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Arlington parks dept. proposes changes after summer camp registration failure

Arlington Dept. of Parks and Recreation Director Jane Rudolph speaks to the Arlington County Board on Tuesday, Nov. 15 (via Arlington County)

Nine months after the summer camp registration process completely broke down yet again, the Arlington County parks department says it has identified ways to improve the process for summer 2023 and beyond.

Every year, parents get their clicking fingers ready to register at a given time — 7 a.m. for summer camps — and every year, error messages and spinning wheels thwart their ability to snag an enviable spot for their kids. In February, the Arlington Dept. of Parks and Recreation department promised new changes would ensure this didn’t happen again.

But it did. On Feb. 23, DPR says registration volumes caused a “system-wide failure” while parents reported long wait times for the call center. Frustrated moms and dads wrote to ARLnow, tweeted and brought their complaints to the Arlington County Board, which penned a lengthy statement about expectations for reforming the process — only for the platform to fizzle and call center to get overwhelmed three weeks later for spring class registration.

Over the last seven months, DPR reviewed what happened.

“Our registration system could not handle peak volume,” Director Jane Rudolph told the County Board on Tuesday. “We really don’t have a ton of staff who are skilled at that technology piece of knowing how to use the system, so we have a lack of redundancy on our side. We didn’t have a great crisis communications plan.”

It asked staff and two focus groups — the general public and specifically, families who report receiving registration fee reductions — about changes they would like to see. Mostly, people said “fix the system,” but some suggested different registration times and dates and requested improvements to registering multiple children.

Ahead of 2023 registration, DPR says technology provider Vermont Systems will modernize its platform, last updated in 2015, and introduce a virtual “waiting room” function to manage volumes. The parks department will allow families with documented hardships to register a week early and expand its call center from 50 lines to 100.

The “waiting room” functionality was first rolled out for fall class registration and seemingly solved the issue of the system crashing completely, though some parents still reported problems, including errors, slow load times and classes that seemingly filled up within a minute.

“We wanted to create a less stressful registration process, so that parents and caregivers can go into the summer being confident their kids will have a great experience at Arlington camps,” she said.

Other recommendations include:

  • beginning registration at noon on a weekday, rather than at 7 a.m.
  • splitting up registration for DPR-led and contracted-out camps
  • enforcing a stricter refund policy to discourage last-minute dropping out
  • increasing capacity at popular camps to upwards of 100 slots
  • adding more full-day, year-round offerings
  • reducing camps with low-enrollment, low-capacity or which run half-day
  • implementing a crisis communications plan

Board members welcomed the work, particularly the effort to improve access for underserved families.

“We had a lot of conversations along the lines of, ‘If this is hard for me, it’s gotta be so much harder for others in our community,'” County Board Chair Katie Cristol said. “Having [families receiving fee reductions] go first, so we can meet them where they are and overcome barriers, is really important and one of the elements that I’m most encouraged by.”

But they also encouraged Rudolph to move registration to weekend mornings, the preferred time for the two focus groups that DPR consulted.

Rudolph said that won’t be an option for this coming summer “from a staffing perspective,” a response that was greeted by pushback from Board members.

“Pulling yourself away at noon is easier for some professionals than for others. Even for those for whom it’s easy, it’s a really interesting time a day to make sure you’re unencumbered from work to go through a registration process,” Board Vice-Chair Christian Dorsey said. “If they’ve told us weekends are better, and the reason it’s not feasible is it’s not entirely convenient for us, I would just challenge us to meet them where they are.”

Board Member Takis Karantonis was not entirely convinced the changes would smooth the process.

“I see that you’re trying to distribute the load and manage the peaks,” he said. “I still have my reservations on this, in addition to the ones Mr. Dorsey has expressed, but I do think there is a serious effort to improve here and I appreciate that.”

In talking with other providers, Rudolph asserted that these problems are typical.

“No one really came forward with a volume control solution that was any different than we’re hearing from Vermont Systems,” Rudolph said. “There’s no silver bullet technology solution out there that we’ve been missing.”

Even ticketing giant Ticketmaster can mess up, she said, referencing this week’s meltdown caused by eager Taylor Swift fans snapping up tickets for her upcoming tour.

“The only ticket hotter than tumbling for tots in Arlington is Taylor Swift’s Midnights Tour,” Cristol quipped.

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