Why should Community spaces take bookings online?

If you're reading this page, you've probably been thinking about whether you should start taking bookings online at your community space. We believe it should be possible for any community space, centre or facility to affordably and quickly move to taking bookings online.  We know it can be daunting when you’ve been working or managing bookings at your community space in the same way for a while - and you may need to convince your team, your manager or your trust or governing body to get behind the change. 
 
 
Community centre online booking system

Community centre teams basking in the warm glow of the freedom that their online bookings tool has brought them.

We've helped hundreds of spaces move to online bookings and payments, and through this we have seen the power, freedom and increased prosperity that community centres can achieve when they start taking bookings online. By making this change, community spaces are taking a step towards...
  • Power: Increasing the accessibility & reach of their space to their local community
  • Prosperity: Making it easier for new & existing customers to find and book your space
  • Freedom: Making huge reductions in repetitive admin time and costs - meaning you and your team can be free to do what you do best - engaging and activating their community.
This guide is a resource for anyone weighing up whether they should take bookings online. It aims to arm you with information about what an online bookings platform for community centres should do, what the benefits are and also what it doesn't do. For the super skeptical, we have some good myth-busters about online bookings!  We hope this information can be used to help convince yourself or your team that it's the right thing for you and your community. 

What do we mean by an online booking system?

Let’s start off with getting on the same page about what we mean by an online booking system for community spaces.
For an online booking tool to deliver the benefits we describe below, it needs to have these basic features:
 

Online Space Descriptions & photos

This is a web page where any customer (without a login) can find all the info they need to make a decision about whether the space is right for their needs. It should ideally contain a good detailed description, high quality photos, easy to understand pricing and other charges, cancellation policy, rules about using the space and FAQs. This information should be very easy for any community centre team member to update with new information or updated photos - rather than wait for a volunteer or third party to update a complicated website that no-one remembers the password for.
Live Availability This is where customers can quickly check whether the space they want to book is available at the time and date they need. This is critical to help achieve the benefit of reducing repetitive questions. Most time spent managing bookings manually is spent in the ‘back & forth’ of the ‘when is it free’ dance. 💃
Clear Pricing

The space price needs to be online and clear and simple to understand so that a customer can judge if it fits their budget and they are not going to be surprised by additional fees. The online system should allow community spaces to have flexibility around different fee tiers and discounts, so that all payments can happen online - otherwise you may end up creating a time consuming offline exceptions process.

If you're thinking about your pricing strategy, check out our ultimate fees & charges guide.

Capture Customer Information This is where the online booking software enables the customer to enter the information you need to decide whether to accept the booking. This saves you having to spend time entering the data and means you are less likely to need to follow up and ask more questions.
Booking The online booking system needs to take an actual booking - not just an enquiry! The key difference is that a booking automatically blocks the availability of the space (if accepted) - so that you don’t have to remember to do this or enter more data. A booking system that just takes enquiries, doesn’t do this key time saving step and probably shouldn’t be called a booking system 🙂
Payment This is when a customer can make payment upfront or post pay for their bookings. Whichever is more in line with your payment policy, the important part of taking payment online is that it’s automated. This means the system should take care of GST receipts and invoices, make it easy for both you and the customer to download these at a later date. It should also deposit the funds collected in your bank account.
Cancellations This is where a customer can log in and opt to cancel (as long as it’s within your policy). The booking system should automatically refund the customer, and update the receipt, so that you don’t have to initiate or handle this transaction. The system should free up the slot and inform you and the customer that a cancellation has happened.
Messaging This where the system allows an easy way for communications about a booking or enquiry to be managed in a central inbox - so that it’s easy to find what was said and other team members can see this if they need to. 💬
Account Information A customer can manage their information like address, payment info and phone number, so that they maintain this data and you don't have to manage it.

 


What do online bookings enable for community centres?

Moving to an online bookings tool for your community space is about enabling some important transitions for you, your team and your customers. 

 

 

Automation for community centres

From Manual to Automated (with control)

When processes are manual - like managing availability in a book or invoicing customers individually, then they are not scaleable. The more bookings you take, the more time it will take to manage them, and therefore the less time facility managers or facility booking staff have to work on other things. Automated processes are scaleable. If you increase bookings, the time needed to manage them doesn’t increase significantly as the vast majority of the workload is done by technology.

