Remember the grunge club scene? If not, that’s probably due to its mercifully short lifespan as the last gasp of an extreme anti-glamour trend. But in the late ’90s, the pendulum has swung back with a vengeance.
As the stock market has boomed, so has the desire for luxury, quality and glamour. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the growth of clubs dedicated to celebrities, ostentation, fashion and attitude. From the “see and be seen” clubs of Los Angeles and Miami to a multi-concept scene in Dallas, toney customers have swamped night-clubs as they seek the hottest spot for memorable high-style nights on the town.
What exactly makes these scene-makers spend half the evening dressing up, and the other half panting in line at clubs like Chicago’s Drink? Why are they hanging around hour after hour outside NYC’s Moomba? At 11 p.m. or midnight on Friday, why would anyone wait in line for a drink? It’s a point to ponder, but one that seems to elude most of those late night customers hoping to jump to the front of the line. Especially in cities where there’s a club on every corner. What is it so enticing about these clubs?
“Part of our appeal is our exclusivity,” says Michael Tronn, club director of Miami’s bubbling hot Liquid. “We have a selective door policy and a strict dress code. We won’t let in people who look like they won’t mix well or who might instigate problems.”
“It’s difficult to get in here,” says Lana Gates, public relations manager for The Gate, an exclusive, ultra-trendy Los Angeles nightclub. “Our club is not at their disposal. Customers know it’s hard to get in The Gate, therefore, they want to get inside. And once in, they feel like they’ve earned their evening.”
Nightclubs are a curious phenomenon. Newness brings instant buzz, more often than not followed by a sudden and fatal fizzle. Keeping customers returning takes constant redefinition.
“The biggest misconception about the club business is that you can open your doors and automatically be successful,” says Tronn. “It’s a Catch-22: the only way to learn is to do it, but you can’t flop initially or you’ll give yourself a bad name, and no one will want to return. Once you fail, it’s extremely hard to turn it around.”
So the key is to maintain a hipper-than-thou buzz, and keep the famous, and infamous, coming for more.
“There is no set formula,” says Jeffrey Yarbrough, owner of Club Clearview/Art Bar/Red/Blind Lemon, a quartet of clubs housed together in a multi-floor operation in Dallas. “That’s the reason most clubs don’t succeed. They think they have the formula down, but the formula is always changing. The most important thing is to stay current.”
What’s hot now seems to be defined by the local market. In Los Angeles and Miami, celebrities seem to be a large part of the success equation. In Dallas, variety is the spice of life. In Chicago, it’s creative marketing. In New York, it’s constant re-creation. But the one key to the success, according to a number of club operators, is the unparalleled customer service they offer their patrons.
“The most important thing is to make your customer feel as though they are in another world,” says Yarbrough. “People want to feel as though they have escaped from their job, house, a mad boyfriend, whatever–just make sure that they feel transported. At Club Clearview, every door that customers walk through, their senses are given something new: new visuals, lights, mood and music. Everything here is an experience.”
The Gate’s philosophy is similar. “Every choice the customer makes once they walk into our club is validated,” says Gates. “When they order a drink, the bartender tells them it’s a great choice. Our service is unparalleled because we pay attention to every nuance of the customer’s experience. And the little details really emphasize the appreciation of the customer. We have fresh flowers, gold-embossed matchbooks and antiques. The owners and management want to provide the best environment possible for the patrons, as if they were visiting a friend’s luxurious mansion.”
Andre Cortes, owner of NY’s retro-glamour and swing scene, The Supper Club, ticks off three reasons for his place’s success. “Always give good service; never, ever forget about the patron; and choose your staff wisely. If your staff is happy, then the customers will be, too.”
Lana Gates concurs. “Eighty-five percent of The Gate’s staff has been at the club since it opened,” she states “In fact, six of our bartenders helped build the place and have customized their bar space to what works best for them.”
The success of the Dallas quartet of clubs comes from focusing on customer needs, says Yarbrough. “It’s important to remember that your clientele is constantly changing,” he says, “that you will always have to meet the needs of new generations of club-goers. To do this you need to constantly re-invent yourself and stay fresh.”
