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Designing Club Web sites - Innovative Technologies for Members, Clubs

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March 01, 2010
Web Development
Michael Kasavana, PH.D., NCE, CHTP - kasavana@msu.edu

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It did not take clubs long to recognize that the Web that worked so well for other industries can be instrumental in enhancing communications, information dissemination and e-commerce among members, staff and guests. While traditional Web sites often fail to capture features critical to private clubs, specialty club suppliers offer an array of unique applications necessary to enhancing Web success. Although the goals of club Web sites vary widely, common objectives include: attraction of prospective members, improved member services, cultivation of member loyalty, increased member frequency and improvement in club revenues. While the club Web site may or may not be developed by a specialty Web site supplier, integration with an in-house club management system is highly desirable.

Historically, club Web sites have been limited to static content, failed to provide a searchable member directory, didn’t allow dining room or recreation reservations, couldn’t facilitate account review, were incapable of issuing gift cards, and omitted a host of other member relationship management features. In essence, early club Web sites were not much more than brochure-ware; it simply involved moving the contents of a prospective member brochure to a Web browser format. Current club Web sites feature an extensive, interactive and easy-to-navigate set of applications that serve to stimulate interest, activity and pride. While club managers are understandably apprehensive about posting and sharing proprietary information on a public Web site, the evolution of intranets (partitioned parts of the site restricted to employees and members) and extranets (partitioned parts of the site for purveyors and suppliers only) have been very effective. Care must be exercised to ensure the club is compliant with IRS guidelines (related to Web site practices) that may jeopardize tax-exempt status.

Site Partitioning
Although most clubs elect to implement one or two Web site areas, there are four distinct partitions appropriate for club Web sites: guest partition, member partition, staff partition and purveyor partition. While the home page of the club Web site is accessible to anyone with a browser, access to other areas should be user and password protected.

Guest Partition. Beyond the club’s home page, a guest, or non-member, accessible page may provide additional (generic) information about the club not likely to be of general interest without exposure to proprietary club information reserved members, employees or select suppliers. Public accessible information at a guest partition typically includes such information as location, mission, directions, facility overview and contact information.

Member Partition. Fortunately a majority of club Web sites have already implemented a password-protected, members-only segmentation. The member section can vary widely in content, but typically includes access to transactions, account statement, event reservations, dining reservations, recreational activity reservations, committee meeting minutes, event calendar, newsletter, specialty menu items, member directory, staff directory, and more. This partition is an example of an intranet as it contains materials for special associates of the club.

Staff Partition. This is a separate area allowing staff to access work schedules, employment policies, contact information, training materials, staff news, special notifications, and perhaps a listing of forthcoming open positions (beyond announcements in the public access part of the site). This partition is an example of an intranet as it contains documentation for special associates of the club.

Purveyor Partition. A special area of the club Web site can be dedicated to authorized companies with which the club does business. Through this Web platform competitive bidding and business relations can be improved. This partition is an example of an extranet as it contains information for contractors the club engages for external business matters.

Site Providers
There are two broad areas of responsibility associated with a club Web site: technical services and administrative services. A technical services provider assumes responsibility for all aspects of the club’s Web site functionality. The technical services provider ensures that page templates function correctly, Web pages are viewable, hyperlinks work, site maps are accurate, animation is functional, search engines are effective, graphics are properly displayed, video and audio work, and other applications function properly. In addition, the technical services provider guarantees the security of the site.

An administrative services provider is responsible for the selection and maintenance of club Web site content and is often a club staff member designated as the webmaster. The administrative services person is primarily responsible for managing the overall functionality of the site. An administrative services provider works with graphics, page editing and security access assignments.

In addition to technical and administrative service support, the club needs to be sure to maintain a properly registered domain name with a naming authority (e.g., domains.com, register.com). The information for establishing a domain name normally requires identification of a technical services provider and an administrative services provider. 

