Digital leisure: Cashing in or checking out?

Mary Braguier writes:
The demise of the internet café offers a salutary warning to other business sectors hoping to cash in on Australia’s ever-growing tourist trade. The rapid roll out of hand held smartphone and tablet ICT technologies providing 24/7 internet connectivity means that the idea of the internet café is quickly going to go the way of the horseless carriage. They might as well rebrand themselves as museums while they still have the chance.
But the way internet cafes are so quickly being made redundant looks like a model that other tourist dependant sectors should take note of. As more and more of the world’s leisure and informational needs are met online there is a corresponding impact on terrestrial businesses and business models.
Just as, for example, newspapers are having to adjust to a digital landscape, so are hotels, restaurants, and even resorts and casinos. Whereas the backpacking experience was once a journey of unfolding discovery it is increasingly one of fulfilment, of ticking off the agenda that the necessary pre-trip online research has established. A big spend on a shiny new frontage to draw in the passing trade will count for nothing if Trip Advisor has steered the tourist trade to the other side of town.
The trend for online advice even extends to the internet itself. Casino punters, for example interested in playing games online will find that their digital journeys can be pre-researched in the same way as the backpackers and their more up-market fellow tourists map out their selection of destinations.
The focus on casinos is pertinent because just as the internet café has been hit by the rapid rise of the smartphone, the same is true of the casino industry. Online gambling has enjoyed remarkable double-digit growth rates worldwide year on year since 2003, and despite the exploitation of emerging markets – particularly in Asia – that has been at the expense of land-based casinos for some time now.
Those controversial multi-million dollar resorts that are being thrown up in Queensland and New South Wales represent a very bold roll of the dice. Whilst it is generally held that the growing numbers of Chinese visitors represent a ready market for these lavish facilities the changing ecology of gambling generally points to a less certain outcome. There is no guarantee that the gaming revues that those resorts will need to attract in order to subsidise the rest of their facilities will hold up in the face of the digital alternatives.
The fate of the internet café may seem as though it is a million miles away from the big money tables of the Gold Coast but time and the technological tide wait for no man. Putting the bling into gambling may be the casino industry’s best bet to secure their futures, but not everyone can commit the same cash to the commercial restructuring that changing times demand. It will be interesting to see what creative solutions internet café owners come up with to keep their businesses cashing in rather than checking out.

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