Category Archives: Operations

Training

It Is critical that all aquatic operations have a comprehensive onboarding and training process for all new and returning team members.  Back in my aquatic manager days, I made the mistake of telling myself that I “didn’t have time for training my management/supervisory team” and that was the biggest mistake I ever made, and I really paid for it.DSCN1464 (640x480)

Over the course of several years I developed a weekend management team training prior to the summer season that overviewed leadership, risk management, guest service, employee relation tactics, etc.  Once this was fully implemented my leadership team started exhibiting all of the behaviors that I wanted to see (hard work, great attitude, service minded) and it trickled down to the lifeguards and guest services staff. They no longer tolerated their fellow management team members that has a poor work ethic and bad attitude and the entire team really started to thrive over the course of the next few summers.  And, it happened because I simply took the time to train my team.

If you’re currently struggling with your part-time supervisors and leadership, here’s a few tips to help get you started.

  1. Keep a list of all the poor behaviors that your team members exhibit and start identifying ways to train them better so they start to exhibit good behaviors.
  2. Keep a list of every question that a team member asks you over the course of a season and start to develop a comprehensive document that answers all of these questions.  Then, spend a day training your team on these questions/answers and scenarios which will better enable them to properly do their job.
  3. Provide a great vision for your team.  In order for them to get where you want them to be, they have to know where it is!
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Sustainability

When the economy is healthy, there are plenty of opportunities to generate new revenue streams that help carry subsidized programs. When the economy is not so healthy, budgets are slashed in order to protect revenue generating programs. Recreation professionals are left with the decision of limiting programs, cutting hours, or even forgoing equipment improvements and repairs.

Operations include three operating models: subsidy, breakeven, and positive cash flow. Subsidy uses tax dollars to pay operating expenses while the breakeven model is able to pay its own operating expenses. Positive cash flow is the facility that is able to pay its own operating expenses and build revenue. While older facilities are typically subsidized due to higher costs of maintenance and fewer swimmers, a sustainable model is the norm for new facilities, with fiscal operations driven by programming revenue.

If economics are adversely affecting your operations, idle reactions garner a feeling of helplessness when realities of change are taking place. When things are out of control and it becomes necessary to react quickly, something has to be done to regain normality. It becomes necessary to ensure that sustainable and adaptive decisions are made for future changes.

Review your Market to look for Program Opportunities

Warning signs from demographic tracking can help determine when a new look at current programs may need to take place. It’s worth the effort to annually update your population characteristics to understand the growth/decline of age groups, income levels, and housing startups or the slowdown of housing replacement. A valuable tool is to examine the youth numbers in the preschools and schools through 8th grade to determine if significant changes have taken place over time. If the economy caused a shift in your community, examine what new opportunities may exist for new segments of the population. Other ways to predict change in the community is by getting close to the consumer through community mining.

Fee Structure

If income trends have changed, pricing policies for daily admissions and concessions become sensitive. It might be recommended that nonresident fees be applied or adjusted if outer areas have higher incomes. If annual passes are too high for some families, solutions might offer weekday-only passes, weekend-only passes, partial season passes or quantity passes. Discounts may apply to those who register early or as a renewal incentive to established customers. During community presentations, it is important to highlight the fact that competitors are charging initiation/joining fees and you are not.

Attendance

In order to save taxpayers money, gleaning information from your competitors is beneficial in finding gaps, improving policies and fees, and creating opportunities to utilize competitor weaknesses. Find out how many nonresidents your competitors are serving, which may be pulling from your community if your current attendance is down. A data comparison will look to find programming weaknesses in order to out-think your competitors.

Revenue

While it is the responsibility of the municipality to take a leadership role in managing evolving customer expectations, it is also your responsibility to manage the politics. The department’s programs and facilities (parks, beaches, events, festivals, athletic tournaments, historical sites, cultural performances, aquatic centers, etc.) must be prepared to demonstrate the success of programs, showing that they provide more tax revenues that you can either use to maintain the community’s infrastructure, facilities, and services, or to reduce the level of taxes that residents currently pay. This is why it is so important to keep good financial records. Moreover, if a program is cut, you have data indicating the reason(s).