From Hidden to Transparent

In a lot of community spaces, the information a customer needs is locked behind a gatekeeper. This could be because they need to call and speak to someone, or because there is not enough information online to answer their questions. Having this barrier to information either stops people enquiring (unfortunately picking up the phone is a dying art) or means both you and them have to have a conversation that was unnecessary - as they were never going to be able to book the space because the pricing or availability didn’t work. If that had been available upfront - you both would have saved time and stress. In particular, we see that lack of pricing or availability is the biggest blocker to enquiries and bookings. 
 
Take a look at the example below:
 

Which space will Donna choose?

Donna needs to book a meeting space for 20 people for a community presentation she is doing for the Parks & Recreation volunteers. She needs a projector and want's to keep costs down by bringing her own morning tea. The volunteers are coming from all over, so parking is important. 

Help Donna find and book a community space

 

Space #1: St Bertha's Community Centre

This website leads to more questions than answers...

An unhelpful space description for a community space

 

Space #2: St Luke's Community Centre

All the information is clear and upfront. Donna has enough info to make a decision and make her booking request & payment. 

A great example of a community centre online booking system

From Data Entry to Self Service

This transition is about distributing the labour required to get data into a system. Whatever bookings process you use at the moment - be it a book, Excel, Google calendar, Xero - it will involve data entry. This data entry is usually done by the person who takes the booking. However, wouldn’t it be easier for all involved if the customer entered their own data? Firstly, there will be less errors (how many times have you heard people trying and failing to spell their name over a bad line using an improvised variation of the phonetic alphabet. 'E for echo, L for….. Lima, I for…. I for… Inky?) in what ends up in the system. Secondly it’s much quicker for one customer to spend 5 minutes entering their own data than you to spend 60 minutes entering the data for 12 customers. Lastly, by getting the information direct from the customer in a written form means you have all the information you need to decide to take the booking.
 
From Creating Hurdles to Smashing Barriers
Have you ever tried to do something like open a bank account and felt like the organisation was almost enjoying making it hard for you to do business with them. (We're looking at you BNZ business banking).
Sometimes it feels like bookings processes have evolved over time to become some sort of self serving entity all of their own. The simple truth is the harder you make it for customers to book with you, the less people will book with you. If booking with your centre looks something like:
  • Filling out an enquiry form
  • Calling to check or having an email chain of 20 messages about availability
  • Being asked the same information again that was on the original form, so it can be entered in a different system
  • Having to go over in person to sign a paper contract or make a deposit payment on POS or in cash
  • Filling out a paper survey
 
Paper forms create a frustrating process for community centre users

Paper forms make everyone sad. Especially trees. 

All for a $20 booking!! The steps in the process don’t really stack up to the revenue earned. Customers are used to much quicker feedback cycles. If they want a cab, they tap in their destination and one is confirmed in seconds. If they want a room in a BNB they request and it’s accepted. The same is entirely possible for booking spaces at community centres. With a little reflection, processes can be simplified to work for the 99% of people that just need to make a straightforward room booking. By taking bookings online you can simplify the process to these flows for casual & regular bookings. 

Online booking can help simplify processes for community facilities

Online booking systems can help simplify and streamline booking processes at community centres


Myth-busting!

Having covered what online bookings are, and what they enable - let’s also talk about what they are NOT. We know some readers will have some preconceptions about what you lose with online processes. So let’s address these upfront (and hopefully put your mind at ease). 

 

 

Online booking systems can work for all types of community facilities.

Embrace online - like this lady having a party in her web browser.

 

MYTH #1: Taking bookings online means we lose control

No amount of super smart technology can replace the knowledge a facility bookings manager has about their space and their community. No community centre bookings tool will intuitively know that you can’t schedule a kids birthday party in the room next to a meditation workshop. A good online booking system still gives you the ability to accept, decline, edit and check bookings before it’s confirmed with the customer. 
 
Online booking software for community spaces means you are still in control.
 

