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Clubs, bars and restaurants: Blood on the dancefloor?

A negative economic cycle’s impact on disposable income can have grave implications for all kinds of leisure spend. For clubs, bars and restaurants, the primary strategy over the past few years has been to try to appeal to a wider customer base – a development that has necessitated the provision of more versatile and visually unobtrusive loudspeaker systems, writes David Davies.

Even in a sector that is well exposed to the whims and wherefores of broader economic changes, the bar, club and restaurant markets can appear especially vulnerable. Any fluctuation or feeling of trepidation about job security in the population at large can impact significantly on leisure spend, with nights out being an inevitable victim of personal cutbacks.
 Clubs, in particular, have faced a challenging few years. The dance music boom was fading long before the latest economic downturn commenced, but reduced disposable income has undoubtedly contributed to the decline in the number of venues. In the UK, 2009-10 was almost epically grim, with market research company Mintel subsequently reporting that 355 nightclubs had closed their doors in this one 12-month period alone.
 Fortunately, the steady decline in the number of British pubs – more than 52 were closing every week in the first half of 2009, according to the British Beer & Pub Association, although that rate has since dropped dramatically – has not been mirrored in the bar trade. But the enthusiasm of operators to launch new concepts has dimmed, and it’s not exactly surprising; with scores of empty units threatening to turn some provincial centres into ghost towns, it’s no longer far-fetched to fear the death of the high street.
 All of the above factors have, inevitably, forced an even greater focus on the bottom line – a trend that, for audio companies, has demanded the provision of enhanced specifications at lower price points. Venues have also looked to other activities – including more live performances – to bring in the punters, and the recent introduction of more versatile loudspeaker solutions and compact yet powerful mixers confirms that, by and large, manufacturers have risen to the challenge of enabling easy repurposing of systems.
 So what is the current feeling among the manufacturer community about these markets, and in what ways are audio requirements evolving? In a bid to find out, Installation spoke to a handful of loudspeaker companies for whom bars, clubs and restaurants continue to constitute an important revenue stream. Activity levelsThe majority of contributors indicated that the middle tier of the combined bar/club/restaurant market remains the most dynamic for their businesses. However, there was considerable variation in opinion as to how seriously current events are impacting upon activity levels within the segment.
 d&b audiotechnik GB’s sales manager, Phill Coe, is in no doubt about the implications for the squeezed middle, but emphasises that demand for the company’s own products has remained consistent. “Clearly, the mid-tier club market continues to struggle as the industry comes to terms with the impact of factors like high youth unemployment and the effect that has had on disposable income among their core demographic,” he said. “d&b operates at the premium end of the market and thus has managed to maintain a market share in the small to medium-sized club sector, despite the overall downturn. It is not anticipated that this will change significantly in the short to medium term.”
 For Mark Copeland, product manager of Tannoy, there is evidence of “steady business at the middle tier, but I don’t see it as a huge growth market right now. Some geographical areas are different, of course.”
 It is left to Geert Polfliet, marketing manager of Audioprof/Apart Audio, to strike the most upbeat note. “We are still seeing a high level of activity in the middle-tier market in different parts of the world,” he said. “[In addition] there is definitely a trend towards the use of multi-function entertainment spaces, [encompassing] a bar, restaurant and club.” Economic circumstances, he believes, are prompting venues “to re-evaluate what they really need” – more of which anon.
 In geographical terms, activity levels in not inconsiderable swathes of mainland Europe remain rather flat, although a handful of nations are bucking the trend. Further afield, parts of the Middle East and Africa are currently suggestive of a broadly upward trajectory.
 Tony Sawyer, Electro-Voice and Dynacord technical support manager, charts the course of recent developments in the Middle East: “Recently, we have seen a very slight surge in the nightclub market around the region, which started at the beginning of spring in the middle- to high-end club market, where Dynacord’s VL [Vari-Line] series is used.” The holiday season and regional economic climate contributed towards a mid-summer slowdown, but “heading into late summer we have seen a re-emergence of the low-end, low-budget club markets”.
 Polfliet, meanwhile, alludes to recent Apart installs in markets as geographically dispersed as Albania, Turkey, Jordan, South Africa and its native Belgium. Electro-Voice/Dynacord also highlight continued opportunities in Europe as a whole, with technical support pro-audio EMEA representative Oliver Sahm describing the club market there as “an attractive market segment”. 
