Facility management software is indispensable to a high-performance fitness center.

THE FRONT DESK is the nucleus of member service within a fitness center, says Tamara Valdez, vice president of marketing and communications for ASF International, Highlands Ranch, Colo. It is the center for everything that is member related, and serves as the main communication point for prospects, members, trainers, sales staff, instructors and managers. "As the front desk plays such a pivotal role in overall club communications and member management, it is essential that clubs install a system that organizes, maintains and stores information so that it is easily accessible," says Valdez.

Member management is one of a fitness center's most vital functions. The front desk is the hub of member management, and an optimal computer software system is crucial for check-in, tracking payments and attendance, scheduling, security and employee management. "Keeping track of this information is critical, and can be used to generate reports to help with sales, retention and facility programming," says Valdez.

Sid Nelson, COO, Affiliated Acceptance Corp., Sunrise Beach, Mo.,describes the front desk as a fitness facility's "information management center." The front desk identifies your members' status and attendance, and tracks what services they are using and products they are buying. "A well-run front desk system truly holds all the answers to how well your club is doing," he says.

The front desk also has a powerful effect on service. "Front desk personnel are the first touchstone in greeting members, and are key toward setting the stage for the overall member experience during that visit to the club," says Steven R. Ruth, director of sales for Aphelion Fitness Management Software, Houston, Texas. Front desk personnel are responsible for accurately and efficiently checking in members and guests, for assuring that all who enter the fitness center are on current account status, for personally greeting each member, and for acting as a first resource of information for products, services and facilities. "But the most important thing that good front desk personnel do is deliver a personalized greeting to each member," says Ruth.

To ensure your facility provides the optimal front desk service, you need the right software tools to succeed. These three software suppliers tell how software can benefit your members and your facility.

Training

Training is essential to ensure that front desk staff can make optimal use of all the capabilities the management software offers.

"We provide more than just training on how to use software; we teach our clients how they can apply the software applications to manage the day-to-day operations of their facility," says Valdez. For the first 90 days upon signing up with ASF, facility owners and key staff members go through ASF's Core Training Program one-on-one with a certified ASF Training Specialist. A different feature of the software is presented at each session based on the business needs of the facility. Clients can call if they have questions or need help with any of the applications. Training is via phone and Internet sessions, and is complimentary to all clients.

ASF's training sessions cover the basics of the software, and also advanced personalized training on payment processing on accounts, managing sales leads, attracting new members, retaining members, and using the reports to address issues like attrition, decreasing first payment defaults and forecasting revenue.

To fully use the management software, front desk staff needs at least some computer literacy. "One of the biggest things when it comes to training is how fluent somebody is in using any kind of computer system," says Nelson. Sound computer skills enable interactive training. Affiliated dials into the client's system and goes through and sets up everything -- from point-of-sale to contract templates and scheduling of items. "We can go in just like we are sitting there with them, and walk them through the configuration of their entire facility," says Nelson. There are also online manuals and documentation for reference.

Affiliated also offers Business Partnership Training, which is a free monthly service provided at Affiliated's corporate office that covers software training and business development. "It is great for new clients. They can come in, or send their manager, and we will help them set up their software," says Nelson. For example, Affiliated can help clients to enter their employees, put in their inventory, enter contracts and set up templates of price structures. If they do not have price structures, Affiliated talks to them about what works and what doesn't for their business solution. "They can walk away feeling like they set up their whole business," says Nelson.

Through training, fitness center management can see an increased return on their investment in management software. "Effective training increases the confidence of all of the club's staff, and allows for much more effective utilization of the software," says Ruth. "Training is so important to us that we have extended our Client Care to 24 hours per day, five days per week." Aphelion clients can speak to staff, participate in telephone training, structured online classes and training at the Houston headquarters, or participate in an Aphelion University two-day program held throughout the United States.

Training is an ongoing process, as clients steadily master the full capabilities of the system. "Most of our users come to a certain comfort level, and then push themselves in order to learn about how to optimize their club's profitability through the use of the software," says Ruth. "It's really a matter of competitive advantage; the top club operators utilize ... management software as a means of selling more, making certain that everyone who uses the club pays for the use of the club, retaining members and controlling expenses."

Backup

With so much important information channeled through the main system, data backup and storage are important. "We are meticulous about data storage for recovery in case of a system error," says Valdez. A backup/restore utility is built into the ASF program. All information from the software is transmitted from the facility hourly, and is stored in the ASF mainframe, which is, in turn, backed-up on a daily basis. So in the event of a major system failure at a client's location, ASF can provide all of the latest data that was stored prior to the error. Clients also have online access to all of their member information via the online counterpart to ASF's ClubPRO 3000 software, ClubPRO Online.

