The hot issue of Wi-Fi internet access in cafes and hotels is not going to go away but it is now being argued that caterers can achieve a cost-effective way of providing what customers have come to expect as a standard facility in a café, restaurant or hotel.
There has been a lot of argument in the café trade, where caterers have found provision of Wi-Fi to be a tricky puzzle.
On the one hand, it is now a required service that consumers want to sit in a coffee house or fast-food restaurant and check their emails. Some coffee-houses now see a new clientele of ‘regulars' who come in for that purpose every morning. In this, Wi-Fi has been touted as a business-builder.
However, the alternative point of view is that the service can be abused, usually by customers spending little or nothing and taking up table space for hours. Some café owners have suffered so badly from this that they have even taken their Wi-Fi facility out.
A third aspect to the puzzle is whether or not to charge the customer for the service. Several big-name café chains have done so and there has been a backlash from the rapidly-increasing number of users who now not only expect Wi-Fi access, but expect it for nothing.
Several operators have suggested that the answer is in a log-in code which should only be given to customers who actually buy something. So many coffee-house operators have experiencedf customers who come in and ask for the log-in code and then sit down to use their computers without making a purchase that one American café began creating abusive log-in code phrases of which the only repeatable word was ‘skinflint'
The new answer, says Dave Birch of Wi-Fi provider GotSpot, is an economical and virtually foolproof system of vouchers carrying individual numeric codes. A bona fide customer gets the offer of a voucher carrying a code number which can be used to log in for a period of time specified by the caterer.
One typical franchised Costa site using the system offers a generous 90 minutes and says that the customer will almost certainly return for to buy a second drink during that time.
Dave Birch believes Wi-Fi is now a modern necessity. The caterer's big decision now is not whether to offer Wi-Fi at all, but how to make it work to best advantage.
A signal dropping out in the middle of work can stir Wi-Fi users to absolute fury, and there has recently been a big row between commuters and one train company over the unreliability of Wi-Fi access while travelling. As a writer on the BizNet businessmen's forum says: 'if you're offering Wi-Fi, make sure it works!'
Curiously, there are still some sites for which a pay-for option is more suitable, but these are generally conference venues and the like. For a coffee shop, it is now generally recognised that Wi-Fi must be available, it must be free to the customer and it must pay for itself virtually instantly.
Among café-owners who have really thought about it, new ideas are beginning to come through. GotSpot has recently worked with a café owner who wanted his access voucher to be integrated with his point-of-sale software.
The result was that the customer received a receipt which included his access code, which saved paper behind the counter and doubled as an extra promotional medium.
Wi-Fi is here to stay and, says GotSpot, now is the time for caterers to take advantage of the lessons which have been learned and to use the concept as a risk-free business-builder.
By Ian Boughton