up our marketing area and spending more resources in marketing," she says. "Because three or four years ago, customers just came to us. Those days are over."

What was an annual report to the park district's management team has become a twice-a-year, comprehensive analysis of market-penetration rates. The reports' findings have caused several changes at the Elk Grove Park District: A marked interest among customers in wellness activities has led the park district to hire a wellness planner for the first time; a five-year downward trend in preschool registration is causing the park district to rethink those programs. The park district is restructuring budget allocations, realigning staff and increasing marketing, all because of what they found in their own database.

"You can't just continue what you've been doing," Heller says. "You need to realign things according to what customers are needing…Why even collect data if you're not going to do anything with the information?"

As Elk Grove has adjusted its marketing strategies, it has implemented e-marketing, which Heller thinks can be tremendously effective.

"It just makes communication so much better, so much quicker," she says. "Park districts by and large pretty much rely on the four-season brochure; as far as doing any fluid, dynamic changes throughout the year, it's really tough. Whereas if you're able to develop e-marketing campaigns if you need some discounts, two-for-ones, program-membership referrals, it's so easy to put those into place immediately."

Prince George's County's park district relies on those brochures, but Brett says data analysis has improved their content.

"We've cut the production costs of our seasonal guides by at least a third per guide," Brett says. "We are able to do a lot more target marketing. We know who the people are who are taking our fitness courses, for example, and if you've got something new coming, you can target them."

For seasonal guides at the San Mateo Parks and Recreation Department, Dave Gray exports data from his database directly into publishing software such as QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign, so the schedule comes directly from the software that manages the programs. That eliminates most of the errors in brochures.

Gray concedes he has more information than he can digest. California's state-wide budgetary crises are well-known, and Gray's department lacks the resources for extensive data-mining and market analysis. But the reports have helped.

"We're not in a spending mode," he says. "We're looking more carefully at what are the programs that are successful and what are the ones that are not successful—because you know we're going to have to stop doing those things that serve five families because we need to do something more with that money."

DOING IT BETTER

Doing something better with time and money is really the point of technological upgrades.

"There are other issues that the software company is handling that now has freed me up, freed up the owner, the managers and the operations managers to really deal on a club level to get more accomplished inside a club and better use of the organization and employees," Hale says.

24 Hour Fitness has incorporated that idea into its new personal-training system, which gives trainers preplanned nutritional and fitness programs that match member needs. It dramatically shortens a usually time-consuming process.

"We use the computer to do the processing and repetitive activities, which then frees up our training staff to be able to spend time one on one…helping understand where the member is within their cycle and what it's going to take to get them to achieve their goal," Andrus says.

Although members can track their workout regimen via the Internet, some clubs have started using computer-augmented workout machines that give personalized exercise instructions (intensity, repetitions) to each person who uses them. Members enter a code or swipe a card, then receive instructions based on their workout history and goals.

Andrus also sees the potential for using technology to track a machine's usage and maintenance history, a project currently under way at 24 Hour Fitness.

"That's one of the areas that I see as an emerging and very powerful tool for the fitness industry as a whole, both on the supplier and the consumer side," Andrus says. Management will be able to see what machines are being used when and figure out how to optimize and maintain their usage.

Realizing that idea is down the road, facility operators have found numerous ways now to benefit from their software's flexibility. In San Mateo, Gray can make the system give residents preferential treatment over nonresidents during program registration. LA Workout keeps members who might otherwise have quit by offering flexible memberships: reduced rates for people who only exercise at certain times of certain days at certain club locations, all of it managed and tracked by their database. Discounting limits are set in the system, so the sales force doesn't have to haggle with customers.

"Unfortunately in the club industry, it's almost like buying a car—people don't want to buy retail," Hale says. Customers who might think they're being cheated can see for themselves that the computer rejects discounts beyond a certain amount.

"The sales people like that; the customer then is looking at the salesperson who's being honest, as somebody who's looking to give you the best deal possible," Hale says. "It's very helpful."