Web Site Fees
Club managers need to be mindful there are several possible fees and expenses associated with Web site creation and ongoing operation including, but not limited t

  1. domain name(URL) registration fees
  2. development costs
  3. site services (maintenance) fees
  4. hosting (server) fees
  5. promotion costs

The club’s Web address (URL, domain) should be short, easy to remember, and when possible end with the extension dot-org (www.universityclubofmsu.org). The club Web site is intended to foster a sense of community while serving as host to the original social network. Determining effective Web site content and maintaining timely and accurate information is critical to satisfying these goals. The initial development and continuing maintenance of Web site content is often a collaborative effort (members, staff, Web site supplier and club management).  Enhanced Web site value is derived from 24/7 accessibility (by members and non-members) worldwide. Additional factors to consider are traditional expenses eliminated by Web site applications and services. Ongoing fees are normally delineated in the club’s service license agreement (SLA) if an outside agency is engaged for site services.  

Site Services
For the most part, club Web site suppliers are capable of developing a workable Web site in six to 10 weeks. For ongoing services, leading club Web site suppliers usually offer several levels of contracting to help ensure Web site content is timely and accurate. Each of these services relates to a specific area of accountability in addition to remaining technically functional.

Level I. Club Managed
In this arrangement, the club staff is provided a text and image editor and a set of Web site guidelines needed to create and maintain club Web pages. The vendor simply ensures the integrity of the site template and the effectiveness of the text and graphical editor. The club manager appoints a staff member who is solely responsible (webmaster) for quality control of all content appearing on the site. The webmaster relies on departmental representatives (e.g., administration, membership, photo gallery, entertainment, newsletter, social events, recreational activities, dining, catering, beverage, etc.) to ensure that all necessary information is current, consistent in format, conforms to appropriated space, uses proper spelling, and adheres to grammatical standards. A Web site vendor typically charges between $100- $350 per month for Level I maintenance. Club Web site suppliers report about 50 percent of participating clubs elect level I service.

Level II. Preferred Service
This arrangement involves the club and Web site vendor dividing up responsibility for the club’s Web site maintenance. Routine text-based changes may reside with club staff while the Web site supplier handles updating graphics, newsletter content, calendar events, special promotions and other photographic and artistic materials. The cost for this level of service varies widely; estimates of monthly fees range between $500 and $1,500. Club Web site suppliers estimate about 30 percent of all participating clubs elect level II service.

Level III. Signature Service
In this arrangement the club provides content to the Web site supplier, which in turn posts the items on the club’s Web site. The fact the supplier manages the site typically results in more advanced Web site designs, themes and features. This approach is the most costly since the supplier is both the technical and administrative services provider and may exceed $2,000 monthly. Club Web site suppliers estimate about 20 percent of all participating clubs elect level III service.

Popular Features
Without doubt the two most highly sought club Web site features are member self-reservations and member online account review. Since both of these features contain inherent complexities associated with interfacing an independent Web application with an in-house club management system, problems may arise with respect to timing and firewall protection. Member self-reservations involves access to dining room (or other services) and require a time-certain cutoff to enable onsite management of the entity on the day of the event. The member database in both the Web-based application and the club management system database must be in synchronization for this application to work seamlessly. A problem may arise if the two databases are non-interactive.

Similar issues arise when implementing online member account review. The Web application is typically not able, and wisely so, to access account balance information in real time. To do so would place the proprietary member records in jeopardy of tampering, identity theft and/or fraud among other concerns related to unauthorized intrusion. To minimize risk, there is no interfacing to the actual accounting information via the Web site. Instead, most Web site suppliers receive a condensed (zipped) file generated by the club system containing all the relevant data through close of business yesterday. That file is then loaded into the server of the Web site host, or a separate club server, for member access. While the term online account review implies an analysis of live data, this tends to not be the case. There are many more member, management and staff interests. These are discussed in the following sections.

Member Interests
What do members expect from the club Web site? Here is a list of the dozen most member preferred functions based on member surveys and Web site supplier interviews:

  1. Online account review
  2. Dining room reservations
  3. Recreational activities reservations
  4. Electronic statement settlement
  5. Online member directory
  6. Online event/activities calendar
  7. Electronic newsletter
  8. Function room scheduling
  9. Pictures, photo albums, member news
  10. Reciprocity club access
  11. Current calendar of events/activities
  12. E-mail by interest area/buddy list

Key Focus: Keep Web site active and alive.

