Park and recreation departments tap into the benefits of hosted technology

The host with the most: park and recreation departments tap into the benefits of hosted technology

Dixon Tam

Many park and recreation departments want to automate their processes but lack of funds or infrastructure expenses prevent it. Client-server systems require organizations to purchase and install software on individual workstations and servers, which can be costly depending on the size of the organization. Departments also need information technology (IT) staff to maintain the servers, and many organizations cannot afford to add staff so they are forced to contract out or try to do it themselves. So if organizations want to eliminate manual processes to book facilities, register people for courses, or process payments, how do they add technology without having to ask their town council for a large expenditure?

Let Someone Else Host It

A hosted solution is an inexpensive option because it does not require the park and recreation department to host its own data–it’s done by the vendor off-site. Staff members use a Web browser like Internet Explorer to access their database via a high-speed Internet connection. This allows new, cost-effective access to functionality such as automated program registration, facility booking, memberships management and report creation.

Before Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department in Georgia switched to a hosted solution, it used a client-server system that the staff had to maintain or seek help outside the department. “We had to reload all of our updates, and not being an IT person or systems analyst, I always felt a little bit uncomfortable with that process,” admits Don Oliver, program division administrator. “We had to rely on our in-house knowledge or the IT department at the county courthouse. We’ve got a good relationship with them, but there have been times previously when we’ve been down a day or two because they’re back-logged.”

However, the hosted solution for park and recreation departments might not fit all organizational needs. Some organizations have specific technology mandates or prefer to keep all their data onsite, while others already have the IT infrastructure in place for a client-server solution.

One Size Fits All

Sunrise Recreation and Park District in California is proof that it’s not just small agencies opting for a hosted solution. There are 42 parks within the district, plus three community centers, two aquatic complexes and a par-3 golf course. The district serves more than 160,000 residents in three communities in Sacramento County, and has used a hosted solution for three years to manage online registration and facility reservation. “We don’t have a problem with our data being hosted somewhere else,” says Lisa Rudloff, Sunrise’s recreation and community services superintendent.

She said the district couldn’t automate its operations if the only option was a client-server solution, because it could not afford the software and would not have the IT staff to maintain it. According to Rudloff, it’s more convenient to have a solution that takes care of itself.

“I really like it when there’s a software update and our vendor takes care of it. It’s transparent to us and we don’t have to go around to every single computer, put a disc in and do an update,” Rudloff adds. “We didn’t have to spend a lot of capital money to have a server host everything, plus … with a hosted system you don’t need an IT person to run it.”

Cost-effective Solution

Park and recreation departments still using manual processes share the same pain: time-consuming cash reconciliation, poor reporting abilities, slow-payment processing, long registration line-ups, staff overtime costs, inability to offer online registration and more.

For many organizations, the obstacle to adding technology has always been cost. A hosted solution removes that barrier. Hosted solutions are about 85 percent less in cost than client-server solutions. Many hosted solutions range in price from $5,000 (for smaller communities) to $150,000 (for larger communities). The savings is even greater if the organization has multiple facilities where citizens can register for courses or programs, because organizations only need computers and an Internet connection. Any staff member can use a Web browser to register someone for a course, reserve a facility, run reports and manage memberships. Organizations don’t have to purchase servers and additional licenses for all their remote sites.

“I’ve often commented that when you have a program with 600 kids in it–like our basketball program–how on earth can you manage that many children and that many teams on a piece of paper?” says Oliver. “You’ve got to have some sort of computer process to help you manage those larger numbers and software does that for us.”

For instance, Oconee’s hosted server provides real-time enrollment updates to show exactly how many spaces are left in courses. This service helps Oliver and his staff with their sports teams because it prevents over-crowded rosters, confirming exactly how many kids are participating, how many teams to schedule and how many coaches are needed to recruit for the season.

In addition to increasing efficiency and customer satisfaction, Oliver says adding technology has also enhanced his department’s image because citizens are seeing a more “professional approach” to doing things, such as computer-generated receipts, the ability to register online and regular updates via e-mail. “I think it gives the public more confidence in us,” he says.

