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Today's savvy facility operators are now demanding catchall programs that can perform multiple business-management functions

When Evan Miller made the career shift several years ago from information technology specialist for a banking firm to owner and operator of a multipurpose sports complex, he didn't think he would need to fall back too much on his old job skills.

He was wrong.

In fact, as owner of the 85,000-square-foot Charlotte (N.C.) Sports Center, Miller took it upon himself to develop an in-house league-scheduling program using Microsoft Excel. Based on countless algorithms, the schedule maker takes into consideration nuances that he says vendor-provided scheduling software programs don't. "All my staff members have to do is type in the names of the teams involved, and it schedules all the games in a completely fair and nondiscriminatory fashion," Miller says about his homemade program.

"In the old world, I may have spent an hour or longer developing a fair schedule that took into account parameters like how often a team gets to play at 6 p.m. and how often it gets to play at 11 p.m. I want the bulk of every team's games to begin at either 7, 8, 9 or 10 p.m. -- not too late and not too early. While that may seem very trivial to some people, that's the biggest thing the teams will cry foul about."

Rather than cry foul themselves about what many contend are limited options in the facility-management software market, operators of everything from multipurpose sports complexes to YMCAs are mixing and matching programs or simply creating their own. But Miller is convinced that software solutions exist to meet today's changing management needs. "I get three to five calls a week from potential sports center operators or current operators, and this is the one topic that keeps coming up," he says. "None of us, myself included, are operating anywhere nearly as efficiently as we could be. I think we're all leaving business on the table and not communicating enough internally. We need one robust facility-management software package that makes people say, 'Wow, here is all I need. This is like a dream come true.' "

Todd Browning, general manager of FrontLine Solutions, a Philadelphia-based facility-management software provider, couldn't agree more. "We have identified that, yes, there need to be some improvements in the technology," he says. "There really isn't a dominant product out there, and the challenge is to find one vendor that's strong in all of the different areas for which a facility needs applications. You can find a vendor that's good in league management, one that's good in point of sale and another that's good in activity registrations. But to find one that's going to bring it all together is quite a challenge. We're strong in some areas and not as strong in others. But no facility is exactly like another. That's the challenge, and that's why there's a fragmentation of products right now."

That challenge is particularly daunting for multipurpose sports facilities like the Charlotte Sports Center, which was among the first of its kind in the country when it opened in 1999. Today, the indoor facility boasts soccer, inline hockey, basketball, volleyball and flag football programs, including leagues, camps, clinics, lessons, tournaments and parties -- not to mention a full-service fitness center. Similar facilities have sprung up all over the country in the past five years, many incorporating such amenities as ice rinks, restaurants, pro shops and rental halls. And as competition between facilities of all types intensifies with increased programming diversity, so too does the need for specialized software programs to oversee the logistics of such tasks as membership administration, league and event scheduling, e-commerce, target marketing, work-order requests, point-of-sale transactions and inventory management.

"One of the big shifts in the business is that facility operators are more like businesspeople now," says Alex Barnetson, senior vice president of The Active Network, a San Diego, Calif.-based facility-management software provider that merged with its former competitor, Class Software Solutions, last fall. "There are fewer jocks and more guys with some serious coin putting money into these businesses, and they want to operate them like businesses. They're very wired into their return on investment, their operations efficiency, and their ability to generate revenue and quantify customer service."

A handful of software vendors still in operation today have histories dating back to the early 1980s, when the first successful facility-management programs for health clubs were introduced, helping managers keep track of memberships and facility usage. Gradually, technology became more sophisticated, with software programs that scheduled basic league and tournament play and allowed for information integration between facilities located across campus, across town or across the country.

In 1999, for example, athletic department officials at Penn State University began integrating the computerized scheduling of events held at Beaver Stadium, the Bryce Jordan Center and other on-campus multipurpose athletic facilities -- thereby eliminating the need for schedules produced by hand or using incompatible software programs.

Eventually, virtual sports communities formed, serving high school athletics, college and university recreation departments, municipal parks and recreation departments, military bases, and church and amateur leagues. These Internet-based programs offered administrators and end users access to such common content as game results, registration forms, team standings and rosters, calendars, personal statistics and message boards. Some of the more technologically advanced sites developed scheduling "wizards" -- precursors to today's powerful scheduling engines -- which broke down and displayed regular-season schedules and tournament brackets.

In the late '90s, dozens of those dot-coms would shut down, with several software companies going belly-up or merging with former competitors. To take their place, many providers now offer hosted versions of their software as cost-effective online application service provider operations (ASPs), which run from within a remote, professionally managed data center. This capability reduces overhead charges typically associated with the deployment of traditional software and offers convenient access from any computer.

"Facility operators don't have to install anything. They simply open up their Internet browser, log in and see who registered for a certain program or perform specific marketing tasks," says Paul Deraval, president of EZ Facility, a Mineola, N.Y.-based ASP for sports facilities.

The traditional core software applications developed during the previous three decades still remain today, though, and have been improved upon -- sometimes radically.

