A smattering of suburban park districts has entered the world of deeply discounted online daily deals in the hope of luring more users.
But the effort to boost the bottom line also means the potential exists for taxpaying residents unaware of the limited-time offers to miss what typically are the best prices on programs and facility use, officials concede.
Jan Arnold, executive director of the Illinois Park and Recreation Association, said the listed resident fees should be a consideration for districts that pursue use of cheap online offers that can be claimed by anyone.
"They're already paying taxes to the agency," Arnold said. "I definitely think that would be one of the parameters they (park districts) would be evaluating."
Wheaton, Gurnee, River Trails and Joliet park districts are the few known to have used daily deal coupons. Chicago-based Groupon Inc. so far has been the vendor of choice for the districts.
Companies such as Groupon offer deep discounts via websites, Twitter and email. A sense of urgency typically is added by making the offer available only for a day or two in limited numbers.
Gurnee's offer in September meant anyone could score five Zumba, BodyPump or yoga drop-in classes for $15 instead of the nonresident price of $30. A resident who didn't notice the one-day Groupon offer and relied on the park district brochure price list would have paid $25 for the same five group exercise visits.
Jennifer Gilbert, marketing and public relations manager for the Gurnee park system, said about 60 percent of the 198 deals that were sold went to residents. She said the daily deal effort was fair and similar to other instances in which certain consumers wind up with a better price by using a coupon.
"It's in the test mode," Gilbert said. "We've tried one and we'll see where it goes."
Gilbert said the time-restricted online offer was a way to seek "the next generation of users" who may not see park brochures or other promotional activities.
At the Wheaton Park District, its inaugural daily deal for $85 covered two rounds of golf, riding cart and range balls at Arrowhead Golf Club -- half off the nonresident rate.
Wheaton residents with a valid park identification card who didn't catch the offer on Aug. 17 paid $114, based on the most recently listed reduced fall weekend rate.
Geri Johnson, the Wheaton park system's marketing director of special facilities, said the idea was to attract new players or get former visitors to give the revamped Arrowhead a second look. She said the course couldn't survive without revenue from nonresidents.
"We're always sensitive to the resident rate and how the residents feel," Johnson said.
Roughly 18 percent of the 398 inaugural cheap golf deals went to Wheaton residents, she said.
Under a standard agreement, Groupon keeps half of what's charged for each daily deal and takes a 2.5 percent credit-card fee from a merchant's unit price. That means the Wheaton parks system received about $40 for each $85 golf deal sold.
Officials at the four park districts said they will evaluate the daily deals in an effort to determine if the new initiative was worthwhile.
"You can't give 50 percent off every day," Joliet Park District spokesman Brad Staab said.
Meanwhile, Mount Prospect-based River Trails, Joliet and Wheaton also tried discounted offerings via Groupon that have the same list prices for residents and out-of-towners.
In July, River Trails sold 400 deals for 10 large buckets of golf balls. The 10-bucket pass went for $30 instead of the list price of $63.
River Trails spokeswoman Teresa VanOpdorp said officials would be concerned if nonresidents were able to get a coupon that beat what people within park district boundaries pay for offerings.
"Our main focus is to service our residents that pay taxes to our district," VanOpdorp said.
Wheaton in September sold a $100 savings card for $50, good at Arrowhead Golf Club. In August, Joliet offered $40 in park district bucks for $20, which can cover activities, programs and concessions.
"There was no direct pricing that would make a taxpayer upset," Staab said, "and residents could take advantage of the deal as well."