Built to Fail (Four Ingredients for an Unsuccessful Nightclub)

By Gamal Hennessy

I’m not an operator. I have never owned or managed a club. The jobs that I have had in nightlife have been minor and temporary. So, I don’t presume that I can tell professionals how to run their businesses better. I don’t pretend to have answers based on years of work in the trenches. All my observations and ideas ultimately come from the patron’s side of the bar. The ideas I recommend or pass on are offered from the perspective of a nightlife native obsessed with going out. Now that I have offered that disclaimer, I can share my observations about how NOT to open a new venue.

There are a lot of different ways to jump into the New York market and establish a new spot. Once you figure out how you are going to fill up your room with people and how you are going to make more money than you spend to keep them there, your options are only limited by your imagination and your resources. But while there might be a lot of right ways to do it, there is a recipe for the wrong way to do it. Here are the ingredients:

Your venue has no hook: Patrons have a lot of choices when it comes to where they party in New York. If you give them a reason to come to your place, then you stand out from the competition. Maybe you offer a distinct style of music. Maybe you cater to a specific type of crowd. Maybe you have celebrities showing up. Maybe you are just convenient to get to for a quick drink. Any reason helps. But if all you can offer people is a liquor license and a dark room, then you probably won’t last long.

The music is too loud to lounge and programmed to prevent dancing: As an operator, you can use music in the same way a golfer uses clubs. A golfer picks his the club based on what kind of shot he wants to make. You pick the music based on what kind of crowd you want to draw and what you want that crowd to do when they arrive. If you want them to do more dancing and less talking, you can play house or hip hop loud enough to get girls on the dance floor. If you want drinking and conversation, you play jazz, top 40 or whatever so it is just loud enough to be pleasant background noise. What you can’t do is play music that literally clears the dance floor and play it so loud that people couldn’t talk to each other even if they resorted to licking each other’s ears. A musical combination like that will shank your crowd right into the sand trap.

Your gender ratio is way off: At the risk of sounding preferential towards women, I firmly believe that a successful venue needs to have a crowd that contains more women than men. Men go out and spend money at places where they know (or at least hope) women will be. Women don’t feel comfortable in a room overwhelmed by hordes of drunk and horny men. If the ratio between men and women is even or favors the ladies, then you will avoid potential fights and keep the sexual energy high enough in the room to encourage people to stay. If you look out onto your dance floor and there are 30 guys trying to dance with 4 girls then your doorman let in too many guys. That will lead to trouble. Please note that in a gay bar this rule does not apply because many straight girls that I have talked to love to be in a room overwhelmed by drunk and horny gay men.

Your bottle service system kills your revenue: Some people think that the bottle service trend in New York is over. Some people think that it is just as prevalent as it ever was. I don’t know which statement is true. I do know that if your promoter gets comp bottles and then everyone in the spot goes over to the promoters table to drink for free, then you have just eliminated your major revenue stream. If you have no cover and no one is actually paying for liquor, how are you making money? And if you are not making money, how are you going to stay opened?

There are probably quite a few other ingredients that go into this formula that my operator friends will tell me about later. There are issues like complaints from neighbors, internal theft, poor service from your staff and bad publicity that can be just as bad for the long term success of a venue. But when I’m in a new place that has no hook, bad music, not enough women and too many people drinking from the comp bottles I start to wonder how long this place will last and who is going to come in and do a better job.

Have fun