Is Members Only Nightlife a Sustainable Model?

Nightclubs are predicated upon exclusivity. The velvet rope, the doorman, the list, all the (sometimes-enforced) policies for entrance; it all creates an aura of selectivity, which creates demand for your venue’s product and helps build buzz. The point of all of this is to foster that nebulous moniker of “hot.” The problem with “hot” is that it inevitably cools. As The Strategic Group and The Strategic Hospitality Group Co-Founder Noah Tepperberg once told me, “the law of diminishing returns on any nightclub sets in the minute you first open your doors.”

Beacher's MadhouseThus, venues consistently strive to maintain the “hot” status granted to any new place. Many mistakenly employ flash-in-the-pan tactics -- mere fads really -- and “hot” will diminish quicker for those establishments. This is the reason the average lifespan of a nightclub is approximately 18 months. For spots that endure and outlast their initial wave of heat, it’s usually because management successfully imparted exclusivity upon the place, and understand you don’t need the whole city inside your venue -- just the right people: the trendsetters, the celebrities, the tastemakers and some big spenders; those people who others turn to for recommendations.

However, nightlife is seeing a new trend emerging. One that takes exclusivity to new heights: members-only venues. From NYC’s The Eldridge, Soho House New York and yet-to-open The Parlor Club to LA’s Beacher’s Madhouse at the Roosevelt and Las Vegas’ Savile Row, as well as other top spots around the nation, it seems the only way to absolutely guarantee entry is to be a member. Sure, members can bring pals, and help non-members get a table reservation, but the point of these venues is to cater to a developed, built-in clientele -- a stable consumer base that operators know possess the right aesthetic, vibe and bank account to contribute the most to the room.

Some of those places listed above dole out titanium membership cards, gold keys and other over-the-top tchotchkes gratis to the bulk of their clients. But the increasing option – one which isn’t advertised as openly – is the ability to buy your access. If you have enough money, your cache or coolness is no longer an issue or barrier to entrance. You can simply fork over thousands of dollars and revel right along side the rest of the folks, which is completely contradictory to the notion of exclusivity. If anyone can get in by flashing enough cash, how exclusive is your venue at the end of the day?

Studio 54 had a fantasDoormantic doorman named Marc Benecke, who worked in tandem with owner Steve Rubell to ensure that the finished room was a perfect mix of glamorous nobodies alongside the biggest names in the world. Guests’ image and ethos mattered -- not their stack of hundreds or their fame (the club infamously denied everyone from Warren Beatty to Frank Sinatra to Woody Allen). Wearing a hip T-shirt was far more likely to get you in than whipping out your billfold. And that’s a model that should be looked to far more often.

Many spaces make a huge dog and pony show out of their door, announcing how elitist and selective their velvet rope sentry will be on a given night. Yet when push comes to shove, the almighty dollar reigns supreme, which is somewhat understandable because nightlife is, after all, a business. And then the door becomes lax. Exceptions are made. People who should never be members otherwise are allowed in, which in turn irks the true core of the trendsetting clientele the club has worked so hard to secure. In the end, it would seem eagerness to sell a table could be an exclusive club’s downfall.

In my humble opinion, you don’t need to position your club as members only. Everyone knows that eventually that label will fall away, even if only in practice. The “hot” places that truly thrive understand that its about the finished product of the room – the look of the crowd, the energy, the intangible and gritty je ne sais quoi that only comes from having downtown hipsters pressed up next to the uptown finance guys. Membership may have its privileges, but doing away with membership programs altogether may be the best gift you can give your venue.

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