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Screen time: electronic and video games offer interactivity and excitement, keeping satisfied patrons in their seats.

Men and women have been playing games in bars since time began. But today they have new opportunities to do so electronically, and in a way that's profitable for operators.

From satellite television and digital jukeboxes to interactive football, golf, poker and bowling games, restaurants and bars can now offer patrons more diversions than ever, enticing guests to spend more time in their establishments and, most likely, spend more money on food and drink. But that's not the only bottom-line benefit. Operators can also make money by incorporating ads into their electronic entertainment.

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One must first ponder, however, why do people go to a bar to play games they could play at home?

"Why go to a bar and drink? You can drink at home, too," reasons Kate Niekrash, co-owner and general manager of Town Tavern in New York City. "It's the social atmosphere. You get involved with friendly competition." The two-floor tavern seats 115, including 40 at the downstairs bar.

"People absolutely stay longer," confirms Chris Bianco, president of JC Equipment Corp. in New York City, which rents and services electronic and video games. "If you have a jukebox, people stay longer and increase wet sales over the bar. People are attracted to locations with better equipment because there is something else to do."

Town Tavern has Golden Tee, an electronic golf game, which is "very popular--you have to have it," says Niekrash. Patrons control a roller ball to direct the virtual golf ball. "Everyone wants to play it. The guys who come in here treat it like a competitive sport, and it lasts a little longer than a car racing game. If the Golden Tee machine is down or we move it for a private party, you hear [about] it, so you know people come in for it."

Football is another hot commodity. "About 15 million people will pay to play fantasy football this year," says Jamie Jessel, senior director of commercial business for El Segundo, Calif.-based DirecTV Inc., which provides access to 225 channels of digital-quality programming to more than 150,000 commercial locations, including bars and restaurants. "Our exclusive relationship with the NFL Sunday Ticket allows people to watch every game, unless it's not sold out locally [in which case DirecTV can not broadcast the event]."

GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

Consumers also crave "predictive games that are played along with live broadcasts, like NFL football and Texas Hold 'Em, which has become one of our most popular products," says Chuck Mitchell, executive producer of Carlsbad, Calif-based NTN Buzztime, Inc., developer and distributor of Play Along TV.

The company recently launched a three-dimensional billiards game, as well as a golf game.

"We've been somewhat reinventing what we offer," he explains, "providing not only multi-player games so people can compete nationally but also games in which people can compete locally in turn-based activities like card games, poker, blackjack and billiards."

In May, NTN launched its latest multiplayer interactive television (iTV) game--Buzztime Billiards--to Buzztime iTV2 Network locations. As many as seven players in each location can grab a virtual pool cue to compete in Buzztime's iTV version of the popular game "Cutthroat" and vie to be the last pool shark standing. Players have the option of viewing their next shot from any of three angles: behind their cue stick, from a standing position or a birds-eye view.

Buzztime Billiards is similar to NTN's popular Texas Hold'em game in that players take turns, leaving them more time to socialize.

Such games can create a community beyond the particular establishment where gamers gather to play. In March, NTN Buzztime debuted a website where registered Buzztime Network players establish personal player profiles, access detailed game play information and statistics, scores and competitions in a variety of games including Trivia, Texas Hold'em, QB1 Predict the Play Football and Race Day, and view player rankings and handicaps on network-wide, location specific and personal player bases.

Some games are designed to drive repeat traffic into the restaurant or bar. Unlike most fantasy sports contests in which participants draft a team for an entire season, MJM rosters are only valid for one week, causing customers to return each week, explains Marc Malone, CEO of Seattle-based MJM Media. The company also sells advertising on its plasma screens, and helps retailers build an email database. A new feature will automatically send a coupon to a consumer who hasn't returned to the establishment in 14 days.

P.J. Bugni, owner of 180-seat The Palace Cafe in Ellensburg, Wash., offers a video game called Buck Hunter, which simulates rifle hunting. "There is a good following on that particular game right now," says Bugni.

The MJM Fantasy Sports product is also proving popular, especially since The Palace Cafe has a local exclusive on the game. "I definitely picked up a good following when I purchased that." Bugni saw Fantasy Sport as a way to drive more traffic to his operation and insure loyalty among customers in the small town--population 15,000--that is home to Central Washington University. "Their product is the first I've seen that lets you integrate sports into public play," he says. "There are probably 10 people I know of who used to go to a different bar, but hang out here now that I have the game."

An added benefit for Bugni is that the game collects email addresses, furnishing him with a ready-made database for marketing purposes.

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AD-ING REVENUE

In the age of the iPod, putting music at the guests' fingertips can give an establishment an edge. Personal media delivery is the calling card of eCast Network in San Francisco, which enables streaming digital music and video in social venues across the U.S. Its broadband network and interactive touch screens allow bar and restaurant patrons to select from a library of more than 200,000 songs. The operator receives a cut of the song purchase price.

"We satisfy the consumer demand for digital personal media," says Micah Berek, brand manager for eCast. "We're kind of like a pay iPod."

With upwards of 7,500 stores, restaurants and bars nationwide subscribing, its interactive displays reach a targeted demographic of over 42 million consumers per month. The screens are "very coveted locations for advertisers," says Berek. Bar owners share in the proceeds of digital ad space sold by eCast.

Attracting additional revenue with little effort certainly appeals to restaurateurs and bar managers. Advertisers, too, are chomping at the bit; marketers of Stolichnaya Vodka, Southern Comfort and Heineken have availed themselves of the medium in select markets.

The jukebox "brings in people, especially during the off hours," says Niekrash of Town Tavern, which also has eCast. "If it brings in five people a day, which is does, and they spend $10 each, times 365 days a year, that's $18,250 a year just from that. That's a lot of money."

Niekrash and her partners are considering adding electronic trivia games later this year. Like a lot of operators, they know that electronic and video games entertain guests longer--and better--and ultimately more profitably.

RELATED ARTICLE: IN THE CELL ZONE

Nothing is more annoying than answering a cell phone call and being unable to hear the caller because of environmental noise, right? Well, sitting next to the guy yelling "I can't hear you," into his phone while you're trying to enjoy your cocktail certainly can be. Enter Woburn, Mass.-based Salemi Industries Inc. The provider of sound-resistant technology launched The Cell Zone, the first commercially-available, sound-resistant "cell phone booth" in May.

Based on patent-pending technology, The Cell Zone enables nightclubs, restaurants and other venues to offer consumers a quiet environment to place and receive calls without disturbing other patrons or having to leave the establishment.

The Cell Zone's design involves several layers of acoustically sound material. Large enough for one person, it is fitted with a motion-activated safe light and costs from $2,400 to $3,500.

Sure, guests will be more comfortable. But will Superman change in it?

Howard Riell is a veteran beverage and foodservice journalist based in Philadelphia who has contributed to Cheers since its debut.
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Author:Riell, Howard
Publication:Cheers
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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