Feature Article - September 2004
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Safe and Secure

Health clubs and recreation facilities are excellent hunting grounds for thieves

By Kyle Ryan

Front desks

"The front desk has always been important, but it's becoming even more critical," Bouck says. It's the first line of defense, the place where potential thieves and ne'er-do-wells can be stopped in their tracks.

How many safeguards a facility has in place, though, depends on its attitudes toward customer service and safety/security.

For example, in a completely open, warm and inviting environment, the staff will not be able to keep track of who enters and exits the building because traffic will not be forced to pass them. On the other hand, making everyone pass through an electronic turnstile will offer more control but not be as welcoming. Bouck says the key is to create something that has elements of both ends of the spectrum.

"Our goal is the first thing you see is a warm, friendly face regardless of the control measures you have, not a turnstile, not a gate, nothing like that," Bouck says.

That warm, friendly face can also make mental notes of people as they enter—a good quality to have in case of a problem. That direct eye contact can also serve as a deterrent to potential thieves, who might hope to blend in and slip by unnoticed.

The front desk should be able to keep an eye on a number of areas, too, not just the front door. Bouck suggests it have a view into all the major venues, such as a gymnasium, swimming pool and lounge area in a multiuse facility.

Before guests can reach those places, though, they need to pass the desk. There are three varieties of entry-control systems: soft control, where guests pass in front of a desk without having to stop; passive control, such as an unlocked gate; and hard control, such as turnstiles or a locked gate.

Barton's facility has tried all three systems. Originally, guests at the City Park Recreation Center had to check in with the front desk, obtain a token from a staff member and insert it into a slot at a turnstile for entry. Because the turnstiles weren't close enough to the front desk, people would jump them.

As plans were made to use a passive system (an unlocked gate), the facility had no barrier in place. When the gate came in, members became a little miffed.

"When we put in our gate system, our guests were like, 'High security, you don't trust us,'" Barton says. They got over it, and Barton is pleased. "It's a symbol; it says, 'Stop here, you have to do something,' and that's worked out really well."

Bally Total Fitness in Morton Grove needed more than a symbol. The club's operators instead implemented a turnstile system. Guests have to scan a membership card in a box by the turnstile, which shows on a monitor located at the desk if the card is valid. If it is, the turnstile unlocks to allow them to pass.

In Texas, a few subdivisions are getting even more high-tech. At Canyon Lakes, a 4,000-home subdivision near Houston, the 2.5-acre aquatics facility (which includes a separate 5,400-square-foot splash play area) has implemented a fingerprint-recognition device for entry.

Information about each household member is stored after the person registers his or her print on the scanner. To get in later, he just has to put his thumb on a scanning pad. Facility operators also can disable entry for a person if there's a problem.

"You don't have to have the card along—you always have your hand," says Mark Soderberg, general manager for the company that helped build the park.

The splash play area also has six cameras overlooking the site. If parents cannot accompany their children to the facility, they can log onto a password-protected Web site and watch streaming video from the cameras to keep an eye on their children.

Such high-tech gadgetry isn't necessary for every facility. When it comes to entry systems, Bouck says, determine where your priorities lie with customer service and safety and security.

"Nail those down and get real specific about it, and that will dictate what kind of system you'll have," he says. "People can see what fits for them."

As hip as thumbprint-recognition sounds, sometimes the simplest system is the most effective.

"The one thing I will tell people when they're designing is to make sure your entry and exit are located in the same area, and that it's right by the front desk, and you're not putting it across the lobby—keep it simple," Barton says.