Expenses

Technology is always looking for ways to save money, especially during economic downturns. An assessment of current and past budgets can look to see if operations are impacted by rising costs of utilities, chemicals, and maintenance. There is escalating momentum for environmentally responsible building practices, and aquatic/recreation design teams embrace green technology. By implementing sustainable equipment, money will be saved in the long run. Operating goals should include maximizing sustainable design for efficient operations and being responsible in using natural resources. Advantages include:

  • Reduce waste sent to landfills
  • Lower operating costs and increased asset value
  • Conserve energy and water
  • Healthier and safer for occupants
  • Reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions
  • Qualify for tax rebates, zoning allowances, and other varying incentives

Conclusion

Whether your financial model is subsidized, break-even, or positive cash flow, taking a critical look at you operations can help identify improvements to increase sustainability. An in-depth review can shine a new light on programs, fee structures, attendance, revenue, and expenses congruent with local reality. Just like a racecar driver, you need to accelerate through the turn to make sure you are in the lead for the straightaway.

 

Revenue Throttles

One of the keys to long term success and sustainability is the use of Revenue Throttles. Revenue Throttles put pricing control in the field to maximize revenues while managing your communities’ expectations. There are three main areas I look at for developing revenue throttles, they include:

  • Use Resident and Non-resident pricing
  • Discounts
  • Wait Lists

Resident and Non-Resident Pricing

The use of various pricing points can help balance facility capacity levels and customer satisfaction. Many communities will charge a higher rate for non-residents users as opposed to resident users. There are a couple reasons for this. The main reason communities consider this structure is due to the fact that the local resident tax dollars paid to build the facility. The throttling opportunity comes with how much more you charge for the non-residents. When a community is growing, they will likely need to build a larger facility to meet future needs. But without the population required to fill the facility to capacity, non-resident users are needed to increase operational sustainability. In this scenario, non-resident pricing may only be slightly higher than the resident rate. As the local resident population grows, managers can increase the non-resident rate to deter them from coming and increase the resident satisfaction.

 

Discounts

Everyone loves a discount. While most communities try to keep the facility price affordable, I prefer pricing the facility at its appropriate value and providing discounts to make sure everyone has a chance to use the facility. The also gives throttling opportunities by discontinuing discounts as higher revenues are needed. This way a facility doesn’t actually have to raise pricing each year, but can increase revenues.

 

Wait Lists

Keeping programs full is always a challenge. The use of a wait list will provide a “backlog” of users. I’ve seen this be very useful with swim lesson programs. One benefit of using a wait list is to give preferential treatment to residents. Some facilities will allow residents to sign up immediately, but non-residents must join the wait list. This allows them to give residents preferential treatment, but still fill all classes to achieve revenue goals.

 

In summary, creating an economic engine to support your vision will provide a fiscally sustainable enterprise including water, features, and programs in concert with the community for many years to come. Using Revenue Throttles in your business model will help create a sustainable facility that meets the customers’ expectations and provides a tremendous value to your community.

 

Questionnaires that truly inform

The summer is rolling along, guests are flocking to your facility and you see the light at the end of a successful summer up ahead. You begin the process of evaluating your seasonal numbers, staff performance, and your personal feelings on your operational successes, but a critical stakeholder is missing: your customers. The age-old mantra of, “we wouldn’t have jobs if there were no customers,” still holds true today. Customer opinions are important to the overall success of your facility or program, more now than ever with the increasing use of social media for evaluating and discussing guest experiences through Yelp, Facebook Reviews, etc. The way we gather customer feedback on experience is an often overlooked component to our evaluation process. Below are a few ways to begin the process of developing informative questionnaires to truly evaluate the guest experience.

Do you really want to know?

Before you begin the quest for feedback from customers, you must ask yourself: Do I really want to know? If you have no process or plan to integrate the feedback into your operations, you are really just opening yourself up to the liability of being informed on issues without taking action. Depending on the feedback, this can result in legal issues if safety concerns are not addressed and continual customer complaints if service concerns are left unaddressed.

