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Telecommuters & Free Wi-Fi: A Winning Combination

By Scott Lewis

Last year, 23.3 million Americans worked at home, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. It is becoming increasingly popular for companies to cut their budgets by asking employees to work from home several days a week.

The primary reason for moving to this model is cost savings in real estate. Many cafes and restaurants are taking advantage of this labor shift by providing free Wi-Fi access.

Café and restaurant owners should realize that "telecommuters" will keep coming back for more than the free Wi-Fi access. Working outside of the office means missing out on several essentials: water cooler talk, foot traffic, and environment. The Wi-Fi hotspot is in a unique position to help fill this void.

Water cooler talk is one of the most important components in a person's workday. Team lunches, going away parties, baby showers, and discussing football are all common things in most offices in America. When a person works at home, they begin to lose touch with those areas of life, and they crave community.

Walden's Coffee House in Reno, Nevada has been offering free Wi-Fi access for nearly three years. "My customers feel like they have got to get out of the house," says Jeff Wilson, Walden's owner. "This is a great social scene; one of my regular customers even wrote a book here on his computer."

Foot traffic is another key component. Office spaces are full of life, and the hustle and bustle of work life is missing when working from home.

Working in cafes and restaurants gives telecommuters the freedom to choose from a wide range of environments to work in. Having these options available gives the worker the power to choose how his environment influences his day. Some cafes and restaurants provide an energetic working environment; others provide a quieter setting ideal for conference calls.

Michael Aria owns Cafe Lulu, a café in San Diego's prestigious Gas Lamp Quarter. According to Aria, "We are surrounded by several Starbucks coffee shops. Cafe Lulu competes by providing our customers with a superior atmosphere. We provide free Wi-Fi access; they charge for wireless access. We make gourmet sandwiches and real coffee; they don't... People come here for the ambiance."

Many café and restaurant owners are already taking part in this profitable endeavor. In the U.S. alone, there are over 6,000 cafés and restaurants offering free Wi-Fi access.

In the past, cafés and restaurants have only catered to the college student, but restaurants and cafes are starting to recognize that business people will spend more money and come back more frequently, which is why we are seeing pockets of free Wi-Fi hotspots popping up in areas other than "college towns."

Panera Bread was one of the first corporations to embrace this concept. They realized that, between the hours of 8am and 11am, and again between 1pm and 5pm, their shops were nowhere near as full as they were between 6am and 8am, 11am and 1pm, and after 5pm for dinner. Their solution: offer free Wi-Fi as a means to attract additional customers. According to Panera Bread, this model is working. People are choosing Panera Bread over their competitors because Panera offers free Wi-Fi access.

When asked if providing free wireless Internet has impacted his bottom line, Walden's owner Wilson replies, "Free Wi-Fi only costs one latte a day. Wireless Internet has provided me a train of new customers."

The growing number of telecommuters have the choice to work at home or at a Wi-Fi hotspot. Many people, including myself, are willing to spend money on goods and services at locations offering free Wi-Fi access. Cafés and restaurants that take advantage of this unique opportunity are noticing a dramatic increase in customers.

Scott Lewis is a co-founder of MetroFreeFi.com, the world's largest directory of free Wi-Fi locations. He is also a consultant for the Nebo Group out of Chicago, IL. He welcomes reader comments at scott@metrofreefi.com.

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