Britain's first "cyber pub", The Six Bells, opened in Cambridge this month, on the heels of the success of Cyberia cafs in London and Kingston upon Thames. The pub offers regulars the usual beverages and snacks, and not-so-traditional access to the Internet.
Its owner, Greene King, is not the only brewery weighing the potential of new technology. Last month Allied Domecq named CHBI, a new-media consultancy, to develop an interactive entertainment network for its pubs. The Pub Net system will involve computer screens linked with other pubs, either by satellite, cable network, or utilising other new technology.
"Interactive media are now integral to our marketing plans," said Patrick Burton, the media manager for the Allied Domecq Group. The system is due to be piloted in 10 of Allied's 2,000 pubs in late summer.
In the Oxford area, 50 Morland pubs are preparing another pilot scheme - an interactive quiz for pubs subscribing to Sky TV. BSkyB is exploring the idea with Two Way Television, a company that is developing a way to allow viewers to play along with television quiz shows at home. Questions and answers appear as text and graphics laid over the picture on a normal television screen. Viewers take part by using interactive handsets, and answers are relayed back by telephone link, enabling families, or companies or pubs, to compete against each other in a national league.
"Although it's still early days, it is important for us to keep up, as interest in the Internet and new media becomes part of our customers' everyday life," says Alison Culpin, the marketing manager of Morland Brewery. "It's about capturing that excitement and fusing it into entertainment and fun."
But brewing groups' new media experiments are about more than just offering customers a new fruit machine for the 21st century. "Increasing the number of customers or their length of stay is one priority," says Mike Beeston, a CHBI director . "It's also a question of product differentiation and looking at alternative revenue streams."
Although about a third of British adults visit a pub at least once a week, brewers and independent pub owners must work harder than ever to woo customers. Profits are higher on food than on drink: it is estimated that while eating out rose by about 3 per cent overall last year, the number of people who ate in a bar or a pub increased by 10 per cent. This is why brewing groups are also pushing for family business. New media installations offer pubs a potentially lucrative additional revenue stream, Mr Beeston says.
As well as charging consumers, pubs will also use the system for advertising and sponsorship, to promote products at point of sale, even to dispense money-off coupons to encourage sampling. "I can't believe there are major pub chains who are not looking closely at this area," Mr Beeston says. "The issue is which delivery system to go with, and when to jump in."
The variety of different systems being tested is testament to the position of any business considering using new media in its marketing mix. As yet, there are no industry standards nor universally approved delivery systems. Instead, each company is experimenting with existing interactive technology, usually in the form of CD-Rom or CD-i, often in stand-alone "interactive kiosks".
Britain's first full-fledged interactive television trial, involving 80,000 London cable TV households subscribing to Videotron cable systems, has been postponed until the autumn. That leaves a growing number of pubs and retailers at the cutting edge, developing point-of-sale new-media applications to engage, inform and sell to their clientele.
Last week Wagamama, a London noodle restaurant that is working with AKQA, a new media consultant, announced an interactive trial planned for June, featuring an electronic lifestyle magazine accessible via a touch-screen computer terminal in the waiting area. Advertisers are being sought to develop interactive advertisements, branded games or other material using full-motion video, graphics and soundtracks.
Such installations cost a retailer £5,000 to £10,000 per outlet. But the development of new-media installations is not without pitfalls. The innovation must serve a purpose, says Ajaz Ahmed, the co-founder of AKQA. "If it is not adding revenue to the bottom line it is probably not worth doing." And care must be taken to ensure the same level of standards is applied to new-media materials as to any other advertising or marketing activity.
Sites must be carefully chosen. "We would expect these systems to appeal only in certain outlets regularly frequented by a younger core clientele," Ms Culpin says. Pubs in areas heavily populated by students, or local business communities, would be obvious priorities. "It is important to be conscious of the potential hostile environment. In a pub a computer could be used as a doormat - kicked, sat on or splashed with beer," Mr Beeston points out. And the product positioning must be carefully considered.
"Putting a computer terminal and modem to access the Internet in a pub is a great idea, but not a long-term solution. There must be more," he says. "It must be packaged in such a way as to help people along and give them a clear proposition, a reason for using it." And at the end of the day this will come down to one thing: the programming.