An asterisk is also called a star for a reason. In most companies, telephone systems are the most vital part of the business. In this current age of electronic written communication, such as email, SMS text and FAX (yes, FAX), verbal communication remains one of the best ways to promote business and make a personal touch with a client, and the fitness industry is no exception. A simple phone call is one of the best tools for member engagement and retention. Some of the larger technology companies have been trying to convince us for years that telephones are going away. Many fitness clubs still have ancient telephone systems, and it is often difficult to expand the system, add features or find parts. High costs for a relatively small phone system can scare away operators. The advent of VOIP (voice over internet protocol) can cause further voice confusion over legacy PBX systems, pure VOIP or a hybrid system.
My career in IT began in 1995, but I first began working with telephony in 2005. As an IT director for a company specializing in growth by mergers and acquisitions, I worked for a company that would acquire companies several times per year. Management desired desk-to-desk dialing across the enterprise, including locations in India, Macedonia and China. Integrating existing systems would be impossible, and it would be impractical to learn to support all those systems. I knew nothing about phone systems at the time. I knew I couldn’t justify a new system at the cost of more than $20,000 per location. Hence the need for a reliable, robust and affordable solution.
Enter Asterisk (asterisk.org). Asterisk is an open source telephony platform originally designed by Mark Spencer in 1999. He had started his own company and could not afford to purchase a phone system – so he wrote one. He went on to found the company Digium, which manufactures telephony hardware cards, phones and complete systems. Asterisk is now used in more than 170 countries and is installed on millions of phone systems. It is a true disrupter in the telephony industry, according to a 2006 Forbes article.
Learning about phone systems was an interesting journey. It’s a wild combination of old-school telephone PBX terms and features – harkening to the days of a scruffy guy with a long beard and suspenders in the basement of a large building, bundles of tiny wires and a system generating enough heat for a hot yoga class, merged with modern VOIP, the changing of voice into network traffic packets on a network.
Asterisk was initially difficult and unintuitive to use. It was administrated based on hundreds of configuration text files, all seemingly gibberish, and if you did not know what you were doing, you could easily disable the system. But Asterisk was a great platform, so in 2004 the FreePBX project was started by a small company called Coalescent Systems and originally called AMP (Asterisk Management Portal), which delivered an easy-to-use GUI for managing Asterisk. It was a web page with easy clicking, fields to enter data and drop down choices that would generate all of the intricate text files for Asterisk on the backend, as well as store that information in a database for future administration and reporting. AMP was then changed to FreePBX (Freedom PBX) to not interfere with Asterisk’s trademarks.
Still with me? History lesson completed, I can now convince you how an open-source “free” application is the perfect answer for a phone system for your entire organization. I have installed these systems for technology companies, doctor’s offices, schools, government agencies, churches, call centers, as well as nearly every company I have worked at. The ease of use, low cost, reliability and features make it impossible to beat. And you can do it yourself. But first, you will have to learn what features you want to implement and how they work. Below is a subset of the common features most organizations desire:
- “Ring groups” so that certain calls ring multiple phones simultaneous or “hunt.”
- “Music on hold” including personalized “company infomercial” recordings.
- Setup and configure phones for users, even remotely.
- Call queues and round robin ringing for associates, such as sales staff.
- Voicemail, including voicemail to email capability.
- Forward calls to cell phones or other associates for coverage while out of the club.
- Ability for trainers to call members from their cell and have the calls look like they came from the club.
- Electronic FAX capability eliminating phone lines and FAX machines.
- Associates can use their office phone for SMS texting with clients instead of their personal cell phone.*
- Calls can ring the front desk first, then fail over to an auto attendant menu with options such as a dial by name directory, general office voicemail and choices for departments.
- Report on calls your sales staff is making to prospects as well as for engagement.
- “Blacklist” an annoying salesperson that keeps harassing you every day or that FAX machine that keeps random dialing your office.
- Ability to set up a hotline for announcements, such as program changes, and other information.
- Ability to park calls and answer from any other phone in the club
- Ability for attended, blind and transfer direct to voicemail.
- A built in website for users to handle their own passwords, listen, forward and delete voicemails, and handle their own “find me/follow me” for phone call routing.
- Built in CRM capabilities to have inbound callers automatically pop up an Outlook contact for vital information and note taking.*
- Ability to click a phone number on a website or outlook contact and auto dial the phone.*
- Ability to have overhead paging on an individual phone or group of phones.
- Ability to choose phones from more than 20 vendors, including devices to integrate with overhead pagers, existing analog systems and other devices.*
- Ability to choose from a myriad of desk phones and cordless phones, with mix and match any you choose. *
- Easily integrate a VOIP provider to get dedicated phone numbers, toll-free numbers and multiple voice trunks.*
- Ability to “save” your current phone number (porting) and integrate it into the new system
All of the above features are built into the base system for free. Features marked with a (*) may require different software or features with a nominal cost. Even if you choose to pay a consultant to install the system and train you on it, it is still a fantastic option.
So, what is the catch you ask? This system is not without some downsides. The ones I always discuss with potential clients are:
- You really need a good, stable internet connection. If your internet goes down, your phones go down as well. A network engineer can set up redundant connections, which can limit your risk. You can also choose to use traditional phone connectivity (analog, PRI, etc) with this system, but you will need to buy some additional hardware ($600+) to connect to it.
