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07/16/2010 When Lots of Customers = Bad


I had a strange experience in Dulles Airport two weeks ago on my re-entry to the US. No not Homeland Security. We arrived from Spain, filled with World Cup fervor, and wearing our Spanish soccer shirts just in time for the quarterfinal match between Spain and Paraguay. We couldn't have planned it better.

We stumbled out of customs in Terminal C and made a beeline for the nearest bar or restaurant with a TV. We hit Tidwater Landing with three flat screens showing sports. Jackpot! Well, not quite. Two of the TVs showed bowling while the third showed golf. When I asked if we could turn one of them to the live World Cup match, the waiter told me that the next bar was showing the game and encouraged me to go there.

We scooted over to Firkin & Fox. They also had three flat screens, but this time two showed golf and one showed bowling. Again, I asked the bartender if he could turn on the game. The bartender looked at me and told me the bar didn't get ABC. When I questioned that, he said that the cable package in the airport didn't include ABC. He was clearly lying; as he backed away, face turning red he said that they wouldn't turn the game on.

Seriously, at this point I was wondering whether workers at Dulles were suffering from some mass dementia or something. The family raced back to Tidewater Landing where I did what anyone would do in that situation: I tried to bribe the bartender to turn one of the bowling TVs to soccer. Turning down $25, he told me that management had informed them not to turn on the World Cup.

"You have to realize," he informed me "that 9,000 people are coming through this terminal. 1,000, mostly Americans, don't care about the World Cup. The other 8,000 are going to crowd into this restaurant and drive away business. Every time we turn on a World Cup game, business goes down. People crowd around and keep customers away."

Scratching my head, I upgraded my ESPN app on my iPad so we could at least listen to the game while we left terminal C and headed down terminal D. About 2/3 of the way through the first half, we found Gordon Biersch Brewery. They had three TVs on, all showing the game. The placed was packed. There was a crowd standing outside watching and waiting to grab a table or a bar seat. At half time, we nabbed a table, ordered a bunch of food and beverages and watched the rest of the game. 

The place was doing a huge amount of business. More people were stopping by to see what was going on. The beer was flowing (as were the profits).

I had to wonder what kind of restaurant has 8,000 hungry or thirsty people standing around and yet can't make any money. Even if you sold the loiterers 2 cokes each, you'd be doing pretty well. Why is it that these places couldn't adapt to something out of the ordinary? I saw local bars in Burlington trying to draw people to World Cup games for that exact reason.

Maybe one of the reasons is that airport bars and restaurants are one of the least responsive business models out there. They're used to captive customers with little choice who have to pay exorbitant prices. The businesses aren't interested in adapting to changing customer demands because they're the only games in town.

I look at this and think: If you can't make money on 8,000 potential customers using a little innovation, you don't deserve to survive as a business.

At least Spain won.

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