PRB Articles


Navigating Recreational Software

So you’re ready to take the plunge -- or at least you think you are.

Recreation software comes in many forms and packages, from programs that can organize a softball league as well as an entire department.

Before a parks and recreation professional chooses specific software, many decisions must be made. How ready are you to make this decision, and is it the right move for your department?

The Early Years

Recreation software has come a long way since its emergence in the late 1980s. I can still remember when the parks and recreation department I worked for in the mid-1990s purchased a registration software program. The mere presence of a computer in the recreation center was a sight, let alone one with that program on it.

We all huddled around the computer -- like kids around the tree on Christmas morning -- in anticipation of the wondrous things that were about to happen by typing DOS commands.

What actually happened can best be described as opening a gift on Christmas morning and learning your mother has coerced Santa into leaving socks and underwear -- the program beeped with error messages! And that was just from attempting to log in.

The curiosity and hopefulness that had previously filled the room was quickly squelched. Although the software was touted by upper management as the replacement to paper registration, I don’t think I put one in the program. All the DOS commands in the world could not produce anything from that program, and so it was forgotten, left on the computer to glance at from time to time.

It is worth mentioning that during the same time period, I organized several adult sports leagues using a league and tournament software program. It was basic in concept and did not do much more than what I could do on scratch paper. But it was the time element that proved its worthiness--once I was proficient in typing, I could put together a league schedule in minutes.

Recreation software programs moved from segmented pieces of a whole in the late 1980s to a complete package today. Specific programs, such as activity registration, facility rental, tournament/league scheduling and accounting, were available early on.

In this article, I will be discussing today’s standard in recreational software, which is the sum of all the applications briefly listed above.

While league schedulers or accounting software can still be purchased separately, the industry standard now is the “whole enchilada.”

Making The Move

Why make the move to a recreation software program? Ultimately, it is to further provide patrons with the best possible recreation and/or leisure experience. With a keen ear, some intuitive thinking and a desire to move outside the box, one of these explanations may hit home:

· Your customer base is asking for it. This type of feedback can appear in customer questionnaires, informal personal/phone surveys and an analysis of customer-service issues.

· Streamlining is efficient. Activity registration, facility reservations and league scheduling take an inordinate amount of time. Customers often complain about the process.

· To improve the accessibility of your product, use 24/7 activity registration and/or facility reservations.

· Other service providers in your immediate and surrounding areas offer this service.

· Your accounting is long, tedious and often incorrect. Finding and then putting together the paper trail for a refund takes half a day.

· You often double-book picnic shelters and rooms, and/or cannot get staff to follow the same reservation process, either month to month or recreation center to recreation center.

Mixing Products And Population

Is your target market ready? This question should be extended to include all the different people and groups that make up your community. For some, this may be a simple question to answer, but for others, it will take an in-depth study of the composition of the community.

Introducing a recreation software program (online registration and facility reservations components) to a community that generally does not have access to a computer may be challenging. In addition, the age of the population must be considered. Asking a person who has little experience in using a computer to navigate an online registration page may be a tall order.

A compromise, although taxing to your staff, can be reached.

· Keep old procedures in place until the community catches on (or catches up).

· Provide opportunities throughout the community where the public can use the program under the guidance of staff.

· Make staff aware of the challenges facing the public, and empower them with the tools and knowledge necessary to address any and all possible issues that may arise (customer service).

· Create training seminars and how-to tutorials for the public.

· Make the public aware of what is to take place in advance, and give them the opportunity to voice their opinions (a good place to answer questions and build support).

Bridging the gap with an older community is crucial to the viability and success of a software program. With thorough planning and a customer-focused, well-trained staff, the transition from the old to the new will be more palatable for patrons.

Choosing A Software Package

Recreation software -- with all its bells and whistles -- needs to be evaluated fully to ensure a good and lasting fit into your organization.

Searching and holding out for a program that will fulfill 100 percent of your needs is unrealistic, so new and alternative ways of doing business will have to be developed.

For some departments, this may only mean a small adjustment on issues, such as how refunds are processed. But for others, a whole fee structure may need to be reconfigured to adapt to the software’s calculation of charges.

Listed below are a few key points on recreation software to keep in mind:

PRO Activity/event registration and picnic shelter/room reservations are accessible 24/7 to the public, take less time to complete the process, and are more standardized.

CON While it will be more difficult for staff to double-book a room (in fact, nearly impossible), the time it saves the public during the registration process will be incurred by your staff to some degree. In addition, staff time now will be partially absorbed by customer-service issues relating to the registration and reservation process, as well as managing the classes in the program.

PRO Accounting and financial records are better preserved and organized. The software keeps track of customers with outstanding balances, and can generate and e-mail statements to them. Imagine how much more space you will have, and the money that will be saved from not having to stockpile all of those binders and file boxes.

CON Backup, backup, backup. Need I say more?

PRO The refund process is less of a paper safari and more customer-service oriented. All municipalities’ refund policies are different, but usually it takes half a day to find the paperwork and old receipts/permits necessary to start the process. A good recreational software program will have that information within a few clicks.

CON Waste of paper--I’m sure there is a tree somewhere thanking us.

PRO It is possible for a customer to register for any class or reserve any picnic shelter online (if the software offers this feature) or from any location within your organization. This is the new face of customer service in the parks and recreation industry.

CON Having staff check and update the reservable spaces and classes they are responsible for.

PRO Organizing and managing adult and youth leagues is considerably more manageable. The software can create schedules and reserve fields in just a few clicks. Teams can register online or in person, and can reserve practice time on the fields via the Web. In fact, some programs allow for teams to view their records and schedules.