Affiliated can write backup files across the network onto floppy drives, CDs or DVDs, and even tape. Clients can also schedule their own backups, and there is an assistant scheduler to do that during the evening hours or off times. "Affiliated gives them quite a few methods, and [they] have options where the software will remind them to back up if they are not doing it on a regular basis," says Nelson. The software also performs other internal backups automatically.

Aphelion software comes in Internet and desktop editions. Internet editions have the virtue of always being backed up, because the data is maintained in a professional data center that has dual redundancy of all data structures, says Ruth. Aphelion staff is responsible for making certain that a fitness center's data is always available and is always backed up. In the case of desktop editions, Ruth says that facilities should institute a regimen of periodically backing up their data, whether by archiving on another network computer located off-site, or distributing the data to removable storage media.

Enhancements

ASF adds new features to its software three or four times per year. It takes feedback from its clients about the usability and effectiveness of its software, and compares that information to its own analysis and industry trends. New features are then added accordingly. The way updates are shared with software users depends on the feature that was added. Updates can either be transmitted directly to their system, or an upgrade CD can be dispatched. In either case, upgrades are free of charge.

ASF receives feedback from clients on how existing programs can be enhanced, or on new features that could help them run their business better. "These are evaluated, with ideas that make sense incorporated into the program," says Valdez. ASF also gets inquiries about customization of the software to suit specific needs. "The reporting features are the easiest functions for us to tailor to a specific company; a few tweaks can give clients what they are looking for."

Nelson says that updating Affiliated software is an ongoing process. Affiliated puts out two new releases per year, every January and July, but also does many client-specific updates per year to address new issues, thoughts and ideas. These are usually incorporated system-wide for the semiannual updates. The Affiliated website provides a further feedback system, with forums for all of the different industries.

Aphelion adds new features to its software on a daily basis through a team of 10 product developers. These are disseminated to the field immediately in the case of Internet versions of the software, and are distributed in a compilation CD to desktop edition users three times each year. Says Ruth, "We take to heart the direction we receive [from our clients]." New product features are implemented quickly, and then individual fitness centers can determine whether the features suit their needs and turn them on or off as desired.

Security

Good management software can aid security by popping up photos of members as they check in, verifying that the member and person present are in fact the same person. "Access control capabilities can also be implemented to allow member access on a restricted basis to those entitled to certain facilities," says Ruth. For example, a swimming pool may have a gated entrance that allows only those above a certain age to gain access. A locker room facility can allow only those of the correct gender to enter that locker room. In the case of 24-hour facilities, where they often operate in an unattended mode during non-peak hours, access can be granted only to those who meet stated membership-type restrictions.

"Software can help security on both sides -- customer and employee," says Nelson. Between photo ID, video imaging, passwords, secure check-in (where the customer enters a number and the personal trainer can enter a number) and thumbprint, you can easily make sure the correct person is checking in. For employees, you can set up each of your staff members to have access to information screen by screen, function by function, etc. --whatever you want them to have access to on the system.

Nelson says that one of the problem areas in fitness centers is guest pass abuse. Facilities will send out 30-day passes or a one-week pass in the mail, and will have people trying to scam them, often moving from one location to the next. With video imaging, though, you have a positive ID on everybody, for all your facilities. "Instead of trying to file a paper log or go by a name, if somebody comes back a month later to use a one-week pass, boom, you can pull them up and view their picture. That is probably one of the best ways to have positive ID besides [a thumbprint]."

Valdez also highlights security features. "Through image capture and fingerprint scanning, clubs can fine-tune their security and access to the club." These features are member-specific, and help deter non-members from accessing the fitness center. These features can also identify members as they check in, and alert staff if memberships are past due or expired.

Crucially, the front desk information system alerts staff about membership status. "If members are late on their payment, or their membership is about to expire, your staff will be aware of this right at check-in, and can address this on the spot," says Nelson. Full information on correspondence between members and facility staff or members and your billing company is available at your fingertips.

There are other benefits to these features besides security. On a day-to-day basis, the information in the system allows your front desk staff to better communicate with your members. "The key word here is 'personalization,'" says Nelson. Having specifics like their interests or birthday pop up on the screen when they check in allows you to have a more personal conversation with them.

