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EQUITABLE ALLOCATION OF COURT TIME AS A STRATEGY

By Bryan Baker

Bryan Baker is a 4.0 tennis player who played on a D III tennis team. Bryan had a career in technology from 1974-2015. After retirement, he focused on technical consulting and specialized in software and reservations systems and processes. 

He graduated with BA (1970) and MA (1974) in International Studies. US Army from 1970-1972

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During the latter half of my professional career, I specialized in processes that matched ephemeral inventory with user demand.  Ephemeral inventory is things like hotel rooms, airplane seats, sports tickets, tennis courts, and swim lanes that are in effect “sold” for a duration of time, and if not “sold”, the value of those spots is lost forever. 

There are distinct differences between sports clubs and businesses such as airlines and hotels even if both types deal with the same issue of optimizing the sale of ephemeral inventory.  Clubs have a large contingent of members who are steady users of the facility, more so than even the most “Frequent Flyer” user of a business.  As such, a system to assure members a vaguely measurable threshold of access to the facility is crucial to member retention and satisfaction. 

Hence, clubs often impose limitations on total membership as an approach to limit the number of times a member cannot get a court time.  The intent is to manage demand for court time by limiting the number of members who would demand time.  The effect is often an imbalance between usage of the facilities and financial growth of the club.  Non-prime time slots go unused and growth in revenue from increased membership is inhibited – mostly because the methods to allocate court times are dictated by limiting the number of members instead of processes to equitably allocate the timeslots to the membership as a whole.

Some clubs charge members for court time using variable hourly rates as a method to shift usage from prime time to off-hour time.  Many baseball teams do this to incent fans to attend the less desirable games.  This can be effective but is not applicable to the clubs that do not charge usage fees to members.  Nor is it an accurate comparison since members of a club are more like season ticket holders than the casual game-by-game fan.

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The two most prominent methods other than variable hourly rates are usage systems based on first-come-first-serve reservations or a show up and hope for an open court.  Since my focus has been on developing processes for equitable allocation of ephemeral inventory, first-come-first-serve has always seemed preferable to a free-for-all but it is not optimal for member satisfaction or club growth.  First-come-first-serve reservations systems reward the early birds who have the time, energy, and knowledge to jump in first to get available timeslots when they are released.  While such an approach can seem to club management that it satisfies the membership, a large, and likely the largest, segment of members is underserved and stuck with whatever is left over – meaning they are only slightly better off than a free-for-all.  Granted, if the club limits its growth by limiting the number of members, the number of underserved members is reduced, but at a cost in terms of growth which can be an important consideration, especially in times when retention of existing members is a challenge.  Increasing membership fees as a strategic alternative to increasing membership can be self-defeating especially if a club is competing with other clubs for the same demographic of members.

The pandemic exacerbated the conflict between member usage and club growth although the issue became retention versus increased membership.  Reservations system for clubs went from being a nice-to-have before the pandemic to a “gotta” have during the pandemic due to restrictions on social gathering.  Many court reservations systems were adopted in a rush and were implemented in a way that members who thrived in the first-come-first-serve were the main beneficiaries.  

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But a strong message was delivered to management.  Even with the flaws in reservation allocation favoring a small segment of membership, the reservations systems combined with the restrictions on social gathering changed the expectations among members.  The free-for-all fell out of favor as members grew accustomed to being assured that when they showed up to play, they were guaranteed a time slot to play.  The social milieu waned.  Whether clubs will return to the prior time when social gatherings thrived remains to be seen.  Even flawed reservation systems have changed member expectations about the value of the club.  As members expect a reserved time slot, a change in the processes to match new member behavior and attitudes becomes more critical so that the reserved timeslots are more fairly distributed to the entire membership, not just the early bird.

How can an improved process to assure that all members are equally served be done?  It is a three-step enhancement to the online reservations system.  The first step is to separate the input of requests for time slots from the actual assignment of time slots.  Allow all the members a period of time, even up to a week, to place their preferences without committing to any of them on assignment.  The second step is the use of rules and simple artificial intelligence to score the requests based on key criteria, like previous and current assignments so that each member is given an equal opportunity to get a time slot that he or she wants.  The third step is a simple notification and confirmation process that verifies that the reservation granted is confirmed. 

A significant advantage of normalizing the assignment of court times by way of an “intelligent lottery” is that it also allows a club to re-examine its policy on expanding its cap on membership without jeopardizing the service level to the membership.  A win-win for members as users and for the club as a business.  A shift toward equitable allocation of court time is the best strategy for continued member satisfaction and club prosperity today and into the future. 

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