CON Getting leagues and youth organizations trained and committed to using the software.

PRO An up-to-date customer database at your fingertips at all times. Customers can now be sent e-mails reminding them of upcoming classes, cancelled classes and special-event announcements. This will aid in any department’s marketing and customer-service goals.

CON The database can become cluttered with multiple entries of the same person’s or group’s information, especially if staff does not update this regularly.

PRO Integrates all cash handling and point-of-sale sites through the software (if this application is offered). From any computer within the system, point-of-sale sites can be monitored, tracked and accounted for.

CON None.

Cover All The Bases

While all the features and upgrades to your department may have already started you thinking about a sales pitch to the powers that be, some further items should be considered.

To keep a recreation software program current and operational, someone, or a team of individuals, must be trained and responsible for addressing any and all problems when they occur. Problems will arise, not so much from the software, but from user error, and they will occur daily.

Hiring a software administrator to oversee the program will improve its efficiency, along with improving the staff’s ability to provide quality and timely customer service. This will be a costly -- but possibly necessary -- addition to the already rising cost of the software package (including the program, support, hosting, upgrades and maintenance costs).

The price of the software and annual cost associated with its maintenance is another item to be seriously considered, and one that will not go away over time.

Recreation software is not cheap, especially high-end programs with every feature and module imaginable. Depending on the size of an organization and the program purchased, it could be in excess of $600,000 before you look at hiring a software administrator.

By declining support, maintenance or upgrades to cut costs, you will soon have a software program that is not being used to its fullest capacity.

Another item that should be considered is keeping staff a part of the decision for, and selection of, a recreation software program. Buy-in from staff is a key element and will go a long way in keeping everyone together during the first few months as people adapt to the new software.

When employees believe their opinions and thoughts are valued within an organization, they tend to be more supportive of change.

In addition to involving staff in this process, another issue that must be addressed is ensuring employees are computer-proficient prior to learning new software.

Not everyone grew up with computers, and that must be dealt with if the software has a chance at succeeding. If the staff cannot navigate basic computer applications, it will certainly feel overwhelmed.

Additionally, the staff will more likely use the software if the members are well-trained and accustomed to it. Regular training and refreshers on the different applications and updates by the software provider will keep staff better equipped to provide quality and prompt customer service.

Do The Leg Work

If you think the time is right for your organization to make the move, or at least investigate this further, I encourage you to do your homework. Whatever application is selected, you are essentially entrusting this software with your organization’s and customers’ personal information.

Research as many software companies as necessary, until you find a program that best fits your customers’ and organization’s needs.

Some avenues to research recreation software are:

· Regional and national parks and recreation conferences--see how each program operates

· Internet searches--perform multiple searches with various combinations of key words

· Other parks and recreation departments--find out which software they use and why, what has worked, and what they would have done differently

· Information seminars

· Online demonstrations and/or demo CDs--see how the program functions and how it might operate within your organization

Keep in mind during this process that the program you select will be running an organization for many years. Moving from one program to the next is not only costly, but time-consuming.

It can be dizzying, deciphering all the pros and cons as to when, how and why to make the move to a recreation software program. Have a clear resolve to make the move happen. Who needs another rogue icon cluttering your desktop?

Sift through the sales pitches and the claims of all the “wondrous things” a software program can do, and look for what patrons and the department need.

Include all vested parties in the decision-making process--the sustainability and viability of the program will be contingent on how these relationships are fostered.

Think of this more as a marriage -- with commitment, patience and mutual respect, the right software program can be the perfect partner. But be ready for a few bumps in the road.

Steve Yeskulsky is a CPRP currently working in the parks and recreation industry in Sarasota, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at syeskulsky@verizon.net.

----------------------------- Sidebar -----------------------------------

Recreation software typically comes in two types of applications—local-server workstation solution and Web-based solution.

With the local-server workstation solution, the program and data reside on a server housed within an organization.

In a Web-based solution application, data and software can be hosted by a software provider or on an in-house Web server.

The major advantage and disadvantage of these two applications revolve around control. A local-server workstation solution will allow you to control who sees data, and no one from outside the organization can gain access to it. With some Web-based solution applications (hosted by a software company), the company hosts the data and has control over who sees it and how it is utilized.

Another item to consider is the cost to operate these applications.

With a local-server workstation solution, IT staff is needed to support the software. This includes data back-ups, maintenance packs, update deployments and other hardware issues.

Counter to this, the investment in IT staff and hardware is much less with a Web-based solution application -- the software company performs all maintenance, upgrades and back-ups.

Another feature that sets a Web-based application apart is remote access. This is the ability to connect to a program and work virtually anywhere there is an Internet connection. If there is an issue at work while you are on vacation or abroad, you have the ability to address it immediately.

For some, this can be a great tool; for others, it will be like taking their mother-in-law with them on vacation. While savoring the thought of vacationing with your spouse’s mother, it should be noted that some Web-based applications only allow a certain number of simultaneous users to be logged into the program. Some software providers call this licensing, and it is a cost factor.

On average, both the local-server workstation solution and the Web-based application consist of two components --a back-office application and a community Web interface. The back-office application is where you and your staff work in the program. The community Web interface is the Web site in which customers use the software.

Data migration is another term that must be understood. When it comes to moving data from an old application, spreadsheet or document to a new program, it can be done in many cases by the proposed software provider.

Although it may be costly, this move will save you valuable time as you and your staff learn about and prepare for the new software. This work can be contracted to temps or given to staff members to do on their down time, in which case the data are manually entered into the program.

Thirsting For Knowledge

Manual or Robotic?