Feature Article - September 2004
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Automation Realizations

Technological streamlining can make facility management easier and more efficient

By Kyle Ryan


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."