 And in the UK, where the impact on leisure spend appears to have been especially acute, some manufacturers are still enjoying good returns. Derek West, sales and marketing manager for Audica Professional, observes: “We have good worldwide distribution so we’re not too dependent on any country or region, and despite the economy in the UK it continues to be our strongest market, thanks to having a really good distributor in CUK Audio.”
 The sector-wide shift towards compact, integration-friendly solutions has – unsurprisingly – made itself felt in the club/bar/restaurant market in the form of a demand for visually unobtrusive speakers and more readily reconfigurable mixing desks. (The launch, as this feature was being prepared, of Soundcraft’s Si Performer console series – which adds integrated DMX-based lighting control to the Si range’s existing digital audio feature spec – must surely be perceived as wholly complementary to these developments.) System evolution?Virtually across the board, budgetary requirements are encouraging venue operators to take what might be described as a more holistic approach to their pro-AV requirements. “Beside the low-end installs with smaller budgets, we also see a clear ongoing trend towards middle- and high-class installs, where complete concepts of sound, light and operation become more important,” says Sahm. “This is also where our IRIS-Net [configuration , control and monitoring] software, with its unique flexibility and programming options, becomes very important for Dynacord and Electro-Voice solutions.”
 But in more specific terms, there is no evidence of a profound change in audio system requirements for bar, club and restaurant venues. Speaker solutions need to pack significant power into small form-factors that are aesthetically discreet and allow for flexible positioning – no great change there, then. Mixers must offer sufficient capacity for what might be a relatively small number of inputs for everyday operation (for example, basic speech and background music for bars and restaurants), while allowing for the possibility of adding more for non-recorded music and other live performance. For less demanding applications, preset capabilities should enable both trained and untrained staff to operate systems to an acceptable level. Oh, not surprisingly given the current climate, all of the above should be delivered at a price point that does not impact too dramatically on overall venue investment, which will inevitably be under greater pressure with so much uncertainty about the short- to mid-term future.
 West neatly summarises several of the main strands. “Many projects will look to cheaper products, while [in terms of] premium products they will seek out those that offer a difference,” he says. “Audica Professional falls into the premium sector and is continuing its success in the bar and restaurant markets due to having great audio quality while being aesthetically unique with stylish ultra-compact designs.”
 Aesthetic considerations have proven to be increasingly important over the past few years, with more and more specifiers selecting discreet in-ceiling or on-wall solutions. Citing high levels of interest in its MICROdot and MICROpoint loudspeakers, West says that Audica has “continued to do particularly well in the travel restaurant and bar sector; those located in hotels, airports and the like, where themes and the designer’s influence are strong. We have also remained strong with upmarket establishments, where they want to create an environment with a quality difference.”
 Given the need to relocate or reconfigure systems due to changing requirements, physical robustness of the speakers – internal and external – is also crucial. Alluding to its MASK series of contractor-oriented loudspeakers, Polfliet notes that all speakers in the range are “fully protected against abuse, which allows them to be used in difficult situations. This protection means that the speakers will not fail so do not need to be replaced, which can be very difficult when the installation is in constant use or the loudspeakers are mounted in inaccessible areas. The MASK speakers also have a very neutral and acceptable physical design, meaning that they can be accepted in many different applications by architects, and custom-painted where required.”
 In small and mid-sized clubs, the ability to deliver system efficiency and generous (but precisely targeted) SPL continues to be pivotal. Pertinent products abound, such as: d&b’s xS-Series 12S and 10S loudspeakers, which can be used either as full-range systems or in conjunction with the 18S-SUB or 27S-SUB cardioid to deliver main PA in small to medium-sized clubs; Tannoy’s VX and VXP loudspeakers, whose “nice and contemporary aesthetic”, notes Copeland, has lent itself to a host of club installs; and Dynacord’s Vari-Line Speaker Series, from which the VL262 has proven to be a particular favourite for club and combined venues “due to its high power, ultra-compact dimension and very discreet design”, says Sawyer.
 While high-power output line arrays are often a default choice for larger clubs, smaller dance venues, bars and restaurants have an ever-increasing variety of non-column, non-line array solutions from which to choose. In a designer-led segment, visual discreetness is of considerable importance – and here, too, manufacturers have risen to the task. With venues changing hands on an increasingly regular basis, particularly in the UK, this responsiveness to customer needs should stand audio suppliers in good stead as the leisure sector continues to steer a course through choppy economic waters.