Appointment Scheduling

Appointment Scheduling is a pervasive requirement for  a wide range of service businesses.Think of rentals of equipment, rooms, expertise. Or scheduling events, classes, and training. Or booking flights and other modes of transportation.   Or the range of personal care appointments made by doctors, dentists, chiropractors, yoga instructors, physiotherapists, hair stylists, beauty spas, etc, etc. The pivotal role of the Service Economy is described by Wikipedia:
In the United States 70 percent of the workforce works in the service sector; in Japan, 60 percent, and in Taiwan, 50 percent. These are not necessarily busboys and live-in maids. Many of them are in professional categories. They are  often earning as much as or more than  manufacturing workers…”
So it should not come as a surprise that there are easily two dozen WordPress plugins for booking appointments. These plugins provide incremental capabilities in calendaring features. so some simple free plugin Booking Calendars will meet basic needs. Let us follow the progression of Appointment Booking Features.

Simple One Resource, Full Day Bookings

Booking Calendar provides a free plugin that allows users to book a single resource  on a daily basis for any page, post or widget using a simple shortcode:

Below the calendar is a user customized form that collects the client info, has Captcha protection, and sends a Thank you note to the clients email address noting that the requested rental awaits approval. This is done at an Admin Dashboard :

Then at the Admin dashboard, the booking can be approved, delayed, or rejected with an appropriate message sent to the client.

Booking Calendar has extensions to this basic Booking features that add a wide range of options for $60 to $675US. These include multiple calendars for different resources, multiple admin dashboard, basic multi-timeslots for any day, PayPal and Stripe payments, extensive form field and email customizations, Google Calendar interface, Import/export capabilities, coupon discounts and seasonal pricing, more advanced UI features to client calendars and forms. But as we shall see below many of these features are available from other free plugins.

Multiple Service Calendars, Multiple Time Slots/Day

The next free plugin, Simply Schedule Appointments, adds multiple calendars for different services and each day can have user customized time slots for each service. This is a notable step up in free appointment scheduling:

Simply Schedule Appointments makes layout of the calendar easy but also allowsbroad control ofthe calendar including scheduling options, client information [8 fields each can be required or not used], email notification settings and color coding for each calendar. And the UI both in creation and use of the calendars is smooth.

On the downside, the Admin dashboard is not robust enough. Yes it has a toggle format that reveals more data about each booking :

but thre is no way to filter the appointment by type or sort the appointments by name or date. So the admin dashboard may be too simple.

However, there are plans for Pro Features for the plugin which include Paypal/Stripe payments use of multiple services on a calendar,plus improvement to notifications.But it is notable there appear to be no plans to improve the Admin Dashboard.  

Multiple Locations, Services, Workers - Calendars & Notifications

Many appointment apps have a simplified world – one location, full day bookings, just a solid monthly booking form to present to  clients. But then booking reality starts to bite. Well, we have new locations for our clinic and specialty therapists who charge more for their services. And the days of a week they are available is differs by worker and even location. One free plugin, Easy Appointments, tackles the locations, services, and workers with different day and time availability  tackles this complication with a refreshingly adept UI to setiup its Appointments:
Once the Booking table is setup Easy Appointments has a fairly elegant input form shortcode [which is also style and content customizable] for clients to enter their appointment choices:But here the wicket becomes sticky. Easy Appointment does not allow for payments, notifications, syncing with Google Calendars of clients and workers, or Woo Commerce and other integrations. But Easy Appointments has provided documentation for how to make these interfaces. More critical is the fact that like other appointment plugins, Easy Appointments has a frail Admin dashboard to view and control appointments centrally. In fact this is the position taken by StartBooking. Like Easy Appointments, Start Booking has a free plugin that does a good job of handling multi-location, service, and workers input forms/calendars. But the Admin Dashboard is too simple. StartBooking’s solution is for you to subscribe to their more robust SaaS Appointments Dashboard starting at $96/year. So this raises the question of what features should be in your Appointment Scheduler.

