Rural internet cafe visitors - what are your needs?
October 14, 2006 5:07 PM   Subscribe

What do you/would you expect from an internet cafe in a rural setting, on your vacation?

We're starting an internet cafe in the spring in a small town with lots (!) of summertime tourist traffic. What would you like to see at an internet cafe?

Current list of products/services:
- workstations with net access
- wireless internet in and outside the store
- local art for sale on the walls (and perhaps other local goods on display)
- b&w printing (maybe colour later, when we have the money for better equipment)
- faxing
- coffee (not necessarily Starbucks quality) and snacks
- photos to cd/dvd
- flash drives/memory cards for cameras and other equipment

Also, if you've used such an internet cafe, can you estimate how much money you've spent on a visit? Thanks!
posted by Kickstart70 to Shopping (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'd up the quality of the coffee. Make it a place where people can not only get online, but also a place where people want to go for a respite in between other attractions. Good coffee (especially iced drinks in the summer) is one thing to do that, and could attract locals in the offseason.
posted by The Michael The at 5:20 PM on October 14, 2006

atmosphere is really key for me, especially if I have a choice of which internet cafe to use - run far, far away from white walls and anything that might make it feel sterile and computer-lab-y. Add a modicum of privacy for the computer terminals, but don't segregate people necessarily. I'd agree with The Michael The about having quality coffee, also - better comfort-items like coffee, pastries, and sandwiches always make me spend more time & money at an internet point.

Also, something cool I saw in Venice was a bookswap, or used book sale - just a bookcase or two where people could leave English language books for other travellers. Granted, in the States it's less of a "thing" to get books than it is in a foreign country with another language - but it was a really nice touch! Helped add to the homey-ness of the cafe, as well as its usefulness.

Best wishes to you!
posted by AthenaPolias at 5:27 PM on October 14, 2006

I second The Michael The - nothing pisses me off like shitty coffee at a coffee shop!
posted by tristeza at 5:28 PM on October 14, 2006

I would like the cafe to realize that since I'm traveling (the aforementioned summertime tourist), I'm probably connecting only in a semi-emergency situation.

So, plenty of low-level tech support for PCs and cell phones, and the ability to easily use one of YOUR machines to do something, just because mine is broken. A by-the-minute connection fee, because I just need to send an email RIGHT NOW. Heh ... how about a combo pack? One hour of connectivity and a cup of coffee for three bucks?

And I don't wanna see kids playing Counter-Strike. I'm not gonna stick around and have coffee in a place like that. Not while I'm traveling and doing the summertime tourist thing, because I can get that at home.
posted by frogan at 5:34 PM on October 14, 2006

As someone who's not a coffee drinker, a big attraction for me would be books. The more, the better. During vacation downtime I love to read.
posted by zek at 5:40 PM on October 14, 2006

- better coffee
- books for sale and readable

Added, thanks. Keep 'em coming.
posted by Kickstart70 at 5:45 PM on October 14, 2006

I kinda second frogan's issue of the kids playing Counter Strike. There was an epidemic of them in Sydney...they were yelling, screaming and I generally just wanted to get in and out of there fast.

But, at the same time, they bring in up to you.
posted by wilde at 5:50 PM on October 14, 2006

Real cocoa will keep me going back to an internet café - none of this heated-up-chocolate-milk business.
posted by joannemerriam at 5:57 PM on October 14, 2006

I've used a bunch of Internet cafes in Europe, and the ones I've disliked the most were white-walled cubicle-farms that ALLOWED SMOKING. Go for a comfy atmosphere that doesn't make visitors jump out of the nearest window. If you can, try to provide computers better than the usual abused orphan Windows machines with nothing but IE installed. At a minimum, provide Firefox and SSH for your advanced users - there won't be many of them, but they will love you for it.

Jamie Zawinski has an excellent write-up of his experience installing Linux terminals in his SF nightclub DNA Lounge which may be instructive, but remember that it's 4(+?) years old and he's a hardcore unix hacker to begin with.
posted by migurski at 6:01 PM on October 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

IMHO, your Net access should be wireless and free, with a couple of wired workstations you can charge for. Your off-season clientele is going to include a lot of UNBC students who already have WiFi at school, so they aren't going to want to pay to access at your location.

