Oklahoma City, OK - The way men and women meet nowadays is totally different than before. It used to be that if a guy saw an attractive woman, he'd approach her--unaware of whether she was even single, much less interested--and then brace himself for a humiliating rejection. Now both parties just go on the internet. Online dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Match.com have streamlined the vetting and meeting process. But this hasn't kept bars--with their social lubricant of alcohol--from remaining the places where prospective couples meet. The question is how such dating shifts have altered bars' business and social models. I wanted to find out, so recently visited one in Oklahoma City.
The place was O Bar, a rooftop venue in the Ambassador Hotel. Having opened 2 years ago, the bar is a small, sleek, upscale venue with a balcony that overlooks Oklahoma City's downtown skyline. O Bar seems like a perfect place to take a first date, and thus to document how changes in dating culture might be influencing the nightlife industry at large. So I scheduled a sit-down interview one afternoon before opening time with the manager, Jeffrey Alan Cole, and a bartender, Karli Koinzan.
The first thing they confirmed was that O Bar did, in fact, host a lot of first dates, and they were always easy to spot. They'd usually begin with one person sitting alone at the bar, to be joined minutes later by their date.
“They have an awkward introduction,” said Cole, explaining that it often begins with a handshake. “And they talk about things that people who are in a relationship don’t talk about,” such as major life details like professions and family situations.
Consumption habits varied, they said, but there were a handful of behaviors that were unique to first dates. For example, dates will often order the same drink to break the ice with one another. Other times, people who are clearly not drinkers, but still need a "safe space" (in Cole's words) to meet their date, will order water or soda. And because, according to the interviewees, men pick up the full tabs for roughly half of these dates, many females order something fancy.
“Sometimes,” said Koinzan, “you see guys who, obviously, they’re really well-established, and they’re bringing in girls that know that they can milk it.”
The most definitive consumer behavior, though, was the simple increase in traffic. Cole said that the mainstreaming of online dating has produced a visual uptick in first dates.
“Compared to ten years ago, you didn’t hardly see first dates,” said the long-time hospitality industry worker. “To bear witness to it as a bartender, it was few and far between. But these days, it’s every single day I see someone on a first date.”
And this has been good for O Bar’s bottom line, in multiple ways. It has brought in customers during alternative hours. Most bars can depend on large weekend crowds; but Cole explained that first dates are often conducted during otherwise slow weeknights. Daters tend to come in during dinner, as opposed to the strictly drinking crowd that patronizes O Bar during happy hour and late at night.
Of course, O Bar is above a hotel, which bolsters its reputation as a place to bring dates - and reveals yet another potential economic impact of apps like Tinder. Cole says that a common practice for O Bar patrons is to meet their dates for drinks, and if sparks fly, book a room. Other times, he's seen men reserve a room in advance, and if the date goes awry, cancel the reservation hours later. In the most extreme example, Cole came to work early one evening when the hotel was only 10% booked. That night, O Bar drew a particularly large singles crowd, and by closing time the hotel was nearly full.
The rise of online dating may, in fact, even have driven O Bar's furniture changes. When Ambassador first launched the bar, management envisioned it as a convivial, low-key wine spot for hotel guests and workers. So they furnished it with a bunch of large couches designed for groups. But after O Bar blossomed into a singles spot, Ambassador funded a $40,000 furniture overhaul. Many couches were replaced with what Cole described as small individual “speed-dating tables,” and larger lounge tables designed for separate couples. These are now the bar's predominate furniture.
The scene within the bar, moreover, has changed. It used to be that packs of single women and men would enter separately, and then mingle. This still happens on weekends, but is mixed with far more autonomous male-female couples. Koinzan noticed that women are less likely to get approached at the bar nowadays, especially by younger men who are likely finding their dates online. And she said that, especially among Millennials, mobile phone use at the bar has become more common, even late at night, when people are likely still seeking matches. These observations conform with Pew Center research finding that Americans between 18-34 use online dating sites more than the general population.
Perhaps the most significant online-dating-induced change at bars is that it's bringing new customers. There are probably people who would never go to bars--or even drink--but who view bars as the most natural place for first dates. By making first dates easier to find, online apps may be bringing these past absentees out of the woodwork--although neither Cole nor Koinzan would speculate.
All this is to say that the method for measuring online dating's effects on bars is imprecise. It seems intuitive that Tinder and the like would increase traffic, and that was the feedback I received from O Bar's staff. But then again, O Bar's romantic setting might make it a natural beneficiary over other bars. Norm Bekoff, the owner of Captain Norm's Dockside Bar, in Oklahoma City's Bricktown area, said by phone that he hadn't noticed changes. This might be because his bar is less upscale, and caters to an older crowd. On the other hand, one competing Oklahoma City bar had, according to Cole and Koinzan, put a sign out front saying "come have your awkward Tinder date here.” If other bars nationwide are noticing such cultural shifts, perhaps they should hang these signs too.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]