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Bread and butter business

A reliable earner during the boom times, licensed leisure can sometimes be a victim of economic downturns. David Davies finds out how the bar/restaurant sector has fared during the latest bout of adversity.

Parts of the licensed leisure business have undoubtedly suffered badly during the past 18 months – UK pubs, for example, closed at a rate of 52 per week in the first half of 2009, according to the British Beer & Pub Association – but the bar/restaurant sector appears to have remained reasonably buoyant during the recession.

Like pubs, these venues have had to confront a variety of challenges above and beyond the tendency of people to cut back on their leisure spending, not least public smoking bans, increased alcohol taxes and regulatory pressures. The general ability of a venue to provide food seems to have been an asset, but the impulse to shore up cash-flow in uncertain times has prompted many to explore additional revenue streams, including those generated by corporate clients.

Collectively, these developments have brought both positive and negative consequences for audio suppliers and installers. On the one hand, the number of new installations has, by general consent, gone down somewhat; on the other, those venues that are willing to invest in new audio systems are inclined to spend a bit more in the hope of securing customer loyalty and competitive edge.

“There has been a shift towards ‘fix and mend’ rather than complete, ‘rip it out and start again’-style projects,” says John Midgley, managing director of POLARaudio, a UK distributor for brands including Biamp, Australian Monitor and XTA/MC2 Audio. “However, we have seen quite a few smaller, more localised chains making new investments. I think they regard the downturn as an opportunity and, because of their size, they are able to be more dynamic about decision-making than some of the larger operations.”

There is also evidence that, although many traditional Western European markets might be feeling the pinch, the emerging economies of Eastern Europe are forging ahead. DAS Audio’s regional director for international sales (Europe, Africa, Middle East), Jack Palacio, says: “Poland, Ukraine and Russia, in particular, have been very active and have helped to balance out the situation in the more stagnant markets of Western Europe.”

Boutique bar vs high street chain
As Midgley suggests, smaller chains and bespoke one-offs have yielded a steady stream of new installs throughout the downturn. It’s an opinion that strikes a chord with Neil Voce, who is managing director of PA, VA and commercial audio manufacturer Ateïs’s UK operation.

“It is a fairly new market for Ateïs in the UK,” admits Voce, “but I think it would be fair to say that the bulk of projects [in this sector] concern bespoke venues or larger sites with a more specific concept. In particular, we are finding that, instead of having one theme running throughout a site with 50 speakers all playing the same music, there is a harking back to nooks and crannies. This results in little private areas or rooms built around the bar where it is possible to more productively tailor the theme and audio to their own requirements.”

It should not, however, be construed that the more ubiquitous high street names have backed away from making fresh investments. Just ask David Ridout, a director of Newcastle-based pro-audio, lighting and video supplier/installer Sound Power. With a list of preferred products that includes BSS Soundweb London BLU family processors, Nexo loudspeakers and Ecler amplifiers, Sound Power has carried out hundreds of installations during the past few years on behalf of leading high street leisure outlets.

“The bar/restaurant market has slowed down, but there are still plenty of projects going ahead,” says Ridout. “Basically, everybody has upped their game, so expenditure has increased across the board for audio, video and lighting.”

Alas, it seems that, all too frequently, investment in audio is still regarded as a lower priority than outlays in other AV categories. Karl Christmas, deputy general manager of Yamaha Commercial Audio UK, is not alone when he records a “tendency towards a make-do approach on the audio side. Video and lighting are getting priority at the moment.” Despite this, most agree that audio standards in licensed leisure venues are in the ascendant, so how exactly is this manifesting itself in the equipment being supplied and installed?

Questions of control
Perhaps the most obvious technological trend is a shift in favour of all-in-one audio systems that may include, for example, mixing and processing functions. The ability to save on hardware costs and rack space has obvious benefits for licensed leisure venues, as does the ability to minimise the number of controls that have to be grappled with by staff who may have little or no technical expertise. And with an increasing number of venues exploring alternative revenue streams, these systems’ flexibility of configuration can be a major advantage.

Lars Yoshiyama, RCF sales manager PA Europe, pinpoints the trend for audio systems that integrate different functions and are “able to satisfy multi-room applications and are easy to operate. Sometimes the need is also to have a small system able to amplify small bands or DJs.” Asked how this is reflected in the RCF product range, Yoshiyama cites several items, including the RCFAmbiente MS 520 multiroom music system, which can transmit three different musical programmes and one for paging in five mono zones, or four zones including one in stereo.

Meanwhile, with combined DSP/mixing-style solutions, the ability to configure easily recalled presets for different types of day and content is another boost for sites run by untrained personnel. Preset functionality means that “even non-technical staff can recall complex operations in a managed sound system at the touch of a button, often integrating with other equipment in the venue, such as video, lighting and signalling”, says Leon Phillips, product manager at Allen & Heath, whose iDR Series of audio DSP/mixing solutions has proven to be a popular choice for licensed leisure venues. “With DSP, so many functions that traditionally would have been managed using equipment external to the mixer – such as delay lines, crossovers and paging interfaces – can be provided as a built-in suite of tools. Another key advantage is reduced wiring, hardware management and costs as DSP-managed systems negate the need for balanced cables running to and from the mixing console. Mains distribution, rack-mount housing, PAT testing and maintenance are [also] minimised.”

In addition, Phillips highlights the fact that “smart DSP mixing systems can be password-protected from authorised tweaking”, and this need to ensure security and restrict access is echoed by several other contributors. Bill Woods, sales & marketing director for XTA and MC2 Audio, points to the ability of the soon-to-ship XTA DC1048 Installation Audio Processor to limit end-user access to the recall of presets by remote wall panel or the built-in real-time clock.