Late hours, good snacky food (baked goods and the like) and office services will keep them coming back.
posted by solid-one-love at 6:02 PM on October 14, 2006

I've visited some truly great Internet cafes, but one that has become both a viable business, and a genuine community resource is Northern Star Coffeehouse in Norcross, GA, a suburb of Atlanta. If you do 70% of what they do, you'll be a memorable spot, worth recommending, that can command the loyalty and pricing that will make you successful. What they have:

1) Subtly elegant, upscale Southwest Rocky Mountain interior, with sturdy, comfortable wooden chair seating, heavy wooden tables, overstuffed leather couches, and plenty of open floor space, and good acoustical treatment. Even when filled to capacity, the place never feels crowded, and conversations can be held in a normal voice, without overhearing others at adjacent tables. Long, deep store space means you can still get a quiet table in back for a study group or a private conversation, even if there is a music night going on up front.

2) Clean bathrooms, with enough stalls.

3) Great coffee. They don't make everything, but what they do make is top drawer. Not that bitter, oily, over-roasted swill from Starbucks. Also, good snacks and cakes, which they contract order, on their own reciepes, from a local bakery.

4) Stable, fast WiFi Internet access, on a high speed, low latency business SDSL line.

5) Street and nearby off street parking, with good lighting and public visibility.

6) A friendly, competent staff that welcomes newcomers and is effective in marketing the constant schedule of evening events and activities they encourage and host. Game nights, movie nights, music nights, and the occasional lecture or art installation are all part of the brew. The layout is such that newcomers walk right by or right through whatever musical performances are happening in the downstairs entrance space, and while this doesn't sound optimal for performers, it actually is quite nice for everyone, due to sound control and vertical partitioning of the risered main coffeehouse floor. It's a pretty effective method for musicians and speakers to pickup an audience from street passerby, and so events usually get good appreciation, and word of mouth.

7) A pet friendly back patio, behind the store, away from street traffic and noise, where dog owners can bring leashed pets. Doggie water dishes are available, and they generally keep some locally baked dog and cat snacks for sale behind the counter.

Public printing/faxing access is a great idea in a rural area not served by Kinkos. Batteries, maps, t-shirts, caps and tourist wares would be good, profitable items to stock. Make sure to keep brochure stands in any local hotels that will let you.

But developing a breakfast crowd, a lunch crowd, and an evening crowd, and marketing effectively to all of the 3 quite different group's likes and needs is challenging, as is running a business on the schedule Northern Star operates. 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. days are long, even if it's just 2 days a week you do that.

Good luck with your new venture.
posted by paulsc at 6:03 PM on October 14, 2006

Compared to the other costs of setting up your business, getting a proper espresso machine and learning how to use it shouldn't be a big burden.

In my experience, most users of internet cafes are playing online games -- for long periods of time in one sitting. If I was away from home and looking for a place to write e-mail, I'd hope there would be some "express" or "no games" computers (but maybe wait to see how things work out first -- no sense in making the rule if the game-players never show up in the first place).
posted by winston at 6:04 PM on October 14, 2006

I don't do much traveling, but my boss just spent a week in a rural area (in New York I think) and wasn't very happy with his experience. He went to a cafe such as you're proposing and they charged $8 for a half hour of wireless Internet access. Obviously, he told them to forget it. I have a pretty good idea what a business account costs with an ISP (at least in my area) and the profit most restaurants and cafes make on Internet access is astronomical. $5 an hour would be relatively fair and they would most likely buy other items while they're checking thier email. Keeping a customer there for two hours would be much more profitable than a customer who checks their email for a half hour and then goes to the gas station on the corner for coffee. I would suggest not raping your customers just because they have no other option in a rural area.
posted by bda1972 at 6:10 PM on October 14, 2006

I would say the number one thing for me is making it look clean and inviting. I don't know about elsewhere, but here in the UK many local cybercafes (particularly away from London) look like 'dens' that weird gaming types probably hang out at, rather than a place anyone over 30 would want to go.

I don't really care how much it costs, whether you have any drinks or food whatsoever, but as long as it works, looks clean and inviting, I'd go in if I needed to.
posted by wackybrit at 6:15 PM on October 14, 2006

Can't say much that hasn't been said. Maybe have memory card readers (either installed in the computers, or available behind a counter) for people who want to upload/email digital photos? Mini-USB cables for people who forgot to bring the proper cable to connect their camera to the PC?
posted by Brian James at 6:37 PM on October 14, 2006

Perhaps a few extra power outlets for people to plug in cell phone and other device battery chargers. If you had a couple widely-used chargers that people could plug into if they forgot their own, that would be very useful too.
posted by mullacc at 6:44 PM on October 14, 2006

If you are catering to tourists, maybe you have to allow gaming, but I also find the gamesters off-putting. Maybe you can separate them somehow. Perhaps allow it after business hours.