"This center of information is also invaluable to your club's marketing efforts," says Nelson. You can generate letters, direct mail pieces and emails to your customers based on attendance, usage or any other criteria you have elected to enter and keep track of in the system.

A vital tool

Information systems are a vital tool for the front desk to fulfill its role as your fitness center's organizational nerve center. Investing in management software is important at the outset, and requires an ongoing commitment to master all of the capabilities and refine the system for your particular needs.

ABOUT THE SUPPLIERS

ASF International

Some key front desk capabilities of ASF International's management software include the following:

Attendance control with image capture and/or fingerprint scanning. These features are unique to each member and are great tools for keeping non-members out and for determining the status of current and expired members' accounts.

Point of sale/inventory control. Great for pro-shops or any facility that needs to control merchandise, service packages, etc.

Contract entry. Easy way to enter new sales into the system. All information entered at the fitness center is uploaded to ASF offices and stored in its database.

Contract browser. A function that serves as the primary member information screen. From here, any staff member can pull up the most current information about a member, including personal information, payment histories, attendance data, start date, renewal terms and more.

Prospect tracking. A great tool that tracks all there is to know about a prospect, including referral source, salesperson, primary interests, reporting features and more. When prospects join the fitness center, they can easily convert their profile from "prospect tracking" into "contract entry."

Affiliated Acceptance Corp.

Some key front desk capabilities of Affiliated Acceptance Corp's facility management software include the following:

Member identification and guest tracking. Full array of membership identification products, including customized member ID cards and key tags, as well as other door control and security features. You can control access with card readers or pin numbers, or identify members with video imaging to use picture confirmation during check-in. Affiliated's system will also interface with turnstiles, magnetic door locks and biometric fingerprint identification products.

Online/remote access. This is a tool for employee communication. It allows facility owners to communicate with all their employees as they log in during the day, or send pop-up messages to them from the corporate office. Fitness center owners can log in and view what an employee is doing on their terminal, improving security. Also, it enables amanager to correct any errors an employee might make, or provide on-the-spot training.

Scheduling. The scheduling application enables fitness centers to reserve, schedule and monitor usage in designated areas of their facility (tennis courts, group-exercise classes, etc.). This feature also works great for guests and employees, and for keeping track of tours and class schedules.

Personal training. The personal training application enables managers to track the number of sessions available and "no shows," view a member's personal training session information upon check-in and receive notification of sessions used. Users can assign members to specific trainers, view and print a training history for each member, and set trainer session rates and sales commission percentages.

Tanning. The tanning application allows management to store information about tanning bed equipment, including brand name, bed type and member usage. They can keep track of who is currently in each tanning bed, or how much time they have remaining. The program's activity history also shows how long it has been since the member's last tanning session, helping to keep facilities in compliance with specific tanning health regulations.

Point of sale. The point of sale application handles all retail/pro shop sales and inventory management. Managers can easily make and record sales for both members and non-members.

Billing. Affiliated software is fully integrated to support accounts receivables, delinquency reporting, renewals and much more. Managers and members can choose from a selection of options, including EFT, credit card, payment coupon, mail-in payments and online payments.

Aphelion

Some key front desk capabilities of Aphelion's Fitness Management Software include the following:

Front counter module. The front counter module handles all of the requirements for the fitness center's front counter and pro shop areas. The front desk system includes proshop sales, member check-in, an employee time clock, scheduling calendars and class tracking.

Check-in. The integrated check-in system provides complete facility access control. The software will alert managers to every type of membership problem, such as owing money, birthdays, status problems, and an expired or frozen contract. The program will monitor peak and off-peak memberships and "home club" restrictions, track class attendance and log activity usage. The system provides easy enforcement of entry rules. The check-in system will display a high-quality video image. Staff can even count down visits for tanning, nutrition or the nursery.

Personal training. The personal training module sells, tracks, commissions and counts-down each training session as it is used.

Prospect tracking. The prospect tracking software is a full-featured contact management system. It allows every guest or prospect to be tracked, and creates follow-up and call reports for the sales team.

Scheduling. The scheduling calendars allow staff to schedule any activity or group in the fitness center. Managers can schedule staff members, trainers, courts, tanning beds or other items. They can create calendars for all sorts of uses, each with its own start and stop time, and print calendars of events, activities or employee schedules.

Employee time clock. The built-in employee time clock system tracks employee hours. This timekeeping system replaces the mechanical time clock, and tallies hours worked, then prints a concise report for payroll.