Gone are the days of "plug-it-in-and-go" computer systems. To forge ahead, clubs require sophisticated hardware and software upgrades

Can your club's EFT software retrofit with your existing proprietary or standardized OS? Does your member ki-osk's software provider hold a compatibility endorsement contract with your network vendor?

Are you lost in the above maze of computer networking jargon? If so, you're not alone! With the bounding advances of computer technology, it's difficult for club operators to keep abreast of an industry growing at break-neck speed, let alone learn how this technology can benefit their businesses.

But, to survive as a club operator today, you need to ride the wave of technological advances and perhaps upgrade your existing computer network to meet the demands of today's more sophisticated software and Internet applications, as well as your high-tech club members.

Networking an existing computer system can reap many benefits for clubs. Sharing computer data on membership, sales, traffic and in-house administrative schedules via a software platform can save time and money. Members can reap rewards from networks with faster service and more accurate data and club feedback.

Still, many clubs have not taken advantage of networking, according to Michael Scott Scudder, president of Fitness Focus Cos. and a club consultant with expertise in the area of computers. "Clubs are still a technophobic industry," he claims.

Techno...what?

Technophobic is one of today's buzzwords spun from the computer and Internet revolution. "Techno" is an abbreviated version of technology that is defined by Webster's II New College Dictionary as, "The body of knowledge available to a civilization that is of use in fashioning implements, practicing manual arts and skills, and extracting or collecting materials." "-Phobic" is defined as "having a fear of or aversion for." Simply put, then, a technophobic industry fears technology.

Fear of the unknown or of learning about new innovations can be a destructive force in business. But upgrading your computer system does not have to be a nightmare, nor does it have to be elaborate and expensive.

If your club's current OS is handling your member and administrative functions, you probably passed the "Y2K" bug scare. But Scudder warns that not all clubs may have a completely Y2K-compliant computer system. He cites five incidents with clubs that have contacted him about trouble with their computer systems since Jan. 1. He says their software packages were upgraded to be Y2K compliant, but their hardware system, al-though it may have been tested and upgraded with new software applications, is not capable of passing all the Y2K tests, including memory up-grades, speed, software upgrading compatibility and future year/date recognition. He says if clubs are using computers, printers and associated connections that were manufactured before May 1997, they are very likely headed for potential Y2K problems.

Behind the Times
Adding to that dilemma, Scudder says that many small clubs have not invested in the latest hardware and software for all of their workstations. By not upgrading, these clubs are courting potential disaster. They are behind the times in terms of technology.

Indeed, small club owners tend to skimp on their computers and their software. They must put in high-quality hardware and software products to enable faster and more efficient computer network operations. They also should invest in a scaleable or expandable software platform that can support a few computer stations to many computers at multiple locations. If clubs want to grow, expand or even become attractive to a potential buyer, they require the proper hardware for upgrading.

To shop for hardware, you must first know your software requirements. Computer hardware needs to be compatible with all software applications, including memory and expansion capabilities for future upgrades. If it isn't, it could lead to a crisis.

Scudder warns of another potential computer crisis: "cloning" computer software. Some computer-savvy operators choose to save time by copying one computer's software setup to another computer. The danger is that both computers may not have the exact same hardware or memory capabilities, and data can get lost very easily. "If you think you can hybrid or clone a machine, forget it!" Scudder cautions. "It won't work!"

Another problem that Scudder sees is that most clubs are not using their current software efficiently. He says that the point-of-sale (POS), front-desk check-in, management and sales station applications on most club networks are either unutilized or that the application's usage can be duplicated by another software application on the network. He recommends evaluating current applications before upgrading or purchasing new software. By streamlining your software usage, you can save memory and speed on your network, as well as save on expenses.

Scudder claims that he also often finds a lack of data protection in clubs. He reports that 95 percent of clubs do not back up their data regularly. If any resident software or hardware glitch is embedded in a computer or network, without data being available in a backup form, kiss it goodbye!

Still, it's not all bad news as far as clubs and computing go. The good news is that prices for computer hardware and software are steadily falling. And the networking capabilities on new computers offer many expansion capabilities for future upgrading. Scudder recommends standardizing all applications on computers within a club-that is, making sure all employees are using the same version of software applications-and checking for obsolete programs already on a club's network or on a stand-alone computer unit. This standardization will enable the network to operate more effectively and efficiently.

