The Recreation Market: A Walk In The Park
Vermont Systems, Inc. combines point of sale, ID badging and its own software to sell to parks and recreation facilities. Learn how to score in this under-automated market.
The company is located in Essex Junction, VT (population 10,000), outside of Burlington. Vermont Systems began as a small family-owned systems integration company specializing in networking. "The company did not specialize in any particular market; it was more a question of survival," says Willey, whose uncle was the original owner. "We were doing some work for local government agencies when we were approached by the city of New Britain, CT," says Willey. "The New Britain parks department was looking for software to register people for its recreational programs."
The city of New Britain hired Vermont Systems to install a computer network and registration software. "The software we found didn't work as expected. It was not designed for multiple users. Knowing a little bit about software development, we developed a software package for them. It took several months; but it worked, and the city of New Britain is still our customer today."
Defining The Market
What exactly is the parks and recreation market? "The market consists of villages, towns, cities, states, park districts, and the military," explains Willey. "Many parks and recreation departments are operated and funded by local municipalities." Knowing how a department is funded helps when it comes to the sales cycle. "A city park may have to add its POS or badging hardware to the city budget up to a year in advance," says Willey.
Peer networking is crucial, as with many niche markets. "Vermont Systems is represented at 20 or 30 industry trade shows each year," he says. "We attend large ones, such as the National Recreation & Park Association's (NRPA) annual convention, as well as many smaller regional shows." In addition, Willey sells to the military. "To sell to the military, you have to network with the military recreation and welfare (MWR) organization," says Willey. Military recreation professionals, those who run activities on military bases, can also belong to the Armed Forces Recreation Society, a branch of the NRPA.
Understanding The Market
"Because we work in the parks and recreation market, we hear the complaints," says Willey. "You need people skills to sell in this market. Our customers are not interested in technical gibberish. Overall, the people we deal with are fun and positive. They are into recreation more than technology."
"A typical program registration at a city recreation department involves black three-ring binders and notebook paper," says Willey. "Families line up to register for swim classes, golf tournaments, and league baseball." Such a simple paper-based system makes it difficult to track participants. More importantly, it makes it difficult for park managers to evaluate the success or failure of a particular program. The size of installation varies. "A parks department can consist of four workstations and nothing else," says Willey. "Or, it can be very large. The department could include a pool, a senior center, a main office, and other facilities scattered throughout the city."
Willey says, when it comes to automation, his customers are looking for the following:
- Activity Registration – "Tracking individuals is not enough," says Willey. "You have to track families as well. Recreation departments don't want to spend money on duplicate mailings of program announcements."
Because people don't like waiting in line, Willey recommends that customers include telephone and Internet registration along with their computerized registration systems. "Touch-tone phone registration, accessible 24 hours a day, is popular in the military and for scheduling golf tee times," says Willey. Web registration is also gaining popularity. Several of Willey's customers are successfully registering program participants using the Internet.
- Pass Management – Willey's customers can choose to use magnetic stripe or bar coded membership cards, with or without photographs. "Key fobs – a smaller version of the full-sized membership cards, including a magnetic stripe or bar code – are becoming popular, especially for pool programs," says Willey. "People don't usually carry their wallets to the pool, but most people will carry their keys." More sophisticated systems, including Willey's, combine pass management with photo capture. "Member photos are stored in the membership database," says Willey. "Member identity is double-checked when a membership card is presented."
- POS/Inventory – "All of our customers need some form of activity registration; however, not all of our customers need a POS system," says Willey. "There is a danger of overselling when it comes to POS and this market. Typically, golf pro shops and concessions would need a POS system, including a cash drawer, pole display, terminal, keyboard, and card reader."
Larger, more sophisticated parks and recreation departments use additional software packages for facility reservations, league scheduling, maintenance tracking, and time and attendance (including fingerprint and hand geometry biometrics).
In many instances, 24-hour support is not as critical in the parks and recreation market, as it is in the hospitality and grocery markets. "Our employees are cross-trained in installation and support," explains Willey. "Fifteen employees share the installation and support call duties. Customer phone support is available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST. We also offer our customers extended after-hours coverage as needed."
Vermont Systems completes several installs and software upgrades each week. "Our biggest challenge is growth – it's a double-edged sword," admits Willey. "Keeping up with technology ourselves is sometimes difficult. For example, we are in the process of installing a new computerized phone system."
Another challenge Willey faces is keeping his installation/support employees motivated. "Networked systems and remote access are becoming huge issues in the parks and recreation market," says Willey. "Our employees have to keep up with technology, such as Citrix, Winframe, and Metaframe. Training is ongoing."
Vermont Systems enjoyed a 10% growth rate this past year. Willey expects the company's growth to continue at the same rate. "We are developing new versions of our software," says Willey. "We also want to broaden our scope to include other related markets, such as clubs and resorts." Willey's walk in the park may soon extend to a walk on the beach.