Another key to the success is the staff. “You need to have a good staff: well-informed, well-trained and happy,” he advises. “You want them to work hard and have a great time doing it. Customers pick up on that. If the staff is having fun, everyone else will too.”
Night clubs that lean toward the upper crust enforce sartorial restrictions as well. “We enforce the dress code,” Gates says. “It’s loose but elegant. We want people to have fun dressing up to come here, because it’s an occasion as opposed to just going out to grab a drink.”
“A dress code is important because it shows that you’ve decided who you want to appeal to,” says Andre Cortes, owner of the Supper Club. “You can have no dress code and appeal to the masses, or establish a dress code and appeal to a specific clientele. Dressing up to go out automatically signifies a special evening.”
“The whole purpose of a club is to be a social place,” adds Cortes, “We offer a comfortable, fun atmosphere that is conducive to socializing. The buzz that has been created about The Supper Club is because we have a clear identity, and our customers know they can count on a great experience when they come here.”
The Gate heralds the transition from dinner to nightclub by doing more than changing the lighting. “At 10:45 we do what we call the ‘curtain opening’,” she says. “We crank up the music, lights and smoke, open the curtains to the dance area, and provide entertainment such as fire breathers or magicians. At midnight we pass out chocolate covered strawberries to our VIPs. All of this shows our customers that we want them to have a complete experience here.”
Six years after its launch, The Gate is still one of Los Angeles’s most popular nightspots. “We offer remarkable service and unrivaled ambiance,” says Gates. “We also don’t saturate the club out. We’re only open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; Thursdays for the summer. The other nights we’ll do private parties.”
Adding to the club’s mystique is its respect of the celebrity clientele, including a “No cameras allowed” policy and a discreet limo drop off at a private entrance.
Miami’s Liquid might represent the extreme of celebrity chic clubs. Owners Ingrid Casares and Chris Paciello are themselves often the subject of media scrutiny, Casares for her famous and fabulous friends—Madonna, k.d. lang, Rosie O’Donnell—and Paciello due to his street-tough Brooklyn origins. They opened Liquid four years ago, with an opening night roster that included Calvin Klein, David Geffen and Gloria Estefan.
That opening night media buzz has kept up to this day, according to Michael Tronn, who says success here is due to “a combination of celebrities, notoriety and the best music.”
“Liquid offers a constant stream of creative, cool events encompassed by celebrities,” he says, mentioning charity benefits and fashion line debuts with celebrity models. “We’re always surprising people with what we do. We’ll have drag performers, celebrity parties, fashion shows.”
Liquid also offers “living installations” on the dance floor, including nude models covered in whipped cream from the neck down dancing atop platforms and leather chap-clad men riding rocking horses.
In San Francisco, the Bubble Lounge offers patrons a more subtle scene.
“The Bubble Lounge really fulfills different facets of San Francisco,” says Michelle Drinks, manager. “We’re not a dance club, or restaurant house, we’re somewhere in between. The Bubble Lounge is a great place for people to get together and celebrate. It’s intimate but very upbeat at the same time. People gather here right after work up until 2 a.m. We’re busy all the way through the evening.”
Located in a neighborhood with a diverse selection of bars and clubs, the Bubble Lounge’s success is a reflection of the customers, Drinks believes. “The people really make our place what it is,” she says. “We have an eclectic group of customers, and that makes the place visually stimulating.”
The Bubble Lounge, open only a few months, is thriving on word-of-mouth advertising alone. “We’ve really developed regular clientele in such a short time,” she says. “And the mood of the lounge changes day to day; The crowd you’ll find here at 3 p.m. on Friday is vastly different from 10 on a Tuesday night.”
Naturally, champagne is the biggest seller here. “Our staff makes champagne very accessible,” she says. “Part of our service approach is for the staff to make ordering champagne less intimidating for the customers. We offer 30 champagnes by the glass, and tastings, too.”
But it’s not strictly champagne that the customers order. “Champagne cocktails are a huge seller for us,” she says. “Also, Cosmopolitans are quite popular–we make ours with Stoli lemon.”