Scudder recommends clubs with a single location have three to five computer stations (e.g., a front-desk server, one to three administrative workstations and, possibly, a training/support staff workstation, depending on the club's needs). The network's server-linked over the network to the other stations-is usually located at the club's reception desk. Scudder says the server needs at least 128 MB of RAM. He adds that increasing the memory to 256 MB is advisable because the more applications that are used on a network, the more memory is needed.

Scudder also suggests that the front-desk station have at least a 12- to 20-GB hard drive with a 19- or 21-inch monitor. With this computer station getting a constant workout with member check-ins, POS and electronic funds transfer (EFT) usage for 16 hours a day, it is vital to the club's operation to have this server in prime condition for supporting its applications and other computer stations.

With more club members becoming Internet users, club entertainment systems are providing Web and e-mail access at equipment locations. Scud-der says these programs are independent of a club's computer network, but there is a way for clubs to provide Internet access outside of the entertainment system venue-with a kiosk (similar to the kiosks provided by suppliers of interactive fitness networks).

Kiosk Theory
A kiosk is another computer station available to members for Internet access. This station needs exclusive, encrypted and secure software to enable members to access their member status and program statistics, and check their personal e-mail. Scudder recommends this kiosk window be on at least a 21-inch screen for members to see the interactive programs clearly.

Kiosks also offer clubs the opportunity to do some in-house promotions; they can use a kiosk's software to post new programs and incentive marketing items. This Intranet (a scaled-down, in-house Internet) application of a club's networking system can also be available on other workstations to staff members, who can access administrative documents via an encrypted and/or secure password procedure. Intranet data examples include em-ployee communications, human re-source information, work schedules and employee training programs.

Planning for a club's future means re-evaluating all potential aspects of a club's computer needs. According to Dan Tilley, chief information officer (CIO) of Spectrum Clubs, clubs need to maximize their opportunities through information technology and by seeking out experts in specific areas of business, even outside the club industry. "Networking (e.g., commiserating with business contacts for resources) is not working," Tilley says, pointing out that he looks beyond the club industry to other businesses and finds out what works for them.

When computer experts are not on a club's payroll, Tilley says outside experts and consultants are valuable partners in developing a solid business plan. "The trick is finding the people to do it for you," Tilley says, adding, "Pick a platinum-level provider and work with them."

Finding an expert computer consultant may take some effort, but evaluating a club's computer system with an experienced consultant can provide a club with valuable knowledge of what options are available for upgrading a computer system and how to plan for the future.

So, maybe your club's existing EFT software can't add more functions (retrofit) with your existing proprietary (hardware or networking protocols that are unique to one vendor) or standardized (hardware or networking protocols used by most vendors) OS (operating system). Consider buying a new one that will. Also consider evaluating a compatibility endorsement (two vendors working together to make their equipment compatible and to certify their product compatibility) contract with your network vendors when your club's upgraded or new hardware involves two or more different software applications that need to interact consistently to keep your club running smoothly

Whether a club's future holds physical expansion and increased services or an owner seeking to merge with an existing chain of clubs, computer networking and upgrades are critical to a club's success.


Limit Hardware Heartaches

Shopping around for computer hardware to bring a club up to speed doesn't have to be a difficult chore. Computer industry guidelines and high-tech wizards all generally agree on the following hardware purchase strategies:

* Know what software you will be using and match-or, preferably, exceed-its hardware requirements

- insist on on-site demonstrations from several vendors before choosing software

- get a compatibility endorsement from two vendors who certify their products work very well together

* Purchase the most powerful technology available for your budget, including:

- the most memory available for your network

- the fastest process with the largest amount of random access memory (RAM)

- the largest hard disk drive available for your system

- the fastest modem or Internet connection device available for your network

* Ensure the computer hardware system is expandable for future upgrades, including:

- ISDN and/or DSL high-speed Internet connections or wireless communication capabilities

- Networking interface expansion capabilities, such as wireless connections for off-site and/or multi-site connections