The cybercafé boom widely predicted two years ago has yet to take off. But despite the mixed fortunes of café proprietors, serious corporate money is now being spent on cafés which offer something extra with a cuppa.
easyJet is downright bullish about cybercafés, with plans to sink up to 10m into up to 20 easyCafés throughout the UK in the next year or two. easyJet’s logic is that the cafés will be “pretty much along the Virgin lines of expanding your brand to include other services”, says spokesman James Rothnie.
“Most cybercafés are set up individually by users who do it for fun and to earn a bit of money. We can apply a whole business infrastructure and set up a direct-sell operation from scratch.
“So we’re providing branding and marketing expertise to an industry dominated by enthusiasts.
“It’s an advantage that we can sell plane seats in easyCafés, but you don’t set up prime retail sites just to do that,” adds Rothnie. “easyCafés will be its own kind of business. We’ll be providing news, information and shopping, with complete technical back-up. Customers can buy daffodil bulbs for next spring, send e-mails, or check train timetables.”
Blockbuster Video has also experimented with its Internet Bars in three branches. Marketing manager Piers Skinner says: “It’s very definitely a brand extension. Internet cafés will never replace video rental as our primary business, but they are a very useful addition.”
Blockbuster and other aspiring Web marketers are holding their breath while Sky launches its digital TV service and wondering whether consumers will soon surf the Net through their TV sets. “This would kill the whole Internet-through-your-PC thing,” speculates Skinner. “It’s slower than using a PC with a modem, but everybody’s got a TV.”
Blockbuster has no current plans to extend its cybercafés. “If more consumers overcome their fear of built-in obsolescence and buy PCs, we probably wouldn’t go into the Internet café business, because everybody will have access from home,” says Skinner. “If digital TV is successful, however, that would suit us. Consumers are using the right piece of gear, as far as Blockbuster is concerned.”
Ironically, the UK’s first name in cybercafés, Cyberia, has been changing tack since its pioneering days in 1994. Corporate services manager Richard Leader explains: “Outlets which were set up as Internet cafés, as opposed to brand extensions, are using the Cyberia name to provide Internet training and consultancy. We now offer corporate clients a one-stop solution to the Internet.”
Thus a breakfast workshop for a dozen Scottish Office employees in the Edinburgh Cyberia café could use training materials licensed as part of the franchise agreement. “Having the café as a shopfront gives you a space on the high street and helps you compete with other Internet companies with big marketing budgets,” says Leader.
Elsewhere, Café Internet, with outlets at Gatwick, Victoria and Waterstone’s bookshop in Glasgow (Britain’s biggest), hopes to open ten more sites in the next few months to service its “massively transient” customer base.