Length and Format

One factor to consider when developing your customer questionnaire is to keep it brief and to the point. Ask just the questions you really desire feedback on and give ample opportunity for customers to provide their own details with a comments section. How many times have you filled out an online survey and wondered if you would reach retirement before completing it? If it’s a paper survey, keep it to no more than one side of an 8.5” x 11” piece of paper, including the comment lines. If it’s an online survey, it should take less than 4 minutes to complete with a warning up front on the typical time necessary to complete. Questions should be worded as objectively as possible and always with an option for “not applicable” to ensure accuracy. Grouping the questions in sections like the example below allows you to ask more questions without making the customer feel bombarded.Questionair

I like asking specific questions that require the customer to name an employee tied to their answer. This encourages staff to develop and maintain relationships with the customers and allows you the opportunity to identify patterns with specific personnel and correct those issues. The customer can always skip that part if they do not know the employee’s name, but I have found that to be one of the most beneficial tools on a questionnaire.

Execution

Now that you have a great format and precisely worded questions, when should you make the “ask”? It’s best to get a diverse sample of your client base for the most accurate feedback. If you provide questionnaires to each swim lesson parent at the end of each session, you are missing out on the feedback of your waterpark guests, aqua aerobics participants, and fitness swimmers. Find a way to survey ALL types of users, throughout the year, at different times of the day. You may have a sparkling facility at 9:00am when the first swim lesson starts, but by the time rec swim ends and afternoon lessons begin, your restrooms can look atrocious, providing a much different experience for your afternoon customers. Sometimes, customers do not want to physically fill out the form. Sending staff members around to gather their results can mean an increase in survey results. Creating surveys specific to your special events can provide the opportunity to ask event specific questions. Aim to gather completed questionnaires from 5-7% of your customers to get a good sample of opinions.

If you leave it up to the customer to ask for a survey, then you will likely end up with a negatively skewed sample. The squeaky wheel gets the oil and people do not typically ask to fill out a questionnaire when they are moderately pleased with their experience. Encourage customers to give feedback in exchange for a coupon, free food and beverage item, chance to win a season pass, etc.

Compilation of Results

Once you have gathered all of your surveys, create a method for compiling the results. I have used a free online form builder to input all the results, which also allows me to run a report with the statistics for each question. This way, I can compare the results year over year. Any way you choose to compile the results, just make sure it is consistently followed and doesn’t become an end of season task. Most of the time, you will have lost many surveys and the opportunity to make quick easy fixes throughout the season.

Evaluation and Implementation

After the questionnaire feedback has been compiled, divide the results into categories. Assemble your management team to discuss the overarching categories. Evaluate whether policies can be adjusted, programs can be implemented, and do your best to address each “issue” listed. Once decisions have been made, introduce the results to staff. Sharing feedback with non-management staff can be eye opening, as they often do not understand the implications of their personal actions on the image of your park. Don’t forget to celebrate the areas where you are succeeding. Generating buy-in and psychological ownership over the great and troubling areas of your operations throughout your entire staff will pave the way for change and build a culture of success that will be unrivaled!

 

Point-of-Sale Systems- Where Do I Begin?

Running a safe, customer-focused program is at the center of an Aquatic Operator’s job description, but what about the business-side of our jobs? Having the tools in place to retrieve financial information, analyze your return on investment for your killer marketing plan, and compare to previous summers’ results can be a game changer for your facility. 100_7384There are many point-of-sale (POS) providers on the market, each with their individual benefits and d ownfalls. There are several features that may or may not be a dealbreaker for successful implementation in your facility. Sometimes, one of the first interactions customers have with your facility is to register for a class or purchase their tickets through your POS system, which can set the tone for their experience and set their expectations, so choose wisely!

Web-Based

By far, one of the most critical decisions to make when deciding on a POS system is whether or not it will be web-based or server-based. A web-based system allows for the flexibility of access anywhere there is an internet connection. This can be particularly helpful at the beginning of your season when new cashiers are still learning the system, new managers are struggling to close-out and balance the cash drawers, and things can be “off”. A quick phone call, log-in on your computer, and a few minutes later, an issue can be resolved. With a server-based system, you typically need to be located onsite to access the program, which means a late night trip back to work (been there, done that at 10:00pm) or leaving the “mess” until the morning, which is problematic in its own way.

