VIP Guest Management StrategiesJanuary 22, 2013 By: Steve Lewis
Bottle service became a worldwide phenomenon in the last decade. Soaring costs in rent, insurance, DJ fees, security costs, litigation and the general increased price of doing business saw bottle service as a knight in shining armor. Bottle service always existed in the Euro clubs and Korean bars where tradition called for a business or individual to have his favorite spirit on a dedicated shelf or a locker.
In NYC clubs like Life, Chaos and Pangea started to bang bottles in the early 2000's in earnest. The science of bottle service soon developed with tables designed to hold carafes and extra glasses. Booths straightened out to benches to accommodate constantly expanding parties in part due to the cell phone text revolution that coincided.
Philadelphia embraced the trend at places like 32 Degrees and Shampoo and soon it was everywhere. Brian Taylor is the Nightlife Services Director at Zee Bar in Philadelphia and has been a leader in VIP nightlife. Zee Bar is a "social club" which according to local law allows members to drink till 3am instead of 2am. Nightclub & Bar had the opportunity to discuss with Taylor bottle service and current nightclub trends. Check out what he had to say:
Nightclub & Bar (NCB): Zee Club has a 3am license to serve. Explain the impact that extra hour has.
Brian Taylor: Correct, the extra hour is crucial to achieving optimal success not only financially but this is the extra hour all after hour venues compete for. We try to get the filler crowd in by 2:30. Between 2: 30 and 3:30 am door revenue, table service and bar sales will be at its highest.
NCB: How do social club’s work and how do you promote it?
Taylor: Social clubs each have a variety of bylaws/general accepted rules to follow. Each customer must be a member. Membership fees are traditionally paid once a year. Members are charged a modest cover charge each time a member chooses to visit the venue. They have access to special events, and a separate private entrance. A member must invite non-members. You cannot enter if they are not a member either prior to their visit or signing up that night. There are a few major differences between after hours and traditional venues. The option of staying open beyond 3:30am is available on an application basis by licensed venue for special catering events. A venue must follow set guidelines for extended licenses such as providing breakfast for patrons. Open bar packages are heavily monitored and runs between a set period of time. Promoting a social club is difficult because of the rules. We choose to market via the type of outlets we use to, the type of parties we host and the programming.
NCB: How did door policies in Philadelphia evolve?
Taylor: Door policies were introduced when Shampoo Nightclub opened. Shampoo set the bar for what Philadelphia’s define as the club years. Shampoo introduced the traditional door policy with its own personal touch. People reminisce about the diversity of crowds, the mix of different genders, and races all in one room. They were people who treated the art of “clubbing” with great appreciation. Dressing and acting the part was part of the decorum for a guest. Mundane polices such as dress code, cover charges were not as relevant because the majority of people clubbing shared a collective definition of what to expect. The nature of afterhours lends more to door policies because the demand of the services is at its highest when all the other venues close. The definition of a dress code was defined by the door host not you post your policy online and people easily follow those guidelines. This takes away from the diversity one can create in a room. I personally welcome diversity. I think someone on roller-skates makes the party, the customer dressed in a costume can add flair to a room otherwise filled with true religion jeans.
NCB: When did bottle service really begin to pick up for you?
Taylor: Bottle service began to gain attention in Philadelphia with the opening of 32 Degree’s. Interesting enough the creators of Shampoo also created 32 Degree’s. Bottle service was regulated to those who traveled and experienced service and to others who choose it as a compliment to their evening. The early days you had a great balance between those who selected bottle service and those who choose bar service. For some venues bottle service for clients was an additional option for “members” to have if they were a member. The concept of memberships is not exclusive to after hour venues. Clubs operating with a traditional 2am license can still offer members as 32 Degree’s did. Members would have a locker with their preferred spirits and they could have those liquors whenever they choose to visit. For many this was a cool way of being a part of the party even when you were not there. Your locker would display your name, and enclosed was your preferred liquor.
NCB: How do bottle clients get expedited?
Taylor: Bottle Service clients were expedited for smaller venues by simply creating an additional line for VIP customers. Many venues for logistical purposes would have a VIP service greeter at the main door who “checked in” customers. The process would include verification of the group. Identifying who the host of the party is and securing method of payment. In years past bottle service customers were usually regulars and would know what to do which speeds up entry. Bigger venues have created a separate door for VIP guests. This allows VIP’s to not only get in faster but also experience a special entrance not accessible to the general public.
NCB: How do you train your staff for bottle service?
Taylor: This is the hardest and most difficult area for venues. The majority of people in nightlife have a false sense of what a bottle service staff looks like. The media and social influences use the image of a beautiful person servicing you liquor at your table. This is a very limiting view. We train our bottle service team with the inclusion of every level of personnel who will come into contact with a bottle service customer in mind. The waitresses, door host, bottle service host, security monitoring bottle service area and other support staff all are trained on executing the steps of service for bottle service. Maintaining a separate service team with there own prep area/station allows us to expedite service to bottle service guest which impacts our ability to seat new tables and flip current tables.
NCB: Do you think bottle service is here to stay or are craft cocktails starting to take over in nightlife settings?