You might include a scanner/copier. If you want to stay open off season, have business-class equipment and software available--MS Office, Adobe/Macromedia, etc. Find out what the local businesses need & provide it.

Give free advice to neophytes, especially retirees. Don't let your staff be snotty or condescending. Offer low cost classes to beginners: they don't know that they need your services yet, so educate them.
posted by RussHy at 6:50 PM on October 14, 2006

Have at least one Mac for those people.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 6:56 PM on October 14, 2006

As someone who travels extensively (with Mr. Nadise) I've spent a lot of time in internet cafes in a handfull of countries. Since we travel together and we're both internet junkies, we often look for cafes that let us use our own laptops and share internet time bills.

Half the time it sucks and we go in to find that we have to use the cafe's ancient, (intentionally?) slow, restrictive machine, and -- worse yet -- we have to take turns on the same station. I'll read a doctor's office-grade magazine and choke down bad coffee while he checks email, then vice versa. Trust me, we're outa there the minute we're done.

The other half the time, we walk in, get ourselves situated, and boot up. We relax and go about our business at the same time, exchanging banter like we do at home. We stay for hours sometimes, especially if the weather's bad.

I hate to say it, but the folks who've designed the interior spaces for barnes & noble and starbucks are onto something. They provide comfy chairs and couches for people with laptops, and cozy nooks that make you want to curl up and stay awhile.

The internet connectivity doesn't seem to be a huge money-maker for them, and it's secondary to their core businesses (selling books or drinks/food), but their clear assumption is that the longer you stay, the more you'll buy, and providing more things to do there intices people to stay longer.

You'll have to set your priorities and figure out where your bread is buttered, so to speak, but a multi-use space is great.
posted by nadise at 7:28 PM on October 14, 2006

Power outlets (laptop batteries never last as long as one would like).

Good baked goods and good coffee. If I want average versions, I'll go sit in a Denny's and use their free wireless.

A bookstore-ish ambience. Not that I'm expecting to purchase a book while there, but speaking more toward the quieter/warm atmosphere one tends to find in a bookstore.

Comfy seating: a mix of chairs & tables (bistro sized) or stools at a counter for when I'm feeling social/need to meet someone AND some armchairs for those times when I just want to sink into some comfort to make up for having to email my clients while I'm on my vacation. Bonus points for armchairs with private sightlines, I hate that feeling of having the person one seat over peering at what I'm typing.

I love the local art idea but please hold the kitschy crafts. I'd like to feel like I'm sitting in a smart bistro, not grandma's attic. I also dislike it when every item of decor has a price tag on it--I'd like to believe that these items were put up for their visual appeal, not as more opportunities to increase sales/sq. foot and it makes me uncomfortable to even be around something I might inadvertantly damage with a spilled drink (i.e. You break it, you buy it). That said, a nice sign at the counter and/or wall which invites sales inquiries on the art is always welcome.

If possible, outside seating, in case I have to yammer at a client on my cell phone while connected to the net. (blah. it happens)

On my last few vacations where I ended up in a cafe, I was willing to pay $5/hour for net access, I stayed just a little over an hour and consumed 3 drinks (coffee + refill + bottle water or juice) and a scone. And I usually buy some kind of sweets on the way out (mints tin, chocolate covered something-or-others).
posted by jamaro at 7:38 PM on October 14, 2006

Really, focus on the cafe part and throw in the wifi as an afterthought. Most people who would see benefit in having internet access on their vacation have their own laptops. For the few who don't, a couple of terminals in the back should suffice. When I see "internet cafe," I think "computer lab" not "coffee shop."
posted by Saucy Intruder at 8:24 PM on October 14, 2006

What others have said, which I think boils down to concentrating on creating a really cool cafe, with wireless and some computers scattered throughout, rather that a room with a bunch of computers and a coffee pot in the back. Light meals would be good. And make your cafe an introduction to your region, with a big map on one wall and tourist brochures and pictures of some local attractions on the walls.

Good luck!
posted by LarryC at 9:03 PM on October 14, 2006

When I visit an internet cafe in a foreign country/somewhere unfamiliar, I look for:

The ability to easily access a USB port (to upload images from flash this or that),

Wifi or a laptop station, so I can hook up my own gear,

Non-disgruntled, helpful staff, better if they're not teenagers (sorry, teenagers)...

Clearly posted hours and prices and special deals on bulk "4 hours 10$"...

A means to back things up, which you seem to have down- best to do it for them, cleaning out camera memory cards onto CD and etc,

Lastly, the small supporting goods for electronics that people tend to forget. A stock of USB-A/B cables for a reasonable price, a nice selection of those new universal charging systems that charge EVERYTHING, cheapo AA and AAA NiMH batteries and chargers, extra flash memory, and blank media like CDRs.

