Facing the Challenges of First-Time Club Ownership

Opening a nightclub is a difficult challenge even for seasoned veterans. New to the game, Kathryn Burns has been thrust into the development of a newPCL space in the biggest little town in the U.S. of A., Park City, Utah. Famous for a Winter Olympics and the Sundance Film Festival, Park City is a quaint, cosmopolitan outpost just a hop, skip and a jump from Salt Lake City.

The venue Burns is charged with — Park City’s old Harry O's nightclub, lounge and event center — features a grand ballroom in which major live acts can roost for a night before they move on to larger shows in Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Burns is focused on her new venue; she is determined to make a go of it. As of this writing, she is faced with the huge pre-opening challenge all operators face: what to call the joint. (Burns and company currently are calling the venue “Park City Live” until a permanent name is chosen.) Facing enormous challenges, she now knows the questions — she just has to develop the answers.

Nightclub Confidential (NCC): How did you become a co-owner of what most people know as the Harry O's space in Park City Utah?

Kathryn Burns: My husband and I own 100% of the venue formerly known as Harry O’s. My original dream was to develop a high-end jazz club in Park City with fabulous wines and cocktails for après-ski, dinner or after-dinner cocktails and dessert. The town has nothing that fits that market, and I thought it would be a fun project to take on. … I became involved with the owners of Harry O’s … and became a passive investor in the Harry O’s nightclub. (After Harry O’s went bankrupt,) the landlord gave me the opportunity to assume the lease to try to recoup my losses from my investment.   

NCC: You have a business background but not necessarily a club business background. Where do you think you will fall short? What advantages do you have over industry-bred operators?

Burns: The underlying reason my business background will bring me a significant advantage is that my corporate connections and relationships will be instrumental in making my 10 most profitable nights of the year, during the Sundance Film Festival, an enormous success. During these 10 days, I will make 80% to 90% of my annual profit. My venue is the largest and hottest nightlife spot during the 10 days of Sundance with a capacity of close to 900 and a grand stage like no other on Main Street. 

This year, my club opened its doors for the first time ever on the first night of Sundance. We created a 10-day music festival that featured some of the most relevant live performers, celebrity hosts and DJs in the world with Hollywood's elite in attendance. The talent we had on stage included Ludacris, LMFAO’s Red Foo, Deadmau5, One Republic, Drake and Akon. 

To properly monetize these 10 days and provide such big name acts, it’s important to not just sell tickets and make money at the bar, but to bring big corporate sponsors to the table as well as leverage social media. With big-name acts on stage, my venue received over 300 million press impressions during the film festival, and the right corporate sponsors will pay significant fees to gain this exposure. 

My business background will first allow me to access these qualified large corporate sponsors and secondly approach them with a diligent, numbers-driven strategic approach to why they should join as a sponsor for these 10 days. This alone could literally double any profits Harry O’s ever attained from all operations of Sundance in the past.

In addition to leveraging my connections to get sponsors, I am taking advantage of my past career to leverage social media. This year, I was able to develop a relationship with a company that filmed three of my 10 nights of concerts, and this content will be available on Facebook for pay-per-view in the upcoming weeks. The value of this could be enormous when you consider we will be reaching hundreds of millions of people instead of just 800 for any given concert. This has never been done before in this venue, and next year I plan to film and distribute all 10 nights.

When looking at the nightclub business on the most basic rudimentary level, it’s really not “rocket science,” and it’s a pretty straightforward retail cash business. That said, when you look a little closer at the keys to success in this industry, these areas are subjective and, quite frankly, are best understood through experience and practice and are not easy to assess and get your arms around.

What I am referring to are three areas that are essential to “getting it right.”  First key to success I believe is micro-managing your cash and understanding all the tricks people use to steal from you.  Secondly, it is essential to quickly discern who is “real” and can bring value to your business vs. scam artists that waste your time and are just trying to get a piece of the action. Lastly, it’s having the intuitive sense for what will sell, what will get people to open their wallets and what is the current “it” thing in music that will sell out your room. Without experience in the industry, quite frankly, I don’t have a good grasp on these areas, but I have built a team around me that does have that knowledge and is walking me through it every step of the way.

NCC: Tell me the process of assembling a team to work with you.

Burns: In assembling a team, I was very conscious of balancing my “book smarts” with the “street smarts” of a team that knew the nightclub industry well. I needed a team that could “see around the corners” for people who would steal from me, who could direct me towards the right people to work with and who could really determine what was going to pack the house and make my venue the most relevant nightclub In Utah. 

Also, given we were literally opening our business on the first day of the most important 10 days of the year, it was essential to me to pick a team who knew how to make the most of the space. Therefore, I was careful to select people who had managed the venue, picked talent and run VIP before in the room.

NCC: Do you know enough to know how little you know about the nightlife business?

Burns: I acquired the business approximately eight weeks before Sundance and didn’t receive my liquor license until six weeks prior to opening. Needless to say, this was a “baptism by fire.” In those eight weeks, we brought a nightclub back to life that literally looked like a tornado had hit it; the place was in absolute shambles when I took ownership, and we cleaned it up, did a small remodel and repaired equipment to make the room operational. While I don’t pretend to know it all yet, I am amazed at how naïve I was at the start and what I have learned. I do believe this is certainly the case that “the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know,” but that’s why I have surrounded myself with an excellent team to show me the ropes and to continue to provide the “street smarts” I need.

NCC: Currently, you’re working on naming the venue. What should the name say about your place? What will it be when fully functioning?

Burns: My vision for this venue is that it should offer the most relevant, hottest talent in Utah for a wide array of music and that the talent on stage should appeal and attract a wide range of demographics. Therefore, I want the name to insinuate longevity, a wide selection of music and a sense that my venue is the only place in Utah where you can see talent of this magnitude in such an intimate venue.

The team has spoken to many people in the industry and several opinions have been given as to what the nature of the name should be:

• Some people feel like the name should have an old Western feel reminiscent of the old Park City, referencing a part of Park City history. For example: The Crescent Room, Judge & Co., Purple Canary, The Red Beryl or The Bixby.
• Others think it’s important for the name to connote grandness, magnificence and large scale, such as The Majestic, The Grand, The Summit, The Moon Room, The Manor, The Imperial or The Royal.
• The team has been interested in finding a name that has some meaning behind it that may be relevant to what we hope to inspire in our customers. For example: Eleven Eleven, Cadence or Lift.
• The team also wants the name to be memorable and unique and not feel at all like a cliché.

All of the names we have surfaced have both pros and cons and no one single name has completely resonated. I am confident we will find a great name but I’m not going to rush the process. We will use “Park City Live,” which was our name at Sundance, until I develop the perfect name.

NCC: What will you be when you grow up?

Burns: I want to be a person that is constantly evolving and learning and challenging myself. I never want to “stand still” or become complacent in who I am. Once I conquer creating an amazing nightclub in Park City, I am sure I will be looking for the next crazy project to take on. I guess (the answer to) “What will I be when I grow up?” is that I will not be any one thing except maybe a risk taker and someone that loves a problem-solving challenge.

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