Are You Machine-Ready?
Frequently overlooked, a vending machine may be essential to keeping your members happy.
By Mitch Rustad
A tennis club’s general manager (at least a successful one) intimately knows every inch of his or her facility’s real estate: the locker rooms, courts, front desk, café, lobby area, nursery, etc. These vital areas are constantly maintained and regularly upgraded under the watchful eye of the GM, with the intended result of keeping even the most finicky members happy.
But there’s one highly popular — but ironically, virtually invisible — staple of nearly every tennis club or public facility that’s so commonplace, even the most conscientious manager can tend to overlook it — the vending machine.
In 2003, these ultra handy snack and beverage dispensers brought in a whopping $42 billion in revenues in the U.S., according to Vending Times. Though a cross-section of tennis managers interviewed for this story may not view them as a crucial revenue source, most agreed that they’re ultimately as essential to a tennis club as the net posts and cash register.
“No matter how you slice it, you have to have them,” says Ajay Pant, regional manager at Indian Creek Racquet Club in Overland Park, Kan. “When members are in a hurry or don’t want to wait in line in the café or want a certain kind of soda, it’s there to serve a purpose. I’d hate to have a member go away frustrated. To not have at least one would be a disservice to the members.”
“I see them as a tool of convenience,” says Scott Hanover, general manager at the Plaza Tennis Center in Kansas City, Mo. “Especially during off-hours when the café isn’t open, they provide a necessary service.”
But that doesn’t mean all club managers are racking their brains deciding on what kinds of chips and snack bars to stock. “It’s kind of off my radar screen,” says Laurie Wilson, the general manager of the West Branch Tennis Club in Pennsylvania, a six-court facility with one vending machine fully maintained by an outside vendor. “[The outside vendor] takes care of everything, so it’s something I don’t even have to deal with.”
Buy or lease?
Though many club managers will simply inherit a facility’s vending machines, the decision to lease or buy — even before what products to stock — is the first step to consider. How hands-on you are is completely up to you, however; if you prefer, vending companies will handle virtually everything from initial delivery to repairs to refills.
Kim Mendonsa, who has dealt with a variety of vending scenarios in her role as the food and beverage director at Mid-Town Tennis Club in Chicago, likes to implement both options as she juggles her own list of daily responsibilities vs. the needs of her members.
“Traditionally, if you get a vending machine that’s an exclusive product machine [like Coca Cola], you can either purchase it outright or contract with the vendor on the premises, then you can stock it yourself or contract with the vendor and they will stock it for you,” she says. “Ultimately, I see vending machines as another club amenity.”
From there, keeping tabs on vendors is essential, whether you lease or buy; you can’t just assume the machines will be maintained and/or stocked on time, says Hanover.
“We’re outsourcing our machines now, but when it was my responsibility, I was always worrying whether the vendor would show up and fill them,” says Hanover, “because sometimes they didn’t show up on the day they were supposed to, and then you’re going to hear it from the players.”
However, it’s also essential to monitor each machine to decide if the machine is even worth maintaining. “I’ll monitor usage and assess things from there,” says Mendonsa. “If you see the products are going stale before they’re being sold, it’s time to take that machine out. I think most of this is just plain common sense, like trying to find a round hole for a round peg.”
What to Stock?
The presence of at least one vending machine may be a given, but that doesn’t mean it has to add to a manager’s daily headaches. But Pant says that taking a moment to review the contents of your clubs’ vending machines can be well worth the few minutes of effort.
“Moms and dads want healthy stuff and kids want junk,” says Pant, “so when juniors come in, we stock the healthy bars. We’re very careful not to stock it with complete junk.”
Pant’s practical approach goes well beyond caring for his members’ nutritional needs, however. “There are certain kinds of candy that can be so messy and even ruin the carpets, so the last thing I want to do is stock that kind of stuff,” says Pant. “We will often avoid chewing gum, because you can have a real mess on your hands. You have to take all that into consideration.”
Stocking your vending machines is also an ideal way to engage members, says Mendosa. “Get out and talk to people, and ask members what they want,” she says. “If you don’t have a restaurant, offer samples and taste tests. For example, a lot of beverage companies will come out and offer samples, and it helps members feel they’re participating in the decision-making process.”
Just Hanging Out?
For Pant, however, vending machines are merely a necessary evil, because they can detract from one of a successful club’s most essential elements — creating an environment that encourages members to hang around before and after matches.
“It’s not like you can hang around the vending machine with your friends after a match,” says Pant. “We’re trying to connect with our members. Our big picture goal is right after someone is done playing, to give them a reason to stay in the club, to socialize and connect.”
For larger clubs like Pant’s, the obvious solution is having a café, which can serve as a gathering point for members before and after play. But even if your club is too small to warrant a café, you can improvise and give your members a feel-good social setting.
“Get a fridge behind the front desk, and stock items which people like,” says Pant, “and when people come off the court, make up a lounge area with three chairs and a table, and you can hand people the refreshments. This way they will sit down, and stay awhile.”
A Club Staple
But in lieu of a café (makeshift or otherwise), club managers like Mike Woody, the managing director of Midland Community Tennis Center in Midland, Mich., have come to rely on vending machines to keep their players happy.
“They’re important to our members,” says Woody, who oversees the 32-court facility’s five on-site vending machines (four beverage, one snack). “If they forget breakfast or lunch, at least they [can] have something to eat. They’re not really a revenue source for us, but people would be pretty bummed if we took them out.”
Does your club need a new vending machine? For vending newbies, here are a few “getting started” tips from Kim Mendonsa, the food and beverage director at Mid-Town Tennis Club in Chicago.
- Network! Before looking in the yellow pages or typing “vending” into Google, try networking with local business owners who already utilize on-site vending. “Ask them which companies are good, and make sure to choose a company that’s regionally based,” says Mendonsa, “because you’ll need them to be serviced regularly.”
- Contact Local Distributors: Local food and beverage distributors are also a good place to start; in fact, they often will throw in a vending machine with your order, if it’s substantial enough. Restaurant supply stores also have vending machines for lease.
- Lease or Buy? This decision is easy once you consider these two factors — time and space: “Can you commit time out of your schedule for restocking?” says Mendonsa. “And if you can spare two hours a week for that, does your facility have enough storage space? If not, you’re better off leasing. Purchasing is better in the long run, if your facility is set up to handle it.”
A Different Kind of Ball Machine
Everyone’s familiar with beverage and snack vending machines, but there also are vending machines for tennis ball cans. The Court Pal can be equipped with coin/ATM/debit/credit card readers, so your members will always be able to access fresh tennis balls. Club or school logos can be placed on the front and side panels. For more information, call 269-806-8936, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit Court Pal on the web.
See all articles by Mitch Rustad
About the Author
Mitch Rustad has been a long-time freelance writer based in New York City.