Appointment Scheduling Features and Guidelines

This review has provided 4 free plugins that slowly increase the number of available features and can meet some Appointment Scheduling tasks fairly well. And so if you have a website that has daily equipment or room rental requirements, no online payment needs and  can do well with simple notifications – then just choose from among the previous free plugins that most closely matches your needs.  But there is a caution – your needs may change over time.

That is exactly what happened with a Spa website. The original business grew in a matter of a year with more customers, some new staff providing specialty treatments and then a second location. The original Spa plugin just could not accommodate these new appointment scheduling demands. Fortunately we were able to identify  a new plugin which a)could well meet the immediate expanded needs and b) whose feature sets and planned directions appears well suited to meet the clients future needs.

So let us look at a profile of Appointment Scheduling plugin capabilities:

  • Hire characteristics
    1. person/space/equipment
    2. special skills/attributes/capabilities
    3. location or delivery requirements
    4. duration: full days, part days, or on reserve /call
  • Hiring Clients
    1. First-time customers: training, payment & damage risk
    2. Single client has total cost responsibility
    3. Group use and associated pricing
  • Pricing Strategies
    1. Basic Price
    2. Seasonal pricing
    3. Coupons and discount rewards
    4. Amenities Prices
  • Payments
    1. Advanced pay with discount on booking
    2. Pay before leaving location
    3. PayPal and Stripe Payments
    4. Other Payment services including bulk prepay
  • Calendering
    1. Client Input form Calendar
    2. Client Google Calendar insertion
    3. Admin Dashboard Calendar insertion
    4. Responsible Employee Calendar insertion
    5. Other Calendar services
    6. Calendar Mobile Responsive designs
  • Notifications
    1. Immediate online
    2. eMail follow-up when approved centrally
    3. Day before appointment reminder
    4. On reschedule, eMail central confirmation and calendar update to client and employee
    5. On reschedule and cancellation – reminder of limits/and charges
  • Special Services
    1. Client can cancel/reschedule booking
    2. Location with appointment shown on Google Map
    3. Admin Dashboard Calendar master schedule
    4. Employee Calendar updates for booking, rescheduling, or cancellation
    5. Other Calendar services
    6. Calendar Mobile Responsive designs

This is a broad range of Booking/Appointment use cases and needs. However, there are many specialty requirements which has resulted in the emergence of very specialized appointment schedulers  some of which we have listed below. 

Top of the line Appointment Scheduling Plugins

In our review we have found several free Appointment plugins that have offered some of our guideline features, but inevitably they have resorted to  extensions or 3rd party add-ons to fill in major scheduling gaps. In contrast, there is a new wave of tools that take advantage of AJAX UI methods  to cleverly automate choosing a service plus booking date and time for an appointment. Thus, the top Appointment  Schedulers are  two premium plugins that deliver a good portion of our guideline features. Here they are in alphabetical order.

Amelia Appointment Scheduling

Amelia is a premium plugin [$59US per site with unlimited updates] that delivers an easy to use front end  for booking  and  has a superior set of backend  layout setup  screens for creating the input booking forms and associated notifications, calendering and payments. In addition, Amelia has an Administration Dashboard that allows convenient central management of the overall Appointment schedules.

The frontend for clients shows flexibility in handling multiple locations – employees – services bookings. There are three methods for client entry of a booking:  The first is a Search screen for finding a specific service on a given date::Designers have custom control on colours and layout of this form which is particularly useful with websites with many services and specialists.

The second booking form  form ia a general Service Catalog which starts with a list of service and specialist:

This example shows a Beauty Salon but the form works well for a Dental Clinic or Consulting group – see here for some live demo examples.

The third client input is multi-step Booking Input Wizard which takes the customer through a series of 3 steps to make an appointment:


This is similar to the Bookly Input Wizard but shorter by 2 steps. Also Amelia allows for customization of all its Booking Input Forms with color, font type,  label changes along with added Custom Field Types. Finally the Input Form shortcodes used  by Amelia can be part of PageBuilder layout with background image, border, and other dramatic  stylings.