In fact, software developers now reveal that technology is moving toward the creation of a single database that would essentially become the management and marketing nerve center of a facility. Not only would this system perform such tasks as inventory-management and scheduling, it would also track a given participant's usage throughout the facility. "The goal would be to know everything that a person is doing, and then to target-market to him or her," Browning says. "Facility operators need to know who is in their facility and when, whether they're buying a hat in the pro shop or a hot dog at the concessions stand or participating in a specific league or camp. They need a system that can track every bit of that usage so they can then market to those people and promote further usage."

"I want to be able to take the point-of-sale information and integrate it into my database, such that I can do customer reporting and/or sport-specific reporting and/or league reporting," Miller elaborates. "In other words, I don't want to just record the sale; I want to record the sale and then be able to process it for other uses, as well. I can't do that with what I developed on my own."

Coinciding with vendors' attempts to streamline programming is the increased attention facility operators now pay to the way their management software programs perform. Employees at the Greater Green Bay (Wis.) YMCA began taking stock of (and saving for) their technological needs five years before they actually replaced their facility-management software system in 2003. "We began to put 1 percent of our operating revenue into a technology reserve," says Mark Ten Haken, the facility's director of information systems, adding that the Y used its previous software programs for 12 years.

"Not only did this give a strong message to our board of directors that we had thought ahead and were well-prepared, but we were asking the board to spend money that we had already earmarked for technology, rather than asking the board for money that came from elsewhere in the operations budget. Early on, we began to formulate a document with our software requirements using input from staff at all levels and from our customers."

Among the results: the option for members to register online and have fees automatically charged to their credit cards, and a user-friendly interface that allows staff members to pull statistical information to help them analyze their program data more efficiently. "They are able to get not only such things as who signed up for a particular class, but also information such as the average age of a person in a class or group of classes, the revenue generated, the amount of revenue subsidized, and so on," Ten Haken says. "We have put the power of analysis into the hands of the program staff themselves and made it a more efficient process, because they need not contact technical staff to get the information they require."

"There's no doubt that it has become accepted as a business principle that in order to be the most effective, you have to get automated," Barnetson says. "So we're not evangelizing about this concept as much anymore. But I think we still have to help clients prioritize their needs."

Amen to that, says John Pedersen, facility support director for recreational sports at Indiana University's Student Recreational Sports Center, which recently upgraded some of its 10-year-old software programs. "When we purchased our first facility-management software, we just accepted that what we chose was the right product for our needs," Pedersen says. "We relied on the technology companies to tell us what we needed, and we just took it for granted that we would get continuous support. But we didn't."

The widely lauded center is in the midst of switching to a new membership-management system to replace the one it installed a decade ago. It's one of four main facility-management software applications the center uses. Of the other three, two of them (a work-request program and an inventory system) are customized programs developed in-house. A vendor-provided scheduling module has been in place for one year.

Approximately 115 miles northeast of Bloomington, at Ball State University in Muncie, Troy Vaughn, associate director of sports facilities and recreational services, has taken the homegrown approach even further. "I can honestly sit here and tell you that we do not use any facility-management software," Vaughn admits. "We've not found any that we think will work. We actually use part of our Microsoft software to create all of our schedules and everything associated with that. We are a bit archaic, but it works for us."

That's fine with Josh Bhatia, regional sales and marketing manager for CSI Software in Houston. He isn't too worried about losing the business of potential clients who are still either using programs from multiple vendors or exclusive software they developed on their own. "We actually see the trend going the other way, away from the homegrown software programs to new systems," he says. "Colleges and other organizations are building new rec centers and realizing that their old systems just are not capable of handling all of that data anymore and not really accomplishing everything that operators would like them to. Facilities are hard enough to manage as it is, without having different databases storing different information."

And so, technology marches on. To ensure that their research and development efforts remain on the right path, many vendors now host regional meetings with facility operators (and even some facility members who use registration applications) to pick their brains about what they find helpful about a given type of software and what they'd like to see improved. Based on these meetings, some vendors have created new applications that, for example, simplify equipment checkout services and enhance management of day-spa operations.

In some cases, vendors realize that facility operators and their staffs get frustrated with their programs and claim the software isn't meeting their needs simply because they're unaware of a given program's full spectrum of capabilities. "If you're not using a function right off the bat, you can quickly forget that you were taught how to do it," Bhatia says. "When we go to train staff members at a club, it's really hard to get 10 people together for a half-day of learning, because there's always something going on. People are running in and out of a room while trying to manage the club and get trained on the software."

Ten Haken suggests not only undergoing training before the software system goes live, but also to continue that training for a specific period of time after the programs are up and running. This will allow employees to become at least casually familiar with other functions and address problems while they are still fresh.

Nevertheless, even existing systems are continually receiving upgrades, requiring both facility operators and vendors to stay informed. "I've been in this business for 15 years, and every time I think I see software progress coming to an end, it just keeps going," Browning says. "There are always requests for improvements to products. We have a fairly long list of functions that people want enhanced. The idea is that if one person wants it, it's probably something that everybody else can use, too."

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