Oconee Assistant Program Coordinator Cathy Benich likes to talk about how responsive customers were to a recent registration session. Fifty-eight spots out of 125 were filled in a certain age group for spring soccer on the first day of registration. The department sent a broadcast e-mail the next day informing parents they needed to register quickly or risk not getting their child in that program, and staff members got the response they wanted. “It may have been a situation where the revenue would’ve come in anyway, but we got a spike in enrollment the next couple of days,” says Oliver.

Without an automated system, it would have been impossible for the department to inform parents so quickly. Adds Benich, “It makes the public happy because they could’ve come in two weeks later to register and it would’ve been filled up.”

And while organizations like Sunrise and Oconee have seen customer satisfaction levels increase, so has employee satisfaction. Technology has made staff members’ jobs easier, provided tools to serve customers quicker, and given access to data quickly to assist with budgets and forecasts.

A hosted system has allowed Sunrise to reduce the time it takes for cash reconciliation by 50 percent. According to Rudloff, it was not unusual for the process to take a couple of days to complete because everything was done manually. “Now, it’s easy to balance at the end of the day because you simply match up your cash drawer with the system,” Rudloff says.

Generating reports is another task that was time-consuming and labor intensive for Sunrise. If staff members wanted to crunch data, they had to go through a lot of paperwork. For Rudloft, the ability to produce a report quickly with just a few clicks of the mouse is invaluable, especially when her advisory board asks for an update.

“We have a board meeting tonight and they want to know how many people have registered online since April 11 and it’s simple to come up with now.” (For the record, Sunrise did 41.7 percent of all registrations online in April 2005.).

Rudloff researched both client-server and hosted solutions extensively before choosing. “We researched client-server products that were available, but I think this is the superior product. The hosted solution is the way to go.”

HYBRID SOLUTIONS OFFER HIGH-TECH REGISTRATION

A hosted solution can also help organizations that have already invested in a client-server system, but can’t afford to add another server in order to offer services such as online registration.

Referred to as a hybrid system, this solution can provide the best of both worlds. The client-server system continues to operate normally with the organization’s core functionality while the online registration system is hosted off-site.

Organizations can now inexpensively provide online registration to their citizens. There is no need to purchase a dedicated Web server, invest in another software license, or order more bandwidth to accommodate the extra load. Citizens can browse, register and pay for courses via the Internet–all at no cost to the department because the customer pays a small transaction fee for the service, and a check for the share of the revenue is automatically sent to the organization regularly.

“I love online registration,” says Frank Carson, recreation supervisor for the Chula Vista Recreation Department in California, which uses a hybrid system. “You pass the nominal cost onto customers who want to use the Internet to register for a course.”

Chula Vista has offered online registration since 2003. It chose to stagger the number of registrations that can be done via the Internet, and currently has it capped at 25 percent to ensure everyone has a fair opportunity to register for courses. The plan is to slowly increase the limit, and the department hopes to eventually achieve 50 percent of its registrations online.

Surveys conducted by Chula Vista show that 93 percent of customers who have used its online registration system are satisfied. “The biggest thing is near-immediate gratification,” says Carson.

Customer satisfaction with online registration is also high in Greenville, N.C., where a survey by its park and recreation department, which uses a hybrid solution, indicated 98 percent of its users were happy with the service.

Not only has implementing online registration reduced registration lines, it has also saved the department money. Greenville used to bring in as many as a dozen staff members, earning $17 an hour, to work 2-4 hours of overtime during registration. They were needed to help manage peak periods when more than 600 people would line up during special registration sessions in the evenings for summer programs. According to Greenville’s recreation manager, Beverly Garrett, the number of people lining up dropped to about 50 after online registration was brought in.

“I think our parks and recreation department has definitely reaped the benefits of the investment that we put into online registration,” says Greenville Systems Analyst Nancy Gossett. “It has provided a good service for our citizens, and even though there is a cost associated with it, the return on investment was very quick.”

COPYRIGHT 2005 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group