Gaining a Technical Edge

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With proper training and implementation, technology can free management and staff from desks and offices to do what they do best: Spend more time with members.

 

Without technology, most businesses today would lack the efficiency and edge needed to compete. Unlike other parts of corporate America, however, the hospitality industry has not jumped on the technology bandwagon quite so enthusiastically, primarily out of fear of losing the personalized service that defines the industry.

Many club and resort properties are learning, though, that when used correctly, technology can actually drastically improve service, by helping operations run more smoothly.

“I have yet to see any business, let alone a club, continue to do what they were doing a year ago and find ways to be successful,” says Maurice Darbyshire, Regional Manager of the Belmont Country Club in Ashburn, Va. “Each company needs to consistently evolve with changing times, and technology is at the forefront of that change.

“There are many ways where technology is a benefit, not just to the club for cost savings, but certainly to the membership as well,” Darbyshire adds. “If you resist that, you’re going to end up behind the eight-ball.”

At Belmont CC, communication and marketing efforts have improved significantly thanks to databases and e-mail blasts that target specific members based on their personal preferences. Each family member fills out a personal preference sheet that is filed and entered into a database. Then when the club hosts a wine tasting, for example, the manager organizing the event creates a query in the database for wine enthusiasts and sends e-mails to those members to publicize the event.

“The ability to market to specific segments and certain profiles of our membership has been the best strategic advantage for us,” says Darbyshire. “This allows us to make sure the interested parties are well-informed, and we’re able to personalize those communications.”

Talking to the Source
Many properties are making better use of technology to improve internal communications as well. For example, Frenchman’s Creek Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., has created a customized issue-management application that staff and managers now use to report problems in different departments. This system opens lines of communications and delivers more timely resolution of issues, reports  Johnny Henegar, Manager of Information Technology.

“If there is a problem that engineering needs to look at, the system will send an e-mail to the engineering department and the GM,” Henegar explains. “That communication is where we really see a lot of return.”

From an operational standpoint, technology can provide clubs and resorts with more accurate and timely financial reporting. In 2002, the Ames (Iowa) Golf & Country Club brought all of its accounting practices in-house with a new server. According to Jon Vodehnal, PGA General Manager and Director of Golf, the system has reduced expenditures and enhanced revenues at the club. “There is now less of a chance of a lost sale,” he explains. “A sale is now immediately recorded into the system and accounted for as it should be.”

The system now also allows the club to make quicker, more informed decisions. “When we outsourced, we typically waited three weeks for the financials to come back,” says Vodehnal. “We didn’t have any idea until about three weeks after the month closed out, and the decision-making process was breaking down. Now, we have real-time information and can make ‘live’ decisions that keep the business moving in the right direction.”

The Down Side

The inherent danger of technology is losing the personal touch that is essential to the success of any club or resort. “Being a luxury-based industry, you have to use discretion [with technology], because losing that personalized service would be catastrophic,” says Belmont CC’s Darbyshire. “You have to find a balance between technology and personal service.”

For example, Darbyshire notes that while it would save money and time to eliminate a receptionist and move to a fully automated system, having a person greet members in person and on the phone is a service touch that is far too important to abandon.

With all that technology now has to offer in the way of instant communications, it can be tempting to neglect the need for face-to-face interaction. “Sometimes, it becomes too easy to communicate via e-mail, which is less personal,” says Vodehnal. “We try not to rely solely on e-mail communication. I still always sit down to write hand-written thank-you notes.”

Still, when used properly, technology can actually free up time to allow staff to focus more on personalized service for members and guests. “The goal of technology in our industry is to allow our most talented individuals—our managers and our employees—to be free from desks and computers, so they can spend more time with members,” says Darbyshire. “That is the big positive.”

Learning the Ropes
To achieve the proper balance for using technology in a service-oriented setting, training is critical. “It is amazing how the lack of training contributes to insufficient use of readily available tools in the club,” says Peter Lovelace, who recently became the new Club Manager at the Ritz-Carlton Jupiter Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla. “You have to dedicate yourself, and your staff, to learning how to best use your software.”

As Operations Manager for the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. (“New Star in the Cosmos,” C&RB, June 2008), Lovelace directed im-plementation of  a new operating system. One of the first key steps, he reports, was determining which employees had a keen interest in the technology, and then offering them a chance to spend additional time with technology trainers. The club even sent some employees to a Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals conference, to meet with developers and software engineers. Those employees, Lovelace reports, came back with a wealth of knowledge and training that they then shared with co-workers.

Like all other areas of hospitality training, Lovelace adds, employee training in technology should be customized to meet individual needs and comfort levels. Rather than forcing the new technology on its employees, the Cosmos Club’s management communicated its commitment to the changeover and to how it would help each employee.

“Some people had worked there for 30 years and, unfortunately, some of the older systems didn’t translate,” Lovelace reports. “Instead of loading the new systems onto their computers and saying ‘sink or swim,’ we really got down to a personal level and worked with each individual, to make sure the transition was positive and they didn’t feel like they were on their own.”

A technical “buddy system” has worked well at Pinehurst Resort & Golf Club in the Village of Pinehurst, N.C. Each department has designated “key users” with in-depth knowledge of the systems who are recognized as resources within their departments.

“The key users are people who have picked it up well,” explains Rodney Davis, MIS Manager. “They are typically the folks who have been here the longest, because they are the ones who end up getting to know the systems very well and can then take the lead on training.”

Not surprisingly, many clubs and resorts have found that employees who grew up with technology are more open to it and can pick it up more quickly. Rather than allowing this generation gap to cause a division in the staff, properties are learning to take advantage of their more tech-savvy employees, by pairing them with those who may be struggling.

“The more seasoned staff members may resist technology because they are not familiar with it; it isn’t what they grew up with,” notes Vodehnal. “So we always strive to utilize the strengths of each employee, and use our younger employees who are more technically savvy to help administer the technology.”

Getting the Right Returns
Implementing advanced technology also calls for strategic decision-making, to make sure the right payoffs will be gained from the required commitments of time and financial resources. “We’re always looking for an edge and to try something new—but not just for the sake of trying it,” says Frenchman Creek CC’s Henegar. “We’re looking for something that will give us a proper return.”

Two questions should be asked before making any technology decision, Pinhurst’s Davis says: Will it improve the guest or member experience? And, will it save money?

“Those are the only two reasons to invest in technology,” he believes. “If you can keep the focus on the guest and member experience, the technology is worth it.”

Of course, even the slickest system is not a panacea. “You have to look at it as an accelerator, but not as the key component to what you’re doing,” says Lovelace. “Technology can support operations, but it is not going to cause them to succeed or fail. No matter what investment you make in technology, if you don’t have a true understanding of your club’s mission and your members’ expectations, it will not pay off.”

Getting members and guests involved can also help. Frenchman’s Creek CC, for example, now has a Technology Committee that makes recommendations for how technology can make a positive impact on club life.

Whatever the impetus, properties need to make sure they are getting the most from available technology to help put customers first.

“With rounds of golf down and mebership rosters getting smaller, it’s even more important for us to provide that extra level of service and meet the expectations of the membership,” says Vodehnal. “We want to provide them with what they want—before they know they want it.”                        C&RB