Popular on both coasts, Cosmopolitans are also the trend in Dallas. “Absolut Cosmopolitans are one of our most popular cocktails,” says Jeffrey Yarbrough. “We also offer a specialty Martini menu, that includes chocolate and apple Martinis. Tuaca Lemon Drops are our biggest selling shots, and our best selling beers include Corona for imports, Bud Light for domestic, and Celis, a Texas brand, for micro-brews.
While beverage preferences, like format popularity, varies from region to region, what unifies these clubs is their commitment to top drawer–and top dollar–customer satisfaction. Nothing’s too good, or too expensive, for their guests. It’s a high-rolling combination, but one that can lead to big rewards.
Peggy Wallace is a San Francisco-based writer specializing in the hospitality industry.
Spin the Bottle
The Gate, the premier LA nightclub focuses on luxury, celebrity and style, offering a three-star dinner menu and a late-night dance club in the atmosphere of a European castle. Customers are wooed into the giant club by 17th- and 18th-century lighting fixtures and antiques, a lush environment that reflects the owners’ goal to make the customer feel pampered in every way. There’s the now de rigeur cigar bar and private rooms, three bars made of maple, two outdoor patios and two fireplaces.
But its secret hook might be the Gallery, secreted above the dance floor, a luxurious room with a fireplace and private bar that functions primarily as a very selective bottle room.
“The Gallery is very exclusive,” says Gates. “We serve everything from bottles of Absolut to Louis XIV. Bottles are served with all of the accoutrements. If the customer doesn’t finish the bottle, their name is put on it, and it’s stored for them until the next time they visit the club.”
Bottle rooms and similar programs which offer high-priced and limited access privacy for the rich and famous are fast growing profit centers at some clubs. At Life’s A Beach, the fashionable disco in Southampton, NY, where NYC’s elite party all summer, the bottle fee for use of one VIP room table can reach $1,000.
“The most popular items served in the bottle room is champagne and vodka,” observes Gates. “Overall our customers tend to order premium drinks. Our well liquor is what other clubs serve as their call brands.”–PW
SOME PLACES seem to create their sensational buzz out of the blue; for most operations, though, it takes marketing. In Dallas, it’s a must.
“We have a telemarketing program that works extremely well,” says Jeffrey Yarbrough of Club Clearview and three other bars operating under one roof. “We have employees go out on the floor with cards for customers to fill out, and we ask if they want to be notified of special events or if they want to set up a cocktail party.”
“We do e-mail, fax or phone campaigns where we notify people of special events, or call and ask if they want us to help them set up a cocktail party for a group of their friends.” For the “cocktail party,” the club will invite a customer and a group of friends into the club and buys the first drinks of the evening.
The strategy helps Club Clearview stand out in the crowd, says Yarborough. “No one likes to be the first person in a club, but if you come in with a group of your friends, together you are a crowd, and it creates some action in the place at the beginning of the night.”
Club Clearview also promotes through the airwaves. “We have a radio campaign with one of our employees, James Fletcher, otherwise known as Fletch,” says Yarbrough. “Our commercials are 60 seconds of Fletch doing a monologue on anything from the Spice Girls to his mayonnaise fetish to why it’s a great idea to come to Blind Lemon. This radio campaign has turned a night of 50 customers into a night of 1,500 customers in nine months. Everyone knows our commercials–they’re unique, very much our own.”
Yarbrough also depends on event marketing. “We do listing parties with record companies,” he explains. “This gives the club a ‘cutting edge’ perception. If the new Ziggy Marley CD is coming out, then we’ll contact the record company and set up a bar and food tab with them, then invite all the local retailers to hear the CD being played before it’s released. We also have art shows every six weeks in the Art Bar. With each show is a preview party for the artist.”
Events such as these keep the quartet of clubs a destination for the scene-makers in Dallas. “Updating and staying current keeps you top-of-mind with the customers,” says Yarbrough. “The club scene is always changing, so you need to stay on top of what’s happening in order to address your competition. Because if another club is taking business away from you, you need to figure out how to get it back.” –PW