MYTH #2 An online bookings tool will replace me or my staff

A lot of the benefits of an online system are about saving time. However, the true benefits of an online booking system and automating repetitive tasks are actually about creating time. Think what’s possible when staff time is freed up from chasing invoices and data entry. That time could be spent programming events, building more connections with community groups, creating communications. Repetitive tasks that could be automated are a value drain - no value is being created by someone doing these tasks week in week out. However value can be created for the community through having more time to plan events and activations. Therefore we don’t advocate that online bookings replace people, we think they liberate people.
 

MYTH #3 Going online will mean we lose the human connection with our community

Most people working at community spaces, do so because they love the connection with people and the daily interactions with new and regular customers. Online booking does not have to replace these conversations. It hopefully gives staff more time to spend with customers - as they're not having to write that invoice. It also changes the subject of conversations to be more meaningful. Transactional conversations don’t really build value and connection between people. A conversation about how much something costs, or the dreaded ‘have you paid your bill yet’ doesn’t strengthen human bonds - it can produce friction. If the transactional dialogue is done online, there is more space and scope for conversations about ‘what can we do to make your event successful’ or ‘ would it be great to collaborate on..’
 
 
MYTH #4 Online booking tools won't work for our older community groups
 

We know how important it is to make sure that your space is accessible to people of all age groups - but especially to older groups as you may see a large volume of bookings from this generation. There is no denying that this demographic is not always as computer savvy as their millennial counterparts (although my granddad got a facebook portal before I did!) At SpacetoCo we have successfully transitioned 100% of community users for centres where the biggest demographic is seniors. Here's what we recommend to ensure online bookings can work.

 
Online booking systems are accessible for elderly customers

A snapshot of our development team in action. 

1. The interface needs to work on all devices and scale up when browsers are zoomed into.

2. There needs to be an easy to use support desk e.g. chat or phone number. 

3. There should be a way staff can enter bookings on behalf of these users if they really need to. 


What problems does moving to online bookings solve?

By transitioning your booking process to be online, you may be solving some problems that you've stopped noticing or hadn't realised were causing you additional effort and cost. Here's a few problems that can be solved for community spaces who start taking bookings online. Solving these issues can also help unlock getting more bookings. 

You're probably missing out on enquiries

Our data shows that the more booking requests come out of hours rather than in working hours. If the main way people contact you is via phone, you may be missing these enquiries. Taking bookings online means all the requests are in one place when you start your day for you to work through and accept or decline.

Online booking software can make it easier for customers to request a booking.

You may be invisible to people looking online

Unless people search specifically for venue hire in your space (e.g. venue hire at St Bertha’s in Papatoetoe) then they will likely go to your site. That’s great - but those are customers that already know you exist. However, what about those people that search for ‘Venue hire in Papatoetoe.’ Or Venue hire in South Auckland.’ There’s an old proverb ’the best place to hide a body is on page 2 of google search listings’ and it’s as true today as it has ever been. By using an online booking tool that is also a marketplace, you’re much more likely to be found in search results by the people that DON’T know you exist - and could end up being regular users of your space.

You may sometimes accidentally double book the spaces

If booking enquiries can be taken by a couple of team members, there is a risk that someone forgets to update the calendar or the book and then someone else takes another booking and no-one realises the mistake until at 10.55am Jill shows up to set up for Tarot reading and Prashad arrives for the business association AGM. It’s such an easy glitch to happen. The booking comes in over the phone, Fred meant to write it down in the book, but then the carpet cleaning guys arrived, and it slipped his mind. If all booking enquiries get streamed through an online booking system, and it warns you about double bookings, there is a neat check that means there is zero chance of a double booking occurring. Who knows though - that Tarot/AGM combo may have been a riot…

Reduce mistakes by moving to community centre online booking softwareBookings communications from many different sources can lead to things being missed.

You may have dead times where the centre could be busier

Most centres have really popular times  and really slow times. The funny thing that across different community spaces, the dead times and busy times are pretty different. This shows there is the demand for using the space at all times! The antidote to these dead times is making your availability really easy to see online. This means it’s very visible to anyone who’s looking that you have time free. Without this information, people assume it won’t be free or don’t want to call - or can’t get through to you. This is just additional hurdles for them to book. The space may have been free all along - they just couldn’t see this information.