I disagree with all the people talking about WiFi needing to be free, just don't make it too expensive.
posted by fake at 9:21 PM on October 14, 2006

Who's your target market? Weekenders who'll be in there for an hour, or a community of summer-house people who'll be in and out every day or so over a few months?

I use internet cafes every day because I live in a developing country where internet in your house is about as likely as a day without oppressive humidity, unless you'rea a kajillionaire.

I spend about an hour online every evening after work checking e-mail and the like, a little longer on the weekends. My total internet usage bill works out to be about 1/20 of my monthly income: perfectly reasonable and proportionately less than it would cost at home in the States. I'd recommend charging as little as possible for internet time, or throwing in some free internet time with a coffee purchase - I HATE handing over lots of cash to do something, like checking my e-mail, for which I'd never pay cash at home.


- Skype! Calling the US (or the rest of the developed world) internationally is insanely expensive via most other means, and if you've got any international guests in your rural area (talk to the local tourism board, maybe?) it's a free way to bring in more people. My patronage of the internet cafe I use is entirely based on the presence of Skype, which no other place around here offers.
- USB ports for uploading photos.
- Play some nice music quietly, but maybe not in the internet area where people are trying to use headsets.
- On whatever web browser you use, make sure that it's impossible for a user to save passwords or websites visited - you want the record of the previous user wiped as far as the next user is concerned.
- Clean the crumbs out of the keyboards and scrape the black grime off the bottom of the mice, please. If I'm eating, I don't want to be touching some nasty plastic.
- Laser printer. Doesn't have to be color, but the sound of inkjet is soooo not conducive to relaxation.
- Air conditioning! All those computers are going to throw off a lot of heat!
- No fluorescent lighting, please...I'm on vacation, not at work.
- Frequent users discounts - maybe there's someone who's online ten hours a week and will sing your praises back in the Big City; why not throw them a free coffee after their first five hours, or maybe give them a slammin' 50% discount on the scone of their choice? One of those little wallet cards with an adorable hole/punch stamp, maybe?

(And re teens: who does everyone think is making Mom and Dad go into the internet cafe in the first place? You want every possible person spending money in your establishment, right? If parents are off shopping for antiques or kayaking, why not also market to teens who have been given cash and a little independence to spend it by their parents? With private sight lines or a little cubicle zone, it's not like the Big City client-emailing crowd can see them "level up" anyway.)

Best of luck!
posted by mdonley at 10:13 PM on October 14, 2006

For Tourists... Comfy chairs & headphones (ones that don't get gross after they are used) at the computers that are available.
Media Card readers for those taking pictures... and a CD Burner for those who don't have anywhere to upload to.

A whole stock of special cables... USB and Firewire adapters, plus get a nikon Coolpix cable, a Kodak Docking Station, and maybe even a photo printer.

Also, a Canon and Nikon battery charger (those are the only two Manuf. that I'm familiar with)... They cost $15, and it guarantees that they'll be there for 1-2 hours while it charges. A regular AA/AAA charger wouldn't go amiss.

Find a wireless specialist that can create a custom capture page for the wireless folks. Put all of your special services (battery charging) up all over, so people know that you do it. (A huge sign out front advertising everything would be great too!)
posted by hatsix at 10:45 PM on October 14, 2006

I think a good way to promote an open, social atmosphere but give users privacy is to get computer privacy screens. I've seen them at theblibrary and they really keep people from seeing what you're working on unless they're directly behind you. They would prevent you from having to erect cubicle walls around the computers that you provide, or having to space them out too widely.
posted by folara at 11:52 PM on October 14, 2006

Jamie Zawinski has an excellent write-up of his experience installing Linux terminals in his SF nightclub DNA Lounge which may be instructive,

Not that I really go to nightclubs, but if I went into one and saw a Linux terminal, I might run away immediately.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:29 AM on October 15, 2006

Your current list is good, as are many suggestions here.

- If it looks like gamers are going to be a regular part of the business, set up carrels at one end of the place so they can hunker down there and be less intrusive.

- Good coffee, and staff that knows how to make it (my wife once had to explain to the barista at a country coffeeshop how to make a macchiato).

- Comfortable furniture. Doesn't need to be fancy—one of my favorite coffee shops looks like they raided a resale shop. Another one looks like an Ikea catalog. Also should be a mix of relaxed seating (couches/armchairs) and upright seating (tables/desks + side chairs).

- No fluorescent-tube lighting.

- Clean.

- No smoking (my preference, not everyone's).

