Choosing a computer system to fit your needs
The key to purchasing the right computer system for your club is to keep a level head and buy what you can afford. Don't get carried away with all the bells and whistles. If you get carried away, you'll end up spending a lot of money on features you probably won't use.
While there are key components to the computer systems that every club - big or small - should have, when these components are purchased is up to the owner and his or her financial situation. You don't have to buy everything all at once. For example, when Cindy Johnson opened Hometown Health & Fitness last year, she only bought what she could afford. She has two computers:
One is in her office for creating workout programs and promotional pieces, and the other is on her partner's desk for financial and membership information.
"We don't have a front-desk computer yet. We are looking at that and a front-desk check-in system at Club Industry '99 this fall. Since we are a small club in a small town [Indianola, Iowa], we didn't know what membership would be like so we didn't want to invest in a front-desk system before we knew what we needed," explains Johnson. "Cost is a major issue for us."
According to Steve Wild, owner of Club-Net a company that owns and manages three clubs in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas, the major components that you should have are a membership database with a check-in system, and an electronic funds transfer (EFT) with an accounting package.
Here are some tips on what to consider as you go shopping.
* Buying the hardware. You should purchase nothing less than a Pentium 300, states Wild. "The beauty of this is that now you can buy a Pentium 300 with 64 MB of RAM and a 5 GB hard drive - which is the lowest you want to go - for $1,000. Which is one of the reasons that technology is so affordable to the small club owner," he notes.
* Invest in a quality printer. Since cost was a major concern for Johnson's club, she decided to invest in a high-quality color printer so that she could produce all of the club's marketing materials in-house, which saves money.
* Learn to network. Purchase computers that have networking capabilities. When you have multiple computers in your club, the ability to network helps expedite your business. "It's interesting that most clubs don't have a network set up despite the fact that it is very easy to do and probably costs only an extra $70 to $80," notes Wild.
* Don't overlook e-mail. According to Wild, the vast majority of clubs don't have access to e-mail. This seems hard to believe, he says, since most clubs are open the majority of the day, and it's an excellent means of communication with staff and members. "If your computers are networked, than to put in an e-mail package is easy and not that costly," he adds. And if you have more than one club, it facilitates communication.
* Understand your database. With membership databases, one of the most important things to look at is the underlying database language that it is written in. "It's kind of like the foundation of a house," explains Wild. "You have to make sure you're building on a foundation that is sound. In this case, sound would be a database that is flexible enough to be upgraded and widely used so that if anything happens to the company that wrote it, there are other companies [to take over]."
You should also look for a database that is easy to use. You don't want to spend months trying to learn how to use your own system. And you don't want to go broke either. A good membership database shouldn't run more than $1,000 to $2,000, states Wild.
* Find an accounting system that can write. As far as your accounting system goes, one of the most important features is to be able to produce reports in a spreadsheet format. A good accounting program should also run about $1,000 to $2,000.
* Plan for upgrades. While it's important to stick to the basics in the beginning and not get too far ahead of yourself, you do have to plan for future upgrades and expansions.
When Johnson opened her club, she didn't have a check-in system, but knew she would be adding it in the not-too-distant future. In order to make sure that her computer system could handle a check-in system, she hooked up a demo to see if it would be compatible with her current system.
"We didn't want to have to buy a special computer just for check-in," says Johnson. "You have to communicate your needs. We told the company we were working with what we wanted to do now and what we wanted to do two or three years down the road."
"You should make updates part of your technology budget," emphasizes Wild. "You don't need to upgrade just to upgrade, and you don't need to buy at the leading edge of the curve, but upgrades are [necessary]."
But be careful not to buy everything at once, he adds. If you do and you don't upgrade incrementally, then down the line you will have all slower machines. But if you do it incrementally, then you will have high-, medium- and slow-speed computers, and you can replace them one at a time, which puts less of a strain on your budget.
* Check out the tech support. "Ideally, I think tech support should be 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but that's not going to happen," states Wild. "But you should definitely look for a company that offers some type of support on the weekend, such as a pager system."