“There should be some degree of access for the person who is managing the sound system in the venue, but in general the aim is to design products that, once installed by an audio professional, can be left in the care of the staff on-site,” says Woods. “They have to be intuitive and easy to run.”

Above and beyond this, the desire to achieve an easy-to-use, fully integrated solution is also leading some venues to explore the kind of overarching control provided by Crestron, AMX and other comparable systems.

“The Crestron/AMX facility is asked for regularly because it allows for simplified and secure control, ensuring that untrained fingers can’t adjust anything they don’t need to,” says Christmas, who notes that the Yamaha DME (Digital Mixing Engine) series – for which AMX and Crestron compatibility has been an important selling point – continues to be a strong performer in the bar/restaurant sector.

Helping to ensure compliance with building/lease and Noise at Work regulations can be another advantage of more regimented control for venue operators. “Restricting access to a few basic functions and keeping people away from the raw amp control is a good way of avoiding lawsuits,” says Voce. Meanwhile, Ateïs is hoping to capitalise on its presence in the bar/restaurant market with products including the UAP G2 stackable digital audio processor and Messenger G2 column array loudspeaker.

Invisible touch
Venues’ changing requirements are also having an effect on loudspeaker and amplifier design. In particular, the clamour for discreet, visually unobtrusive speakers seems to grow with every year.

“A few years ago it wasn’t much of an issue, but now everyone is asking for architecturally invisible systems. People want smaller speakers and they want them to be integrated into the decor,” says Palacio, who notes that DAS Audio is currently working on self-powered versions of some of its bar/restaurant-friendly Arco and Artec speakers.

Meanwhile, Martin Audio applications engineer Peter Child, says that the requirement in this sector is usually for loudspeakers “to be heard but not seen, and our AQ Series was designed to be small physically comparative to the size of drivers, [thereby] being architecturally unobtrusive while still having high levels of performance. The OmniLine micro-line array, though not designed for this environment, has also been used in bars where its modular construction fulfils the client’s requirement for high performance from a product that does not look like a conventional loudspeaker.”

“Customers want better quality audio, but they don’t want the systems [to be too visible]; they have to be discreet,” echoes JBL Professional’s technical support manager Europe, Middle East & Africa, Mark Bailey. It’s a requirement that JBL accommodates with products including the Control 50 compact sub/sat system and Control 40 ceiling speakers.

As far as KV2 Audio’s Tom Weldon is concerned, “everyone wants more volume from smaller boxes while maintaining the quality”. He adds that KV2’s EX26 active double 6” loudspeaker and ESD 12 12” full-range loudspeaker with passive delay line have both gone into bar/restaurant-style installs.

In terms of amplification, Ecler’s installation product manager, David Loza, pinpoints the demand for silent running, auto standby functionality and DIN rail mounting, as opposed to conventional rack-based installation. “We are moving in the direction of very high efficiency with Class D [topologies] and switching powers suppliers. Customers are very keen to have ‘green’ systems,” confirms Loza, adding that these requirements are acknowledged in Ecler’s recently launched AMPACK 2-70 and 4-70 amplifiers. “I also think that networkable amplifiers with Ethernet ports – like our NZA and NPA products – will become more popular as they allow for remote management around the site and even monitoring from home.”

Going out/staying in
Opinion varies as to whether this area of install is likely to witness a surge in activity levels during 2010, but there is a feeling that the forthcoming football World Cup will provide a further spur to upgrade action.

“Like everything else, the bar/restaurant market will be informed by how the customer decides to spend their money – whether they stay in with their Tesco Finest and Domino Pizza, or opt to enjoy the summer and the World Cup,” says Christmas.

And while more than one contributor describes the sometimes conflicting factors that can inform venues’ choice of systems (one interviewee alludes to a well-known chain “which seems to feature a deliberately harsh acoustic so that you eat your food and clear off in 30 minutes’ flat”), there is a general consensus that bar/restaurant audio will become increasingly sophisticated.

“Owners need to get the most out of a venue in a 24-hour period, be it serving coffees in the morning, catering to shoppers and business lunches, getting the bar crowded with office workers for happy hour, then dancing maybe after that,” says Woods. “That necessitates different controller settings to reflect the atmosphere the venue is trying to create.”

“It seems that the trend goes towards multi-purpose pubs with a cafe, restaurant, beer pub and disco under one roof,” says Electro-Voice’s export sales manager Western Europe, Markus Schmittinger. “This will lead to the set-up of complex audio systems with multiple sources going into various destinations, fed and controlled in one tech facilities room providing central power amps and controlling.” It’s a development, adds Schmittinger, that EV is well placed to respond to with “one-stop solutions for all different requirements”.

“Due to the fast development of home audio and home theatres, the quality level has risen and bars and restaurants have to provide for their guests more than ever before,” says Robert Vogel, co-founder of distributor and installer MDS PAtec, whose responsibilities include serving as system partner for Kling & Freitag in south Germany.

Accordingly, Vogel details a raft of recent projects in bars/restaurants, including the installation of a Kling & Freitag system in the 35mm Bar/Lounge at the Mathaeser multiplex cinema in Munich.

Rarely a manufacturer’s top install market, licensed leisure nonetheless provides solid returns – even in difficult economic circumstances. With many venues eschewing simple rack-and-box systems in favour of elaborate integrated solutions, the market’s overall value is destined to increase markedly during the next few years.