Photo courtesy Portland, Ore. Parks & Recreation

That’s the way we’ve always done it!” “It’s good enough for our little facility!” When it comes to technology, these are common attitudes among overworked, understaffed aquatics operators.

Though most commercial venues and large public agencies are zooming down the techno-highway, many smaller and mid-sized agencies remain stuck in the slow lane. These professionals know the technology exists to take their aquatics facilities from good to great, but many are hesitant when it comes to really embracing tools such as the Internet and what they can do for productivity, revenue generation and customer service. So there are seasonal and year-round venues everywhere still handling admissions, registrations and security with plastic pin-on badges, photo ID cards and paper ticket guest pass coupon books.

What’s keeping these operators treading water?

Techno-savvy Gen-Y’ers likely find the reluctance to “get wired” a bit irrational, but to well-seasoned managers with small staffs and aging computer hardware, adopting the new ways feels like a quantum leap into the future. The change is simply too overwhelming.

But in today’s market, many “technophobes” are finding that clinging to old ways is becoming more and more of a hindrance. The generation now joining the work force has grown up with computers, bar-code scanners and surfing the Web — and today’s budget-conscious consumers expect the convenience of things such as online registration, charge card payments and instant communication.

Some operators might argue that technology is “too expensive” or “too complicated,” but at this stage in the game that’s no longer true.

The positive side of arriving late to the table is that technology costs have come down and the aquatics industry now is well-understood by those engineering today’s latest marvels.

In fact, by capitalizing on technology, you might even save some money. Operators who embrace what’s now available can streamline their jobs and boost patron satisfaction, thereby increasing their bottom lines.

But once you’re there, it’s vital to keep looking ahead. At many large aquatics venues, front-loaded season passes and electronic wristbands that eliminate the need to carry cash now are commonplace. New technology allowing visitors at large parks to quickly locate lost children, play games with interactive attractions and keep running scores are coming down the pike.

All told, the time has never been better to embrace technology, and all aquatics operators need to dive into the future or risk sinking into the past. Here’s a look at what you need to know to bring your facility up to date.

Making sense of software

Where should operators with old systems start?  First, realize that technology should be consumed like fine chocolate: a little at a time. Evaluate your needs and start slowly by addressing the most essential.

You might start by considering your overall computer software program. In the past two decades, many software developers have tried to understand the nuances of the aquatics business, and there isn’t a recreation director around who hasn’t purchased at least one bad program. Only the strongest software has survived, so there’s now a better chance of getting it right the first time.

To choose the best program for your operation, look at what works at facilities in similar communities. Fully investigate all the programs that potential providers have to offer. Prioritize the areas that will benefit your facility and phase in each of these programs accordingly.

Be wary of any programs with modules still under construction.

The most critical choices you will likely have to make involve your registration procedures, identification process and the bookkeeping software programs that will need to be integrated. For many, these three items must be the first priority, especially in communities with small support staffs. Before purchasing anything, work with your community’s finance officer and auditors to be sure you meet all statutory requirements for handling finances.

Also consider that smaller communities have found success by forming consortiums and sharing services. You could work with software companies and bulk-purchase with neighboring communities to share training, technical and support services. You also might reach out to local colleges and universities to serve as the technical support for the program.

Giving credit

You’ll be amazed at the potential increase in early revenue dollars when charge cards are introduced to your registration process — in some cases, more than 50 percent.

Some traditional finance officers may be concerned about handling charges, but the savings in manpower, paper handling and interest on early season earnings should help cover any associated expenses. In addition, adding charge card capability will be a big plus in the public perception of your agency.

To further allay the concerns of finance officers, it’s possible to negotiate with your bankers. In the current financial climate, bankers will likely be motivated to work with your team when reminded that all of your agency’s money is deposited with them.

If that doesn’t work, you should seriously consider increasing memberships or daily admission slightly to cover the fees.

Ending lines

Guests will form an opinion of your service within minutes, and if they’re forced to stand in line while your admissions team fumbles with lists, checks IDs and attempts to answer questions, you’re already starting off negatively.

With photo identification and bar-code scanning, you can speed transactions, place a true value on membership and season passes, and improve customer service exponentially. In addition, the savings on office personnel and identification cards that can be electronically updated and last for years will certainly help the bottom line.

Portable bar-code scanners allow for working with one admission program in several locations. With portable scanners, season pass holders can enter a second gate while still accessing one registration program. During holidays and high attendance days, this will enable you to open additional gates for fast-track admission. Today’s scanners are more affordable and greatly improved over earlier versions, and your members will love you for adopting them.

Going 24/7

With today’s shrinking budgets and smaller staffs, online registration programs with 24/7 access have become a saving grace. The latest user-friendly online registration programs can accommodate waiting lists, age and residency restrictions, as well as payment plans. In addition to the obvious advantages, enabling residents to register or purchase tickets online eliminates the need for late office hours or Saturday registrations and reduces last-minute lines.

When it comes to setting up online registration capability, be sure your software provider understands the nuances of your programs and don’t let concerns about transition time scare you. Most systems can be set up quickly and because users establish their own data, gone are the days of data entry that were a part of programs past.

Once you have online registration in place, just set the timer to allow enrollment to begin, sit back and watch. It’s amazing how many people will be up all night, registering in their pajamas.

Reaching out

Easy access to data on your customer base provides great opportunities for marketing and promotion. With a few clicks of the mouse, you can substantially cut your budget for newspaper ads, fliers and similar marketing approaches. Things such as online newsletters, target marketing, registration reminders and other creative uses of e-mail enable you to easily provide savvy customer service. And by cutting down on paper, you’ll be more eco-friendly.

To optimize your use of e-marketing, do not purchase a computer registration program that does not allow for e-commerce. And remember, sending too many e-mail blasts makes you a pest, but the right reminders to the right audience can make you a hero. Pick and choose your e-mail blasts carefully.

Getting wired

Busy families are juggling lots of priorities, and cell phones, BlackBerries and laptops probably are a way of life for many of your patrons. For that reason, providing Wi-Fi access — perhaps in your snack bar or lounge area — will not only make your registration program hum in several locations of your facility, but provide a fabulous, convenient service for your guests. Parents will be able to work while waiting for their children, and guests who usually work at home now can spend time at the community pool and still get some business done.

When going Wi-Fi, remember to provide power outlets for cell phone and computer charging. Market the service to promote membership and paint a picture of an accommodating facility that understands its members. Your staff will appreciate the Wi-Fi access as well, so establish polices for use early.