- Wifi should be cheap/flat-rate if not free (you will find that metered wifi is a big enough hassle that you need to sell a lot more of it to make it worth metering in the first place). I'd gladly pay $6/hr for use of one of your terminals. In which case, it would be nice if you had at least one Mac (I'm one of those people).
posted by adamrice at 6:24 AM on October 15, 2006

Clear instructions on wifi settings. Staff who have either been trained to help n00bs with both PCs and Macs or who have some set of simple, clear steps for troubleshooting.

Obviously you don't need this to turn into some kind of Genius Bar, but several times I've seen less-savvy folks get frustrated at cafes while travelling because the staff didn't know if the password was WEP or WPA etc.

For the Mac side of things, I would kill for a set of instructions that tell people to make a new network Location rather than wiping out their existing settings. I feel like every single person I've ever known with an iBook has returned from a net cafe unable to get online at home because their settings were fubared.

Simple things like these would make or break the experience for my family members, in the "hmm, next year I'll be looking for someplace different to check my email" sense.
posted by bcwinters at 9:20 AM on October 15, 2006

Please make sure there is a decent, safe, and clean place I can change my baby while dad checks his email. Bonus points if there are changing stations in both bathrooms so dad can do diaper duty while I'm checking my email.
posted by anastasiav at 9:21 AM on October 15, 2006

Free WiFi with any purchase. Have the key changed every day and printed on the bottom of the receipt. (Or, if you can't find a magic cash register thingy, put it on the chalk board with the daily specials.)

Do not go through a WiFi vendor. Their "solutions" are more expensive and harder to use than a simple home office router/WAP. The one thing you may want to consider is a router with bandwidth throttling capability, so that the kid downloading the latest ep of Battlestar Galactica (*looks around guiltily*) doesn't hose the rest of your customers.

Do not block ports. I hate when the folks who set up public hotspots consider things dear to my heart--SSH, email--to be security risks. Also, make sure your ISP doesn't block ports--AT&T/SBC/PacBell considers port 25 to be dangerous by default, which means you can't send email unless you're doing it through them.

Do have handouts for people containing detailed instructions on how to connect to the WiFi network. Your employees will thank you, and your customers will, you know, actually be able to use your services.

Do configure your computers to go to sleep (not just screensaver, but suspend mode) after 30 minutes of inactivity. This will save you a fair bit on your power bill, both for the computers, and the reduction in necessary air conditioning.

Good luck with the venture! I spent most of my adolescence in an internet cafe in a small tourist town, so I consider them to be venerable institutions of geek incubation.
posted by Coda at 12:08 PM on October 15, 2006

Don't drink coffee - so no difference there.

To me, I would prefer to be able to plug in my own laptop (pre wifi days) or just get wifi connection. If I did not have laptop, I would want ssh, and maybe a browser that isn't IE. I do everything over the ssh to my own machines.

The internet places in Tokyo are a bit different, and bigger. But here you can borrow DVDs, games, manga (books, comic books) to watch/read if you so want, since each station has a dvdplayer, ps2, pc. But that's just not needed if you are in a small town.

In NZ I would buy the 15 mins wifi scratch cards (good for the whole day afaik) and just do what I needed. One frustrating thing there is you had to connect to their login page to enter the secret numbers from the scratch card, which would only work in IE. Tsk. :)
posted by lundman at 5:48 PM on October 15, 2006

Agree with others that a clean cafe atmosphere, with space for me to use my own laptop, and espresso drinks (and iced drinks in summer), are key. Usually I want more than 15 minutes of access, and am happy to pay for it, but if I only want to send one email I want to get that service for free. So maybe give 15 minutes free with a drink purchase?

Don't spend a ton of your money buying computers expecting lots of people to use your machines -- get 4 or 5, but don't sink tons of startup money into getting 10 or 15 machines. An internet startup in my town was bankrupted partly by doing this. Most people who wanted to connect to the internet on vacation had their own laptops, so the 15 brand-new fancy house computers went untouched and just ate up floor space. (YMMV obviously, and I don't know how big a place you're starting)

Also, make your space somewhere that locals will feel comfortable having small meetings (book clubs, knitting club, mothers' group, etc). Those make for routine business that will keep you going during the winter too. If you have extra space, maybe have a corner with a few (quiet) toys and books for kids under 5. (This will depend on what kind of atmosphere you're trying to cultivate. It will make parents of young kids love you, but might make your place less business-y. Depends who you'll get more money from, I guess...)

If you're in a vacation area, stock some film and film-camera batteries too.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:05 PM on October 15, 2006

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