Message in a Bottle

Lower Prices, Smaller Sizes, Nifty Presentation and Variety — Savvy Bottle Service Keeps Nightclubs Hopping

Customers still crave the service, status and real estate of having bottle service, but in today’s new normal, they’re no longer willing to shell out a fortune for it. Whereas spending thousands of dollars on a night out used to be de rigueur in some markets, suddenly these same customers are keeping their wallets in their pockets.

It’s a problematic pickle causing nightclub owners massive migraines. Truth is, many had become drunk on easy profits created by selling bottles for as much as $500 or more a pop. Now, although economists predict we’re beginning the slow climb out of the proverbial tank, nightclub operators are looking for ways to keep customers interested and spending as much as possible.

The first signs of weakness in the bottle service market began to appear two years ago. It was at that time the hottest clubs in trendsetting cities such as Las Vegas and New York started looking for ways to woo patrons with new options that would keep business flowing, albeit at a lower profit margin. Almost overnight, defensive posturing led to selling lower-priced half bottles.

Places such as ROK Las Vegas at the New York New York Hotel & Casino made half bottles a major selling point to attract those put off by the increasingly steep cost of living it up while out on the town.

Now it seems as if every nightclub is trying to rejigger the way it handles this important piece of business. The dilemma is, however, no one seems to have found the silver bullet that will goose customers into shelling out more cash. Instead, the best practice seems to be to retrench, focus on the basics and deliver on service, service and more service.

Take Matt Bongiovi, for example. Bongiovi is partner in 84 Park, an ultra lounge/boutique nightclub that debuted in Stamford, Conn., this past summer. The story there is similar to the challenges faced by many club owners outside big tourist cities: How do you get people to spend when they are not on vacation?

“It’s all about value to us. That means you are not just selling the bottle, you are selling the experience, the real estate and the service,” says Bongiovi. “To build clientele, you have to give them value, especially in this down market. People are not as price sensitive as they are value sensitive.”

It’s making Bongiovi rethink the value of a customer. He’s not looking at how they will spend in one night, but rather at the lifetime value of that customer. That means eschewing $400 bottles in favor of moving more reasonably priced bottles — about $225. “That kind of pricing sets the tone for the night. As a customer, I can walk away feeling more comfortable,” Bongiovi adds.

Establishing that comfort level is important because what it really does is creates loyalty, something far more critical than making a couple of hundred extra dollars one time. At 84 Park, Bongiovi’s customers are calling on Wednesday afternoon to make sure they can reserve a good location for Saturday night, he says.

Cory McCormack, partner and managing director of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas’ Nightlife Group — the group that oversees all nightlife outlets at the renowned resort including its über-successful Rehab Sunday party — agreed that the economy has changed the way people think about bottle service. And it’s up to owners and executives to get creative.

“With the economy the way it’s been in last year and half, it’s taken its toll. But people still want bottle service and to have fun and party. Now instead of getting a bottle of vodka and tequila, it is just the vodka. The new mantra is bottle service on a budget,” McCormack explains, noting that tableside luxuries such as Champagne are pretty much out these days.

At Wasted Space, a rock-themed nightclub, the Nightlife Group looked to the beer drinker to drive more business. Earlier this year, McCormack and his team introduced tableside keg service. Selling for about $150, the kegs drew customers who never would have purchased a bottle of vodka, for example, and are loving the idea they can enjoy their brew without ponying up to the bar. In New York, a bar called Superdive is all about the mini keg, and it’s garnered the watering hole not only loyal clientele but lots of ink in the press as well.

Though the tableside keg lowers the check average, McCormack says the club would not have gotten those patrons as bottle service customers anyway, and it’s proven a good way to shield Wasted Space from the recession. “This is a cool and unique way to accommodate them,” McCormack says.

Just remember, it’s not necessarily what you serve, but the service that goes along with it. Without that, it’s over. NCB

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