WEB-SAVVY TEAMS

The benefits of technology, of course, haven't been limited to the people running recreational facilities.

Over the course of the past few years, various sports portals have popped up on the Web, offering massive event listings for fun runs, triathlons, camping workshops and more all over the world.

Part of one site's success has to do with its team section. More than a million teams have set up Web sites, registered players online, raised funds and used things like message boards to keep in touch. The teams span across 80 sports in 120 countries.

For a modest price, team organizers can build Web sites using simple templates that are customizable to the team's colors. Online registration is free for administrators, and they can collect fees, analyze participant information, run reports and send group e-mails through the site.

Just another way technology can streamline traditional recreational chores.


THE DOWNSIDES

With so many possibilities, it sounds too good to be true—and that kind of is the case.

"Some of the technology is fairly capital-intensive," Andrus says. "We spent tens of millions of dollars building out our systems. It's an expensive proposition; [but] it does have a tremendous payback."

Andrus recommends even small facilities make a modest upgrade technologically; software companies will usually build according to budgetary limitations.

Half the battle lies in changing entrenched routines. The phenomenon is especially problematic with municipalities.

"Government has the reputation of being so slow moving," Heller says. "You've been doing the same things for ever and ever, and you've just got to continuously change the way you do things."

The Elk Grove Park District operates under the philosophy of "dare to do," according to Heller.

"People get very comfortable with the way they do things," she says. "We continuously do things around here to make people uncomfortable."

To stay comfortable, there's a tendency to create "workarounds" in new software—ways of working around a program's setup to continue doing things the old way. The urge to create workarounds is especially strong if the software isn't specifically tailored to your routine.

"The times we have tried to make the software do what we always used to do, it's come back to haunt us," Gray says. "When we look back three years later, we say, 'Why didn't we just change our procedures?' Because it really wasn't that big. It's like, 'Do you like blue cars or red cars?'" Gray continues. "'Well, we always had a blue car.' So what? Now you have a red car. We were slow to let go of the past—that whole culture of change is very difficult to break out of."

With technology, change is the only constant. Anyone who's bought a computer knows how quickly it ages. What's cutting-edge today seems archaic in a couple of years, and facility managers have to be mindful of the upgrades that are inherently involved with this kind of technology. That can be problematic when you have a large staff that needs to be trained. The Prince George's County parks department had to train 800 people. At the Elk Grove Park District, the project took nine months go get rolling.

While every company sings the praises of a centralized database, there is one innate danger: If the center goes down, everything goes with it. After all its work to create a customer-friendly system, the Prince George's County parks department faced massive failures when its software went live.

"We kind of died that day," Brett says, laughing. Four different technical glitches hampered the system. The phone-registration system informed callers classes were full when they weren't. The Web site couldn't handle the traffic. People weren't happy.

After the dust settled, the company adjusted the software, and Brett has had few problems since then. It's a good idea in any case to have strong back-up and contingency plans.

"Systems have gotten very reliable and very supportable," Andrus says, "but you still do have the odd issue, a natural disaster or something of that sort, an act of God or act of wacky employee that could cause some issues."

AXIOMS OF TECHNOLOGY

With so much to consider when making technological upgrades, mistakes are easily made.

"I think the biggest mistake that anybody would make is to think you can do something really quickly," says Suzette Schwartz, registrar and IT assistant trainer for the Elk Grove Park District. "You want to have a good team behind you, going through all the planning stages so the rollout of the upgrade goes smooth."

Heller agrees with her colleague.

"If you're upgrading, you kind of feel like you can do anything and everything, and you want to do it right now," she says. "It just doesn't work that way."

Technology by itself doesn't equal happy customers, either. Andrus adds that just because you can bill someone efficiently doesn't mean they're fulfilled.

"The use of this technology needs to improve the business from a financial standpoint," Andrus says, "and hopefully it does that while improving the member's life experience with the organization as well."



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