Even before the pandemic struck, things weren’t looking especially rosy for the bar/pub and club sector. Confronted with soaring rents and operational costs, many businesses found themselves priced out of existence. It only follows, therefore, that being unable to open at all during Covid-19 was going to have a significant effect.
A quick look at the data confirms the scale of the resulting closures. In the UK, accounting services company UHY Hacker Young recently found that the number of pub and bar companies becoming insolvent had risen from 280 in 2021 to 512 in 2022, with 1/4 of pub firms likely to go out of business after only three bad months. Meanwhile, the Night Time Industries Association has reported that UK clubs closed down at a rate of 10.63 per month between December 2019 and 2021 .
But if it’s undoubtedly a reduced sector, it’s also one in which the importance of AV as a method of securing – and then retaining – customers is increasingly well-understood. Throughout the interviews for this piece, Installation heard of operators looking to rejuvenate their offers post-pandemic by improving their AV and, in many cases, using it to differentiate themselves in a more selective market. Therefore, what emerged was a more optimistic impression than might have been expected given recent events.
Jack Cornish is technical director of Tateside, an AV design and installation company whose clients include Soho House. “The market began to improve as soon as lockdown ended and people realised that they had to invest in order to encourage visitors once again,” he says, adding that this year has presented “a lot more hospitality projects that are of interest to us to quote for.
“[Technology-wise, customers] have tended to depend more on video than audio in the past, but I definitely notice that more clients are now seeing the value of investing more in audio as a way of differentiating the experience.”or reworked concepts,
Discussion of audio’s role in helping to deliver new or reworked concepts, and bring customers back into venues, tended to dominate contributions to this article. Geographically, it has been EMEA and the Americas that have led the resurgence, although APAC is now regaining momentum.
Michael Kinzel, global segment manager live & entertainment venues at d&b audiotechnik, notes that bars/clubs had been showing “double digital increases” for the company before Covid-19. “After a short hold on period, both markets continued their growth even during the pandemic,” he adds. “Pre-pandemic, APAC had been the strongest region, while from 2020 to 2022 EMEA and Americas proved to be more stable. 2023 sees APAC making a comeback, which results in a very even global picture for d&b in the global bars and clubs market.”
The pandemic hiatus, indicates Kinzel, prompted venues to work on new formats and seek audio solutions that are well-recognised – including, for instance, if they are hosting international DJs and artists. “It is very clear to see that venue owners/operators used the downtime to create new concepts to define and deliver fascinating enhanced customer experiences and new entertainment formats,” he says. “That change brought along a trend to invest in the latest high-end equipment/solutions that enabled the user to realise the multi-purpose use of venues combined with remote controlled applications.”
Rami Harfouch, general manager at K-array distributor ProCom Middle East, also paints an encouraging picture. “The willingness to invest in new audio-visual equipment has returned in high volumes as the bar and club industry recovers from the pandemic hiatus. Establishments are keen on revitalising their offerings to attract customers and differentiate themselves,”
“High-quality sound systems – including speakers, amplifiers and mixers – are essential for creating an immersive audio experience that complements the venue’s ambience and music quality.”
Jonathan Reece, head of global sales strategy at KV2, reminds us that the outlook inevitably varies between territories, but that where investment is being made it’s often driven by venues’ desire to assert their presence. “It’s a situation that obviously differs from country to country, but in general we are aware that there are many bars and clubs under pressure, some of which have been forced to close,” he says.
“For those financially strong enough to survive, a proportion have taken the decision to re-invest in order to try and increase their market share. In some cases they have done this with refurbs and upgrades while closed during the pandemic. The Fleece in Bristol is a good example: they took the decision to completely refurbish during lockdown, fitting our flagship VHD [High Performance Touring and Installation] system as part of the overall works.”
One recurring thread that emerged from the conversations with audio companies is that clubs, in particular, are more actively seeking solutions that support the ambience of their venue and the wishes of their clientele. Similarly, it’s apparent that audio systems need to be easily integrated – often into venue-wide network infrastructures – and subject to a straightforward upgrade path as and when needs change.
For KV2, Reece notes the popularity of its systems’ “clarity, detail and definition”, adding: “It’s a measurable fact for venue owners that the low distortion of our designs encourages people to stay longer in venues and wake up the next day without ringing ears, even at high SPL levels – a fact that has been reported back to us by venue owners and operators on many occasions. Similarly, a reduction in violent or anti-social incidents has been noted, suggesting that an aggressive, harsh-sounding distorted system can lead to an increase in aggressive behaviour and contribute to peoples’ general unease in a venue.”
