A lot of agencies and other marketing companies (whether they call themselves researchers or strategists or brain scanners) still do focus groups but like to call them something else. This is partially just our ubiquitous need to come up with a proprietary-sounding name for the thinking we are selling (when thinking itself is what is worth something) and partially a desire to articulate a real commitment to some different approach to a tried-and-true method.
E.g, IDEO which insists on calling their consumer contact sessions unfocus groups, in order to communicate their emphasis on open-ended inspiration rather than selection. And Frank about Women--a woman's marketing company which is an offshoot of my previous agency--called their gatherings of women "Chatitudes" because they were supposed to be, well, more chatty and hopefully revealing than traditional groups. Most of these companies insist on doing their groups in non-focus group spaces. The theory goes that people in more "natural" surroundings are more relaxed and open than they would be in formal focus group facility and that will lead to more insightful conversation.
There's no question that focus group facilities are some of the most boring spaces I have ever inhabited. There have been times, after 8 hours in the dark and M&M-littered back room that I stumbled into the summer night of Columbus, OH or Atlanta, GA or wherever and thanked various higher powers that I was liberated back into a world of starlight and air that smelled of magnolia and cut grass, but I'm not sure that this made much of a difference to the respondents or the quality of the research.
In general, I think the key components of a good focus group are a good recruit + good questions. Both harder than they first appear
That being said, I did just return from two days of groups in a non-traditional facility (the back room of a nice italian restaurant) and here's what I think:
1) It's fun to drink on the job. You can see why everyone used to do it.
2) It's even more fun when the respondents drink too. They do tend be a bit more expressive in that classic inhibition-lowered way.
3) Respondents drinking wine and eating good food are not in a hurry to leave. I had to kick them out after 2.5 hours and counting.
4) It's a little harder to do activities: show images, make collages, etc, what with all those glasses and bottles around.
5) When you're sitting around a big table eating figs and sipping Barbera, there is a strong temptation for certain respondents to begin side conversations with other respondents, particularly the cute ones.
All in all, the groups were good. Were the resulting insights much better than they would have been in a focus group facility? The quality of the respondents was quite high. Everyone was articulate and passionate about the subject. So perhaps there is a principle of self-selection involved, but it's hard to say. I've had good groups in facilities too, as have we all.
They were certainly a lot more fun. Everyone left the room excited about the project. Involved in a way they wouldn't have been in a facility. They felt like they contributed. Several actually wanted to continue the conversation and actually requested a follow-up. In this respects, the non-traditional facility certainly worked it's magic. Like any other fun gathering, it's building my database.