Inside Track by Peter Martin
Take out those earphones, and wish ‘happy birthday’ to the iPod. Today is the sixth anniversary of its market launch. A couple of weeks ago we could also have been celebrating the sixth birthday of that other indispensable gadget, the Blackberry. Those milestones just underline how fast our lives change these days, and how quickly we can become reliant on new technologies in both our social and business lives. Six years is no time at all, but iPods, music downloads, Blackberries and WiFi are all now everyday, not to say unexceptional, parts of our communication-based lifestyles. In many ways all that is old hat. Today is about Facebook and MySpace social networking, sophisticated on-line games and the Second Life virtual world. The internet has become all pervasive, but while we are all happy to buy our air flights, train journeys, cinema tickets, insurance and even our grocery deliveries on-line, how often do people use it for restaurant reservations, not to mention a night at the pub? The hospitality sector – hotels excepted – has generally been a late adopter. Compared to other markets, pubs and restaurants appear technological novices, hardly past first base. But as the Peach Network ‘Revolutionary Marketing’ seminar heard this week, there are operators making the internet work hard for them – and not just by having a pretty website, but directly getting customers through the door, with measurable bottom-line benefits. With growing concerns about an economic downturn, now is especially the time for operators to get close to their customers, understand how they act and what they want – and importantly to start communicating with them more effectively. The Internet has to be part of the solution, if not the solution. Surfing the web is no longer just the preserve of geeky teenage boys. Britons are the most active web users in Europe, 23% of households use the Net for social networking, 43% for downloading music, 30% for playing games and 27% for researching their next car purchase. The web is also becoming more feminine. In the 25-34 age group, women spend more time online than men. Then there are the ‘silver surfers’. The over 65s spend more time online than any other group. We all know the importance of these two groups to the eating and drinking-out market – older customers spend more than other groups when out, while women not only eat out more than men, but more often than not make the decision on where to go. Those that are tapping into the Internet, particularly through email marketing are gaining impressive returns. One example presented at last week’s event was the Covent Garden Restaurant Group, whose four West End restaurants attracted 56,000 online reservations last year, a little under 30% of its total reservation business. You can work out the revenue yourself. And it’s not just a restaurant thing. Novus, the London-based late night operator and owener of Tiger Tiger, uses email marketing for both its restaurant and bar business. It boasts a 760,000 strong database, which it regularly emails. It reckons around 50% of its business now comes through the Internet, and it is growing. Nightclub guest lists, private party bookings at bars, student nights and restaurant reservations are all part of the web experience. The restaurant business is also gaining its own Internet cheerleaders, such as Matthew Kirby, the founder of Mongolian Barbecue, who turned the concept into a successful chain in the USA through email campaigns and is now bringing his experiences back to the UK with Fishbowl. The problem with the Internet is that you have to keep up with the next trend. Wrapid, a take-away wrap business in Leeds and London, is actively using Facebook to create an online following for its fledgling brand. Founder Steve Minall says traditional marketing departments have to realise that it’s a brave new social marketing world out there. With the ability now to build and test-market virtual bars and restaurants in Second Life or to advertise in online games, the rules certainly are changing. Communicating with the iPod and Blackberry generation should be a given – with six years under their respective belts they are fast becoming ‘establishment’. The eating and drinking out market has some catching up to do.