User-Friendly

In our seasonal facilities, staff turnover for entry-level positions such as cashiers or concessions is typically pretty high. Most entry-level aquatics employees are technologically savvy and can pick up POS system operations fairly quickly as long as it is intuitive and user-friendly. When selecting and researching a system, evaluate whether someone would be able to walk right up to the system and bumble their way through a transaction with little or no training. Teaching an employee the special terms, codes, and processes for a POS system that is not user-friendly can be a drain on the budget and a source of frustration for both staff and the customer. In addition to being user-friendly for staff, ask the POS provider to walk you through a transaction in the online portal customers will use to make purchases directly. If it’s too complicated, ask if modifications can be made. If not, move on. It’s not worth it to lose a customer before they enter the gates because they become frustrated while trying to give you their hard earned money.

Meets All Your Needs

Think about every avenue of your business- season passes, daily admissions, parties, cabana rentals, food and beverage, lockers, retail, swim lessons, etc. Does your current provider or potential provider meet those needs or do you have a lot of work-arounds in place? An efficient POS system will be a support and asset to your business rather than a financial drain and constant headache. For example, we spend a lot of time developing and implementing our marketing plans. Does this provider have a system for tracking your return on investment? Does your POS system have a mechanism for capturing emails and a medium for sending out targeted email blasts to groups of customers interested in specific programs or products? Determine what your important needs are and that your POS system can truly fulfill those demands.

Training Costs

Training is handled very differently between POS providers. Most provide onsite training for a fee to train the supervisors and staff, and then the supervisors are expected to maintain the training for all other incoming staff for future years. A growing trend is to provide initial onsite training for a fee, and then all subsequent trainings can be webinar based and are free of charge. This ensures that as updates are made to the system (which should be happening fairly consistently with a good provider), staff are given the proper tools and information right away. With a seasonal operation and high entry-level position turnover each summer, not spending additional money or time training new staff can be one less thing you need to worry about!

Enhancements

There are many “one size fits all” POS offerings on the market, but each have their own niche and focus. Most likely, none will meet all of your facility/agency-specific needs. Discuss with potential providers the process for adding enhancements specific to your organization. What is the wait time? How much will it cost? If you have a unique operation, search for a POS provider that offers enhancements free-of-charge to ensure that you are not taken advantage of and funding their business growth. A savvy POS provider will recognize that adding an enhancement that may help several of their customers will open up new business opportunities for them as well, and offer it as a complimentary service.

Reporting

One of the most often overlooked components of a POS system is its reporting. Work with your finance team to determine what type of information they will need and ensure that there is a report to provide that information. There are some POS systems that have very straightforward reporting options, which can be sufficient if you just want basic information or they have the correct reports generated for you. If you would like more detailed or custom information on your reports, look for a system that allows you to select the terms for your reports. This will save you time with data collection and pulling out the unnecessary information. Be wary of companies that have hundreds of types of reports. Most POS system providers are unable to keep up with the maintenance of a large body of reports, which can lead to erroneous information and poor financial decision as a result.

Service Issues

While it is the hope that your POS system will never have any issues, this will be far from reality. Technology will always have glitches and require assistance to resolve. Discuss with any potential provider the process for notifying them and resolving issues. Do they have a 24 hour number? If you are in a different time zone than your provider, will you be left in a lurch at 4:00pm because their technicians are all off for the day? Confirming they have a seamless process for issue resolution and quick response time for their facilities will ensure that you are not standing face to face with a customer with a computer glitch, unable to process their transaction for 30 minutes.

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Though the process and programs can appear confusing, a POS system is merely a tool. Using the criteria above, selecting a system that you are comfortable with is not too difficult. If you become overwhelmed, pretend you are a staff member or customer using the system and select one that works with ease whether you are the manager (reporting/adding programs), staff (quick transaction process), or customers (intuitive and simple). Researching and evaluating several POS system providers according to YOUR needs will always result in a successful match.