Amelia Backend Features

As a developer, I pay more attention to the backend features for 3 reasons. First, It is the backend that sets up the look and layout of the Booking Input Forms. It is important that these be as easy as possible to create and edit so that the client staff will be able to takeover and enhance the Client Booking Input Forms. Simply put,  customers expect  basic conveniences while making their Bookings. So the backend setup and operations of the appointment have to make it so.  Here is how Amelia’s routines and tables for  Services, Appointments, Notifications, Calendars setup those features.


Here is the setup of Services by category, label, image, duration of treatment and price. But there are many more optional settings including Buffer-time Before, Buffer-time After, Minimum no.served, Maximum no.served, Group attendees if Maximum Number-served is greater than 1. Employees Assigned is a required value; but Extras, their duration and costs are optional. Finally, once filled in the a Service can be edited by an admin or designated users, The edit command affords complete access to the Service setting A service can be copied and deleted but only by an administrator.

This is an example of the Appointment’s table:

and all the information that is available to administrators monitoring the daily appointments [ monthly, weekly and timetable views of this data are also available].. There are added ways to filter and sort data in the table

Also, linking in the Calendar, Notifications, and Payments  on a Booking  is critical to the success of an Appointments system.

This Notifications table  is typical of what Amelia has available for all aspects of Appointment Scheduling such as settings for Calendars, Employees, Locations,   and Finances/Payments.

The crucial admin feature is the Program Dashboard which summarizes for the Client all of the key trends in the shop. This is particularly valuable for multi-service, multi-employee, multi-location shops – let us see how the Amelia Dashboard is done.

There a variety of financial reports but my favorite is the trends in appointments as seen here:This report gives a clear idea when and how business is trending either by employee, service or location.
Then there is a group of  useful operational reports:
Again this is the strength of Amelia – showing relevant data about the Appoitments in many different ways – helpful organization andbreakouts.So lets look at how meets the Appointment Scheduling Guidelines.

Amelia meets all 4 of the Hire Characteristics – it could be used for hiring a person, a space or equipment with any duration. The one concern is delivery conideration but that might be picked up by Amelia’s Extras.
Amelia meets 2 1/2 of the Hiring Clients requirement. Amelia handles Single and Group clients well but does not directly address the first timers training or warranty issues directly.. Again, Extras are available for warranty and Custom Fields to alert employees of special requirements. As for Pricing Strategies, Amelia gives owners full capabilities in all 4 areas.
Amelia’s provision for Payments covers PayPal and Stripe but no other payment gateway. There is also provision for coupons, discounts,  partial payments and prepay but not in bulk.
Amelia’s Calendaring setup is robust . Through Google, Calendars listings are available for  Clients and Employee. At the same time  Backend Administrators. have a variety views by Month, week, day, and time table for appointments. And theis a calendar breakout by location or service. However, Amelia does not address mobile responsiveness directly and may be dependent on the PageBuilder used and/or PWA/AMP implementations. Also syncing with other calendar clients requires backend coding.
Amelia is also strong on
Notification capabilities supporting both eMail and SMS confirmation , change in status and day-before reminders  Reschedules are posted to the Employees calendar. Finally, Amelia does provide a number of Special Services including Client can cancel/reschedule booking, location info shown on Google Map, Admin Dashboard Calendar master schedule, Employee Calendar updates for booking, rescheduling, or cancellation. But Amelia does not have  a library of extra cost extensions or add-ons. Instead, if you buy Amelia from CodeCanyon for $59US, for one website you will get all the plugin’s future updates. In sum, it is hard to go wrong with Amelia for Appointment Scheduling.

Bookly Pro Appointment Scheduling

Bookly has been one of the more popular free Appointment Scheduling plugins on WordPress with over 20,000 active users. And if you look at the Booking Input Wizard one can see why:
Booking input by a client is a 4 step process using pulldowns for selecting the Category, Service, Employee then click next for choosing time from a popup calendar followed next by the details of the booking and closing with an optional payment [clients can defer to onsite payment after treatment].  A bit intimidating at first, but users catch on quickly.