- You need to purchase a server (PC) to run the system. You can actually use an old desktop PC, but I would recommend something more reliable. I also recommend mirrored drives in a RAID 1 array. It can be virtualized, especially for testing, but I recommend sticking with a physical server since voice is sensitive to latency. You can build a Dell server with plenty of power to easily run hundreds of phones for around $1,000. I always recommend clients purchase two identical servers and have one sitting as a spare.
- If you do this yourself, be prepared to learn about phone systems, features and dial plans. Most operators want to focus on managing the club, selling memberships and engaging members. I recommend you find a consultant well versed in this system to implement it for you if you cannot dedicate the time to learn it. Your IT technician can figure it out if s/he is willing.
- It is open source and free. That means there isn’t a vendor to call. Many consultants are available, and Google will get you far, but there isn’t a company on the hook. You can pay for support from FreePBX if you use its hardware, which can offset risk. Occasionally, there are bugs, and until someone fixes it, you do not have much recourse. Luckily, if you stay with the “stable” builds of the software, you will probably never see a problem. In more than 10 years of using this software, I encountered two significant bugs, and each was easily remedied by reverting back to a prior version until it was fixed.
- It runs on Linux, a version of Unix. If you are accustomed to the ease of Windows or (gasp) a Mac, this will be intimidating. Luckily, for most things, the web page administration is all that you need, but you might have to “go under the hood,” so be prepared.
Several companies are making hardware as well as “flavors” of the software. My favorite is Sangoma. In addition to making great products, they also sponsor the FreePBX project. In the open-source world, companies “sponsor” a project, partially in an effort to help sell their products. Sangoma offers a ready-to-run appliance called PBXAct. You can purchase support right with it for a risk-free phone system purchase and install. To build your own, you can download an ISO (image) file of the FreePBX Distro. Burn that to a CD and boot your server with it. Follow the prompts and you will have a working PBX in less than an hour. Using this version, along with Sangoma’s models of phones, you get several extra features enabled for free in the system, but you are free to use any SIP capable phone you want. There are also several add-on modules for other features you can purchase for a nominal fee.
Real world scenario – design and install a VOIP Phone system for a club desiring 20 phones and having around 40 employees. To compare, this system would cost around $20,000 from a “top tier” PBX provider (Cisco, Avaya, etc).
Sangoma FreePBX Distro System
Upfront One Time Costs:
Dell Server T130 - $1000 x 2 = $2000
Sangoma S500 phones - $149 ea x 20 = $2980
HP J9773A 2530-24G-PoE+ Switch = $700
Misc Cabling as needed = $100
Tripplite 1500va UPS Battery Backup = $200
Consulting fees, optional (4 days x 8 x $100/hr) = $3200
Total cost: $9180 ($5980 self-install)
Monthly Recurring fees:
SipStation trunks unlimited calls (6 x $24.95) = $149.70
DID Direct Dial phone numbers (50 @ $1ea) = $50
Total monthly cost: $199.70
A note on the monthly recurring fees. I would recommend six trunks for a system this size. If you need more than six people on external calls at the same time (desk-to-desk internal calls don’t count), just add more trunks. Fifty DID direct dial numbers gives you flexibility for everyone to have their own number, including voicemail-only users, and a few extra for your main line, information hotline, customer service, advertising, etc. You can always add more, but it's easier to buy numbers in a row up front. This setup also replaces your regular phone company bill, unless you still need analog lines for an alarm system, elevator or gas meter. Any old numbers with another phone company can be ported over and used along with your new numbers. You may already have a network switch, but I recommend a POE (power over Ethernet) switch so that you will not need additional power for the phones at each desk, and the UPS battery backup will keep your phones running in a power outage.
Major disclaimer: Please note that 911 is special for VOIP. For any service provider you choose, in your account you should set your e911 information!
I hope that this helps convince you about the power, flexibility and cost savings of implementing your own VOIP phone system for your club. I’m happy to answer questions via email to help you on your way. As we say at Midtown, feedback is a gift, so I welcome your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Todd Thorson is CTO of TCA Holdings LLC, parent company of Midtown Athletic clubs and Midtown Health clubs. Midtown began as a single tennis club in Chicago and has grown to become a leader in the upscale tennis and fitness club industry. We are comprised of eight magnificently appointed clubs throughout the United States and Canada, combining health and wellness with community and personal attention in an environment designed to build memories as much as it does muscles. Midtown Health manages more than 23 clubs through our core capability of fitness center management, freeing health systems and corporations to focus on their core capabilities and writing success stories for many health organizations and Fortune 500 companies across the country.
Sample Dashboard Page Showing Network Traffic Information
Sample Call Usage Report by Day
Sample Call Report Detail by Person
Sangoma Phone Models and Information https://www.sangoma.com/products/phones/
PBXAct (prebuilt ready to run PBX Appliance) https://www.sangoma.com/products/pbxact/
VoipSupply (great vendor for all products) http://www.voipsupply.com/
PI Manufacturing – source for cabling and cable management products http://www.pimfg.com
FreePBX (download software, information, and support forums) https://www.freepbx.org/
FreePBX is a web-based open source GUI (graphical user interface) that controls and manages Asterisk (PBX), an open source communication server.
This content was sponsored by Club Industry's content partner Motionsoft.