It’s 17 years since Cyberia, the UK’s first internet café, was opened in Whitfield Street, London. There are now thousands of such cafés dotted across the country, with even the most remote areas featuring a web surfing service.
However, the future of the internet café appears uncertain to say the least. With 73% of all UK households now online, the need for internet cafes has declined dramatically, leading to a fall in occupancy which has been accentuated by the recent economic downturn, and the dwindling popularity of PC games – which many enthusiasts used to play with their friends on café networks.
Matthew White, owner of @ Cyber Café in Carlisle, Cumbria, started his business in 2003, with 10 workstations. When he spoke to us in August 2011, he said he was thinking of reducing his terminal count because footfall and occupancy have declined dramatically.
“We see people coming in if they’re on holiday or if their internet access is down, but the numbers aren’t what they were. We’ve got the occasional die-hard gamers, but they’ve matured and grown up now. The next generation are all console gamers, not PC gamers.”
To survive and prosper in this tough market, a prospective internet café owner must diversify, offering a range of services on top of the core internet connection. Matthew White diversified into PC repairs and sales around 2006, and has since branched out into web design, database design and repair call-outs. He says that the internet café now accounts for just 15% of his business; without the new revenue streams, he may have been forced to stop trading.
Other entrepreneurs have prospered by using their internet café as a conduit to other enterprises. For example Jude Jayasuriya, proprietor of the Sun Internet Café in Lincoln, uses his network connection as a way to entice potential customers for his property management service.
Jayasuriya told us that, as a result of the economic downturn and changing customer habits, his internet café has suffered a drop in footfall of more than 50%. However, the property management arm has remained buoyant; in fact, the café, once pivotal to the business, now accounts for less than half its revenues.
So it seems there is still a place for the internet café, provided entrepreneurs are inventive, resourceful and realistic in their offering.