Kinzel highlights d&b’s introduction of a certified pre-owned programme (CPO) in 2021 – which has seen J-series touring line arrays, among other products, be refurbished for possible use in install venues such as clubs – and its ability to customise solutions for colour, construction and challenging climate conditions. Then there is a move “beyond the software and hardware” in the form of the one-monthly-payment d&b Subscription Series.
“Secure and flexible subscriptions make up an increasing portion of our everyday lives,” explains Kinzel. “With the d&b Subscription Series, users receive the system they need now and the comfort of knowing they can adapt to changes later. Subscription Series includes an array of benefits, [such as] design and commissioning of an audio solution, 24/7 monitoring, full maintenance schedule, a simplified upgrade path when it’s time for something better, and decommissioning when it’s time for a change.”
Some requirements never change, of course, and that includes the call for loudspeaker systems that are visually unobtrusive and complement a venue’s aesthetic. If anything, this awareness has sharpened post-pandemic as operators work to deliver new and seamless concepts.
Anro Schroeder, sales manager for K-array distributor ProCom, points to a recent project on behalf of 88 Terrace, which is a bar on Bluewaters Island off the coast of Dubai. Hosting live music, performances and installations, 88 Terrace offers a “futuristic industrial design style combined with art, [providing] a unique ambience,” he says. For the audio system, a design of 40 K-array Python KP52 passive speakers “not only offers exceptional sound quality, but also seamlessly integrates into the architectural layouts of the terrace, maintaining a visually discreet appearance. The tops have a narrow vertical dispersion which allows them to keep the sound inside the venue and reduce noise pollution.”
Meanwhile, bars are also proving to be a fruitful market for assistive listening solutions, especially in venues where sports is being shown on multiple displays but with the audio turned off. This is something to which Listen Technologies can attest – its Listen Everywhere audio-over-wifi solution having been installed in venues such as NINE’s, a sports bar in Warsaw, Poland, where the owners wanted guests to be able to hear sporting events on multiple screens from anywhere in the restaurant and bar.
“Listen Everywhere works on a venue’s existing wireless network and allows guests to use their smartphones and smart devices as receivers for the assistive listening system,” says Kasey Kaumans, regional sales manager at Listen Technologies. At NINE’s, guests download the free Listen Everywhere app, select their preferred audio channel and stream sound to their devices.
Bars are shaping up to be an important growth market for the company, according to Kaumans: “It’s a fairly new market segment for us, but it’s becoming more and more successful. We definitely notice that there are more venues thinking about how to deliver high-quality audio and how that [augments their] use of displays.”
Providing a comprehensive view of technology trends in bars and clubs is AV solutions designer and manufacturer Peerless-AV. Senior business development manager EMEA Tom Fenton believes hospitality as a whole registered a boom between 2021 and ’22 as people began travelling again
“Operators and chains had to keep up with the demand,” he says.”Now they are thinking more strategically and creatively to remain competitive. [For example] bars and clubs are prioritising digital signage to provide guests with the ultimate entertainment viewing experience that shifts from a passive to more active participation and engagement.”
This is happening in venues of all sizes. In the US, Fenton points to a large site such as the Mohegan Sun FanDuel Sportsbook lounge venue in Connecticut, which is “pushing boundaries by installing dVLED video walls of colossal size and scale”, integrated with the Seamless Bespoke Mounting System from Peerless-AV. He adds that smaller chains are also installing new systems – both LED and traditional LCD – while outdoor weatherproofed displays are being deployed widely by chains such as Fuller’s, for which Peerless-AV and Comcen provided multiple systems in the UK ahead of last year’s World Cup.
In the longer-term, energy consumption and temperature range are becoming key customer priorities. “There are many fundamental considerations when choosing an outdoor display, but a major one relates to energy consumption,” says Fenton. “This obviously varies according to display size. Although there is variance per product, energy use can be controlled by changing backlight brightness or by incorporating scheduling to control brightness according to time of day. Temperature range is [also] a critical issue, especially with climate change affecting long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns.”
So no shortage of requirements for vendors and integrators to bear in mind when approaching this sector. And with nights out likely to become more infrequent due to pressures on disposable income – but at the very same time as experiential expectations are growing – it’s surely wise to perceive it as a ‘moving target’ for AV.
“A night out now is much more of an event,” concludes Cornish. “People still want to go out, but when they do they are aware that they are going to spend more and so want an experience [to match]. So I think that, more and more, you will see AV being seen as [a core element] of delivering that finished, high-end experience.”