Management Interests
What do club managers want on the club’s Web site? Here is a list of the top most manager-preferred functions based on surveys and Web site supplier interviews:

  1. Event marketing/promotions
  2. Newsletter/calendar content
  3. E-mail distribution capability
  4. New member recruitment
  5. Member account review
  6. Club photo gallery
  7. Member surveys/voting
  8. Club policies/bylaws
  9. Employment opportunities
  10. Staffing news
  11. Menus (a la carte, banquets)
  12. Dining room reservations

Key Focus: Ease in editing text and graphics.

Staff Interests
What do club staff members want to find at the club’s Web site? Here is a list of the five most staff-preferred functions based on surveys and Web site supplier interviews:

  1. Work shift schedule
  2. Online forms/documents
  3. Employee handbook
  4. Employee newsletter
  5. Benefits and awards

Key Focus: Keeping staff involved and informed.

Club Web sites typically do not include a separate area for employees-only access. Similar to the password protection afforded members; staffers can be assigned unique access to select information based on authorization coding. An employees-only section can host labor schedules, employment policies, training materials, human resources materials, contact information, staff directory and other items. Clubs should also consider adding a Web site search engine to facilitate more efficient site navigation and indexing.

Club Tax Status Concerns
While the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has yet to publish a list of acceptable Web site content for exempt entities (i.e., tax exempt private clubs), a basic guideline is to avoid information that would not be generally accepted in print. In other words, the club manager would be wise to ask, “Is this something to be posted in the local newspaper?” If the answer is no, then the item should not be placed on the club’s Web site. Also, be careful not to model the club’s Web site after a commercial business intent on selling real estate, logo merchandise, food and beverage items, banquet facilities, and/or golf or tennis lessons. This may bring unwanted governmental attention.

In his Club Tax Book, Mitchell Stump, CPA, reviews a multitude of related issues. As a result, the following items are considered compliant with 501(c3) or 501(c7) exempt club status:

  • Promoting quality features of the club, its facility and staff.
  • Emphasizing unique features of the club (e.g. signature golf course holes, health spa amenities, swimming facilities, architectural facades, etc.)
  • Discussion of relevant history, mission and community.
  • Establishment of a communication link between the club and its members.
  • Partitioning a secured portion of the site (i.e., members-only access) for protecting proprietary information (reports, roster and related items).
  • Providing useful and relevant hyperlinks to other Web sites.
  • Posting financial information such as the club’s annual 990 tax return and the exempt status application.

The following items may be inconsistent with the provisions of 501(c3) or 501 (c7) and therefore should be carefully considered prior to Web site inclusion:

  • Advertising commercial products or services should be avoided (e.g., monogrammed merchandise, instructional lessons, etc.). Income from nonmembers must be classified as nonmember income and may threaten the club’s private status exemption.
  • Promoting nontraditional activities such as catering to private residences, selling holiday turkeys and hams, baked goods or wines for carryout may also prove problematic.
  • Member solicitation in an uncommon manner normally adhered to throughout the club industry. 
  • Promotion of reciprocal arrangements involving nonmember activities is likely to raise issues of the club’s relationship to the public.
  • Disclosing information about a member (or his/her activities) that may be an invasion of privacy.

Consistent with these observations, clubs may be wise to select a Web address ending in dot-org not dot-com. (Although, a majority of clubs I sampled appear to have disregarded this suggestion.) In any case, as Stump advises, it is smart to seek the advice of the club’s legal representative and tax adviser if there is doubt.

Weblog Stats
Web site hosting services tend to track an array of statistics relative to who, what, when and why visitors come to a Web site. While the volume of statistical reports generally available is impressive, most club managers admit the main statistic of interest is the percent of members logging onto the site (estimated at 60 percent to 70 percent), time of visit, and activity conducted.

Web site statistics, commonly referred to as Weblog stats, tend to include detailed reports in at least five critical areas: general statistics (hits, pages and visitors), activity statistics (hits, pages, visitors, day, time, duration), access statistics (pages, visitors, downloaded files), visitor analysis (domain, geographic origin), referrers (how site was found), and browsers (what visitors used). A representative Weblog reporting system will offer the following components in five, or more, general categories: general statistics (hits, page views, visitors), activity (daily, hourly, monthly), access statistics (most popular pages, most downloaded files, most requested images), visitor analysis (top-level domains, most active countries), and referrers and browsers (daily referring sites, most used browsers).