Taylor: Bottle service is here to stay but the definition will change. In Philadelphia bottle service evolved from a service for a select few to have to an additional program for venues to utilize. Bottle service has changed over the years. The time of VIP customers being bottle service regulars has changed. There is a lot more of “hard selling”. I define hard selling by the sales you make at the door. Success for many venues ability to compete for bottle service lies now heavily falls on the shoulders of the door host. There is a level of educating customers who may, for many years, never elected to choose bottle service but with a shrinking market and more competition, venues are forced to change little nuances (minimums, price points, etc.). For many people they experienced bottle service once a year when they went to Vegas but with the change in demographics and options to travel often and cheaper the bottle service experience is not as glamorous as it was in years pass. There will always be a place for craft beers and cocktails because club kids will age. What you drank and how you drank at 25 may change at 35. The avid bottle buyer may upgrade to cocktails because of changing realities in their lives. Marriage, a family, careers impacts how a customer taste for options is impacted. The days of going out with a group of 8 changes to going out with a spouse on special occasions. Venues who realize this shift and tweak their strategy continue to survive. We may not have a lot of craft beers but we counter this by also marketing bottle service for couples. Understanding the changes in taste allows our venue to stay up with customers by offering variety.
NCB: For late night outings, how is Philly satisfying their customers? Do they head to NYC or AC instead?
Taylor: Customers have more control over what they choose to spend their dollars on and where. People travel more than in the past. Some areas have done a better job than others at defining itself as a destination location. People in our area select certain places for specific celebrations. They may choose AC for holidays such as NYE. NYC for birthdays. I encourage my staff to remember customers who can afford to frequent our venue and purchase table service weekly may also have the resources to travel and experience bigger cities with progressive nightlife options. I use this as a training tool to remind staff of the importance of being on our A game every night because we may only get our gold standard customers monthly and thus we must WOW them every time. The 2012 Holiday season many people elected to stay in Philadelphia. I always asked why they chose to stay many simply reply we feel as if we are getting the same service here. This encourages my thinking towards the progressive steps our nightlife market is making to stay up with the national trends.
People stay more in Philly because of the explosion in options. AC once offered the programming those smaller markets could not compete with but now. Kaskade plays in Philly, Tiesto comes to Philly. After hour venues also fills the void for clients wanting to party longer than 2am.
NCB: How do you attract the high end client (email, social media, personal outreaching, etc.)?
Taylor: Personal outreaching still remains to be our most successful tool. A lot can get lost in social media; it’s more of a summoning of the masses. Those with a discerning taste still appreciate and many demand that personal touch. A call to notify that customer of what’s going on at your venue still gets the most responses. Text messaging has definitely impacted personal outreaching because many like to text but a group or mass text is not considered outreaching. I still tailor each message to speak to the personal preferences of that customer. Having a membership system helps us to always easily connect with our members. Our members help in spreading the word. This is a great way for us to filter where our brand is advertised.
NCB: You have a 40 foot bar and many other bars. What percentage of your business is bottle service?
Taylor: A traditional night we would have a 60/40 split. Sixty percent being bottle service and 40 being bar. We prefer for a 50/50 split because it signals a balanced room with diverse entertainment options.
Taylor: This is always a tricky ratio because one must factor in the concept of people pouring their own drinks vs. a bartender making their drinks. A guess would be 60/40. Sixty being the amount of liquor served via table service vs. 40% bar
NCB: You carry 54 vodkas and 54 scotches. Is vodka still king in bottle service or have other spirits like high end tequila, scotch and cognacs dented that market?
Taylor: Vodka is still king. What is more apparent is how marketing of specific brands have impacted client’s decision-making. The ciroc impact has been the most noticeable because people for many years would always treat vodka and redbull as the default drink. People now select the type of vodka they want and even the flavor. The rise of flavored vodkas has lamented the position of vodka while also opening up the appeal of bottle service. Many new customers to bottle service would select a popular brand because of a commercial and something they heard in a song.
NCB: Is champagne on the rise?
Taylor: Champagne drinkers have remained constant throughout the shift. Champagne for many serves as a compliment to the other bottles of vodka they may order.
NCB: What are some of the current trends that you are currently seeing?
Taylor: Some of the new trends I am seeing impacts bottle service. First, the well-dressed male bottle service guest has a new face. Women are just as able and willing to purchase tables, same sex couples, and older couples and those who simply have a limited experience with bottle service easily purchase more after understanding the concept.
Secondly, bottle service does not mean table service. Media and social influences have impacted the way people wish to have services delivered. Years ago someone purchasing bottle service and requesting for you not to bring any glasses would be so far out of what a bottle service customer would want. Many people use bottle service as a way of emulating a lifestyle they may have read about or seen on TV. Table service still remains to be an option selected by experienced customers. Table service is also coming back to include cocktail service.
Lastly, selling bottle service is not as easy as having a sign. You must interact and engage customers, educate customers on what they are really getting. Table service leads to bottle service. If you can get a customer to sit down for a cocktail you can sell the option of buying the bottle because you have introduced the guest to a different aspect of experiencing services.