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Durango Steakhouse in Suntree is first restaurant in the 16-store chain to roll out high-speed wireless Internet access as amenity for its guests - teams with local firm HotAir Wireless Networks

By Ken Datzman, Brevard Business News -- August 25, 2003

Durango Steakhouse has been known for its high customer service level under managing partner Dave Poore, who opened the Suntree store nine years ago and built it into one of the top performers in the 16-unit system that operates in two states.

Now, his North Wickham Road restaurant is moving that service level a notch higher as it has become the first store in the Clearwater-based company to roll out and offer high-speed wireless Internet access as an amenity to diners.

"This is a bonus for our guests; most restaurants currently don't have this service," he said. "The restaurant business is very competitive. Any service that will benefit our guests we are interested in looking at and implementing it if it really adds value, and this does. So we made the investment."

Poore said he was searching for a high-speed Internet connection for his restaurant but "we're located on the wrong side of Wickham Road for cable and things like that. A neighbor put me in touch with a local company called HotAir Wireless Networks. Their Wi-Fi technology fit the bill as far as allowing us to offer high-speed wireless Internet access in the restaurant."

Durango sees the service as another way to drive business to its restaurant. This type of Internet access is one that is most often used by businesspeople, one of Durango's key markets. He said if the service is successful locally it likely will be introduced at the company's stores throughout Florida and Georgia, which would mean additional business and more relationships for HotAir.

In Brevard, Durango operates four restaurants.

"Durango is a great opportunity for us," said businessman Steve Gould, president and one of the founders of HotAir of Melbourne Beach, a firm that has experienced strong growth since its launch more than a year ago and also operates in Orlando. "With 16 restaurants and a company that is expanding, this gives us a chance to reach into multiple new markets."

HotAir builds a turnkey package for its customer, which is generally a hotel, restaurant or some other commercial facility. "We give them the tools to reach out to their clientele, to create more revenue and to make their business more valuable."

HotAir's group in Orlando even creates marketing tools that help clients get the message out in a community about the Wi-Fi service.

Wi-Fi computer-networking technology, or Wireless Fidelity, enables customers with laptop or notebook computers and personal-digital assistants (PDAs) to access the Internet from their tables - without wires, cables or passwords. They can surf the Internet, send and receive email, make online stock trades, and obtain a host of other high-speed wireless benefits without being tethered to wires, Gould said.

Computers or PDAs need only be equipped with Wi-Fi capability or a standard Internet browser and a Wi-Fi compliant wireless card. Durango provides its customers with an easy-to-use HotAir Wireless Connection Kit.

Wi-Fi technology is powerful. These networks use radio technologies called IEEE 802.11b or 802.11a to provide reliable, fast wireless connectivity. A Wi-Fi network can be used to connect computers to each other, the Internet, and to wired networks (which use IEEE 802.3 or Ethernet. IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

Wi-Fi networks are found in busy public places like restaurants, hotel and airport lounges, and locations wherever large crowds gather. This may be the fastest-growing segment of Wi-Fi service, as more and more travelers and mobile professionals clamor for fast and secure Internet access wherever they are.

"From my perspective," said Poore, "I think the U.S. consumer wants the convenience of being able to connect anywhere."

Added Gould, "You hear it all the time: 'I can connect at home wirelessly, why can't I connect in a hotel or restaurant wirelessly?' And this is what drives our business model. HotAir focuses on the 802.11 wireless arena, which is the smaller area high-bandwidth capabilities. The same type of functionality you experience in your home is being expanded to work at the commercial level."

The explosive growth of wireless local area networking technologies (LANs) is creating tremendous business opportunity for upstart companies like HotAir, and enabling a level of unprecedented connectivity freedom. Excitement over LANs has mounted since 2002. International Data Corp. analysts estimate that Wi-Fi revenue could grow by 143 percent annually over the next five years. Attracting youth is an important component in reaching that revenue growth.

HotAir already has a half-dozen hotels operational with its Wi-Fi service. Gould said hotels are one of the company's main markets. "Hotel owners and operators know the value of being able to offer Wi-Fi to their guests."

And for restaurant operators, Wi-Fi gives them a new tool to build traffic during the lunch hour and slow periods during the day. The restaurant site can be a special meeting place, too.

Gould gives this example: "A real-estate office may want to conduct an off-site meeting. Small businesses are always looking for a place to meet. At Durango, they are able to get on the Internet as a team and continue to stay on their email. They may want to do online training off a web-based presentation. It can all be accomplished at this facility. It's very exciting from that perspective for a Realtor's office."

Who's tapping the Internet at restaurants across America?

It relates to check size, according to the National Restaurant Association technology survey. More than seven out of 10 respondents with average checks of $25 or more reported accessing the Internet for business-related purposes, compared with 47 percent of those with average checks of less than $8.

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