 

You may be worried about the risk of handling cash on the premises. And that stupid POS machine never works…

If you take payments in person, you may be worried about the risk of having cash around. It’s not a great thing to think about - but as long as you have cash, then there is the chance that it can disappear. If cash is going direct to your bank account, it can’t disappear and the accounting and handling of that money is much simpler. You may also just hate the POS machine. It never connects, it throws random error messages. You can enjoy seeing that POS terminal hibernate forever in the drawer of odd cables that never get used when you start taking payments online.

 

Online bookings at community centres are easier than POS handsets.

POS machines can find meaning in retirement as door stoppers and paperweights. 

You sometimes have invoices that never get paid

Most people are good at paying their bills. But sometimes people forget - and you have to have an awkward ‘ can you pay me’ conversation. Or sometimes people just don’t pay and they never intended to pay you. By taking payments online either upfront for casual bookings, or direct debit for post pay, we’ve had a payment collection success rate of 99.98%. That can make a big difference to your income at the end of the year if you can reduce those losses to less than 0.02%.

 


Other benefits of moving to an online booking system

Most of the benefits we've covered are for community spaces, but there are also big benefits to customers and your community as a whole.

For your customers

  • Real time, any time access to information and availability
  • Gives them the information they need to make a decision
  • Reduces admin for them or their community group 
  • Helps them get their task of booking the space sorted
  • Easy and repeatable process to book
  • Sense of security through having paid upfront

For your neighbourhood

If you increase bookings at your community space, this can create a nice virtuous cycle of economic development opportunities for your neighbourhood and surrounding local businesses. For example: Penny decides to host a weekly support group for families supporting a child with ADHD. A few of the mum's stop by the local cafe on the way to grab a coffee and cake. Sarah, hasn't been to this area before and notices an afterschool music centre nearby that would be perfect for her son to meet other kids and practice the guitar. Nick realises he's got to grab a present for his son's friends birthday party later that day. He stops at the independent bookstore next to the centre and picks up a gift....

Community centre's who take bookings online help their neighbouring businessesIncreasing bookings at your community space can unlock economic opportunities for other businesses and organisations in your neighbourhood

Learn more about SpacetoCo

How we help community spaces take bookings online

We hope this has given you lots of information and ideas to convince you that it's worth making the shift to enabling online bookings for your community facilities. 

SpacetoCo is an innovative online marketplace and bookings tool for community spaces. Our three mission statements are:

Connect communities through space sharing

Connected Communities

Through making it easier for people to find and book space, more people will do, create and share, leading to stronger, more diverse society.

Create sustainable neighbourhoods through space sharing

Sustainable Neighbourhoods

Through making better use of spaces we already have in our suburbs and towns we can increase utilisation of community, public and private assets.

Increase economic development opportunities for local businesses

Economic Development

Through increasing footfall to local community spaces, we can create demand for neighbourhood businesses.  When local economies thrive, communities come to life

We work with 100's of spaces across New Zealand and Australia to help them

  • Increase bookings
  • Diversify bookings 
  • Improve the visibility of the space
  • Make it easier for customers to find and book them
  • Reduce the admin and time spent managing bookings and payments
  • Get accurate and easy to access bookings data to report impact and see new opportunities

If you'd like to learn more...

Here's some free resources to help you understand more about the benefits of taking bookings online and how we can help:
How to increase bookings at your community space

How to increase bookings at your community space

18 (Free or cheap) ideas to increase bookings at your centre. 

Get the guide

312 hub created sustainable income by taking bookings at their community space

Host Story: 312 Hub, Auckland

How we helped this community arts hub create sustainable income from their space.

Learn more here

St Luke's Remuera Community Space Hire

Case Study: St Luke's, Auckland

Going for growth in service of their community - how we helped diversity bookings and reduce payments admin

Learn more here

City of Vincent works with SpacetoCo

Case Study: City of Vincent, WA

Read how we helped City of Vincent increase bookings by 29%

Read the case study

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