Setup Screens

Service Setup is also easy to do as seen in ththis screenshot:

Services can be grouped into categories and then the service entry in a category can be given a rate per time period plus other details. This is a smooth and fast interface.

Notifications is another simple setup with editing opportunities:
Administrators not only can selectively enable the Email Notifications but also edit them to have a distinctive look and feel.

Staff  Settings – An Unwelcome Shortcoming

We got an unpleasant surprise when we went to enter .staff/employee settings:
The free Bookly plugin only allows one employee to be registered. Also no Locations are allowed in the free version. This effectively cripples the free Bookly plugin to being a demo for its $89US Bookly Pro  with the exception of one person shops. This explains why there are so many Buy Now or Upgrade buttons in the free  Bookly admin sections.

More Bookly Pro Bad News

While checking the WordPress.org Ratings for Bookly I ran across this “warning”:

Bookly Pro staff made a feature  switch 4 months ago making Custom Fields which had been a part of Bookly.Pro now an add-on costing $49US. Now the Bookly staff provide a Trumpian worded denial; but another user conforms the stealthy switch – see the details here. This is not promising.

Speaking of the Add-ons , Bookly Pro has 40 varying in price between $29 and $49US. This is an impressive list of add-ons that meet a wide variety of specialized needs. The net result that with the excption of some Location and Notification features, Bookly Pro plus Add-ons more closely meets our Appointment Scheduling Guidelines than Amelia or any other plugin.

Bookly Pro Add-ons Already Available in Amelia

We have done a review of the 40 Bookly Pro Add-ons and found that a number are already substantially available in Amelia as listed here:
Bookly Advanced Google Calendar 2-way sync – $49US
Bookly Google Map Location Address – $29US
Bookly Customer Information – $29US
Bookly Group Booking -$39US
Bookly Stripe Payments –  $29US
Bookly Custom Fields – $49US
Bookly Coupons – $29US
Bookly Staff Cabinet – $29US
Bookly Paypal Payments – $29US
Bookly Recurring Appointments – $39US
Bookly Service Schedule – $29US
Bookly Special Days – $39US
Bookly Multiple Appointments – $29US
Bookly Locations -$39US
This adds $311 to the price of Booky Pro for a total of $400US matched against  Amelia at $59US
So you can see which Appointment Scheduling plugin I have bought for my customers.

Summary

If you have followed through this complete review it becomes apparent that Appointment Scheduling can easily become quite complex.

So here is the current bottom line.

Bookly Pro has been the leader in WordPress Appointment Scheduling Plugins. It currently has the most features of all the appointment plugins but also has the highest price tag with fees exceeding $400US easily reached getting all the Bookly Pro add-ons to meet your appointment scheduling needs. Amelia currently meets the core of  appointment scheduling requirements for $59US for 1 website but unlimited updates.  For many users this is the bargain appointment plugin.

But Appointment Scheduling is  truly an arcane art. So for users in the highly competitive and specialized Room Rental or Class/Events markets, check out the free Specialized Appointment plugins just below.

 

Specialized Appointment Scheduling Free Plugins

MotoPress Hotel Booking Plugin is a free plugin with superb set of features for creating Hotel and Special Suite bookings:
The plugin has a free interface to either Divi or Elementor PageBuilders with such features as Online Search availability form, Special Suite calendars, Booking Admin dashboard, Seasonal Pricing, plus a Variety of Pricing options. This is a robust set of features for a free travel booking plugin. And Moto Press has advanced add-ons which can cater to a range of special requirements.

Modern Events Calendar Lite is like MP Hotel Booking plugin, its free lite version is packed with features. for Events Scheduling.

Again this a booking plugin that has a number of specialized requirements. For example, events can be part-day, full day, multi-day or even broken into sessions of varying duration and participation. Likewise, the pricing model can vary with type of attendee, group pricing, and participants affiliation. The result of these many variations need widely varying forms, calendars, and even administrative views and reports. What  Modern Events Calendar has done is take the Elementor approach – give away  a free version that delivers a substantial portion of the requirements and then cater to the premium need for businesses that will value and pay for their top end expertise.