It is probably no surprise that the first few days of a month tend to have the highest page hits as the club is likely to have posted its current calendar of events or newsletter and initiated new event promotions. The more interesting part of the analysis involves the day of the week and the hours of the day traffic. A majority of club managers gain respect for the role of the club’s Web site when they realize a significant portion of traffic occurs when the club is not accessible by a live attendant. Two additional metrics not readily available from all weblog vendors involves e-mail tracking (distribution and response) and the ability to monitor online activities by interest area. For example, should the club issue an e-mail with an embedded direct link to the club’s Web site event registration script, it would be helpful to know the rate and success in reply.

The table below summarizes a set of 20 progressive changes identified as next-generation club Web site features (note: suppliers claim most applications are either available, in-progress or under consideration).

As interest in private club Web sites continues to increase, clubs are encouraged to investigate the feasibility of intranets (member or staff-only partitions) and extranets (business partner and purveyor area) features. Unlike public Internet portions of the site, partitioned sections are secure and capable of supporting interactive and collaborative applications. The formulation of an online members’-only or staff-only community provides the basis for enhanced services while providing the club an unparalleled competitive advantage in the area of social networking.

Michael Kasavana, PH.D., NCE, CHTP, is a NAMA professor in Hospitality Business for the School of Hospitality Business at the Michigan State University. He can be reached at kasavana@msu.edu.

©2010 Hospitality Upgrade
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SITE PARTITIONING Four distinct partitions appropriate for club Web sites

Guest partition. Public-accessible information at a guest partition typically includes such information as location, mission, directions, facility overview and contact information.

Member Partition. A password-protected, members-only section, with access to transactions, account statement, reservations, newsletter, menu items, member and staff directory.

Staff Partition. Staff access for work schedules, employment policies, contact information, training materials, staff news, special notifications.

Purveyor Partition. Area for authorized vendorscan access and that provides competitive bidding and business relations.

Web Site Service Agreement:
Kasavana Points to Ponder

  1. Club should maintain ownership of all materials and content provided to create site. Special attention should be placed on copyrighted materials, logos, and sales marks – these are club properties.
  2. Monthly service and support fees should address ongoing Web site maintenance, Web site hosting, specialty services and technical support services (24/7) including remote access and on-site support.
  3. Club should retain rights to its domain name and assign responsibility for ensuring continuous URL registration as necessary.
  4. Club should exercise caution in contracting for limited training/targeted education, as Web technology remains an evolving technological area of development.
  5. Club should negotiate that all feature enhancements and improvements occurring during the term of an SLA be provided at no additional expense to the club. 
  6. Club should negotiate a multiyear SLA with automatic renewals and include a reasonable no-fault termination clause (e.g. 60-90 days notice).
  7. Club should acknowledge that supplier maintains ownership of system design templates, features, application technology and third-party relations, but the club owns all content.
  8. Club must emphasize the need to secure the proprietary and confidential nature of sensitive and personal data contained in or displayed anywhere on the Web site.
  9. Club should stipulate that supplier may not transfer or assign Web site to another party without club’s written consent.
  10. Club needs to specify it is an independent contractor to the supplier and vice versa.

Figure One. Examples of Next Generation Club Site Features

Item     Current                                    Next Generation
1          Site map                                  Club Web site search engine
2          Online pro shop                        E-commerce (shopping cart)
3          Memory directory                       Dynamic groups/social networking
4          E-mail distribution                     Instant messaging
5          Online account review                Electronic funds settlement
6          Password protection                   Biometric authorization
7          Electronic surveys and polls        E-balloting/e-voting
8          Online newsletter                      E-mail configurable links
9          E-bulletin board postings           Online blogs and discussion groups
10        Photo Gallery                            Video library and catalog
11        Committee meetings at club      Webcasting
12        Accommodations listings            Reservation booking engine
13        E-mail marketing                      Auto-links to event registration
14        Web pages in browser               Web clippings for hand-held devices
15        Guest-login data capture            Prospect mining and marketing
16        Non-automated purchasing         Extranet procurement
17        Non-automated gift certificates    Online e-gift certificates
18        Links to service sites                  Site-based concierge services
19        Static club news                         Links to live webinars
20        Listed reciprocity clubs                Linked reciprocity clubs

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