Better Batting Cages

By Matt Pilger

Many public batting-cage facilities across the country are nearing or have already surpassed the 20 year mark; even those with regular and proper maintenance are beginning to approach their effective lifespan. When user expectations, increased equipment noise levels, rising parts and labor costs, and decreasing energy efficiency are added to the mix, these facilities may be well past maximum-revenue production. These factors are compounded by a watered-down industry, led by an increase in privately owned, baseball/softball training facilities, the growing trend of youth-sport specialization, and an increasing variety of other non-athletic youth activities (e.g., video games, clubs, social events, etc.).

The operations of a public, outdoor batting-cage facility can be viewed as a microcosm of the larger challenges facing today’s park and recreation organizations. However, a facility of this type can also develop positive community rapport, providing high levels of customer service and ultimately producing reliable revenue streams.

Keep Your Eye On The Ball
The daily operations of a batting-cage facility are comprised of three functions:

  • Consumer operation
  • Token/round distribution
  • Reliable equipment.

Identifying the key areas within each of these processes can be the difference between success and mediocrity. A consumer is more than an individual visiting a facility; each guest is a potential marketing agent, a future advocate for the facility, and an essential component. Without visitors, a batting-cage facility is nothing more than a high-priced, sloped parking lot surrounded by chain-link fencing; the other two operating functions are thus irrelevant.

Make It Count
Today’s average batting-cage user is complex—some expect the latest and greatest in features and others want a good deal—and there are really only a few things that make for a repeat customer or the next bad review online:

  • Experience
  • Value
  • Individualized service.

The challenge for batting-cage operators is that each of these is specific to the individual.

Experience
Today’s customers are in the driver’s seat, requiring any business to be customer-centric in marketing and operations. However, consumers are no longer influenced by traditional marketing tactics but are looking for activities that fulfill more than just a period of free time. Batting-cage facilities are perfectly equipped to create such experiences. Similar to other recreation facilities, a turn-based system allows a group of customers to swing a bat in a rotation. This in itself can develop into a game or friendly competition, as guests can compete for the best batting average, or select targeted areas to earn points. Inclusion can further create an engaging and fun atmosphere, and since most batting cages have a selection of pitches and speeds, virtually anyone can connect with a pitched ball.

Value
Early in the visit, a guest is provided a bat and helmet—a relatively simple interaction that can have a lasting impact. As the pricing of softball and baseball bats rises, many facilities may choose to use old and worn bats rather than replace the equipment. Yet, after the high number of uses, bats can lose their effectiveness, and bat-vibration increases, stinging a user’s hands, which is not a positive experience. At this point, it is important to either replace the grips with more cushioned-style grips or replace the bats entirely in order to avoid a potential safety hazard. Batting-cage operators should also be conscious of the conditions of the helmets. Padding can lose effectiveness over long periods of use, and should be replaced for safety and cosmetic reasons. From a customer’s perspective, the choice to allocate money to a facility with better-maintained equipment over a facility with older, worn bats and helmets is an easy one.

Individualized Service
If the experience and quality of equipment is the reason a guest first visits a facility, then value and individualized service are the reasons they return. Although the contemporary consumer is willing to pay more for a product that creates an enjoyable experience, he or she is also looking at the overall value of that purchase. Specifically, a guest needs to believe that allocating money towards a batting cage is more valuable—or at minimum as valuable—as another activity. With often low admission fees and a high chance for an enjoyable experience, the heightened value of a batting cage is easily seen. However, to capitalize on this value, facilities also need to provide individualized service. Questions such as, “Have you visited us before?” or “Do you know how to use our machines?” or “Do you have a preference in bat length/weight?” can make the customer feel appreciated and ready to come back again and again.

Furthering the individualized-service model is one of the most important processes in the operations of a batting cage: token or round distribution. The distribution process was probably defined when the facility originally opened, and more than likely hasn’t changed much since. Whether a facility provides guests with tokens or utilizes player cards, the process is virtually the same: a guest purchases a specific number of rounds and inserts a token or swipes a card into the pitching machine. Ensuring that the number and types of rounds available for purchase meet a guest’s expectations is the key. In some areas, a facility will thrive by solely providing single rounds, while it may be appropriate for others to sell discounted punch cards or hourly rental options. However, implementing a mixture of these options will help provide customers a consistent and individualized product.

Maintenance Required
The functionality of pitching machines should be reliably consistent over time to maintain a strong customer base. Regularly scheduled maintenance by properly trained personnel will ensure that all machines are meeting the standards and expectations set by the user. In addition to a detailed scheduled maintenance, having a daily plan to perform adjustments and repairs during hours of operation is essential in maintaining consistency. Occasionally, even with proper maintenance, machines will have mechanical issues when parts have to be replaced or the system must be reprogrammed. It is important that during these down periods customers are informed of any delays, and the length of time a machine is offline is kept to a minimum.

In a time when modern conveniences provide instant access to entertainment and social interaction, there are only a few specialized facilities that do not require major operational changes to meet the high expectations of the consumer. Batting-cage facilities have a unique place in today’s public-recreation industry, and with only minor adjustments to operational processes, they can lead the industry in providing ongoing enjoyable experiences.

Matt Pilger, CPRP, MBA, is the Facility Supervisor for the Cornerstone Park Batting Cages for South Suburban Parks and Recreation in Colorado. Reach him at mattp@ssprd.org.