Harvard Grad Finds Success in Hospitality
Element Collective Partner Chris Dexter is a rarity in club land. Most operators come from a background that’s a little short on manners and patience and a little long on ambition, ego and determination. The typical operator was never an A student; while others were hitting the books, most future club honchos were networking and throwing small parties or promoting for a local bar or club.
Dexter, on the other hand, is a Harvard graduate. At 6 ft., 5 in., he played basketball for four years in college, followed by a couple of years as a pro in Italy. He currently is a dominant force in Chicago, where his Element Collective hospitality group has opened one hit after another. Dexter is a nice guy destined to finish first. We recently caught up with him and asked about his success:
Nightclub Confidential (NCC): You have a big education and a sports background. How did you come to hospitality?
Chris Dexter: To annoy my parents. All kidding aside, it was really love at first sight. I just fell in love with the idea of allowing people to escape their own reality for a night. No matter how cool, sophisticated, beautiful or worldly someone may be, the reality is that everyone grapples with the human condition. We all want to have fun, to eat an amazing meal, try a sublime cocktail, to dance our ass off; at its core, nightlife done right is about enabling people to let loose and enjoy themselves.
At the time, I was working for Bear Stearns [a former New York-based global investment bank] while I was bartending on the weekends at a frat boy sports bar in Chicago. I got fired — for good reason I might add — and happened to meet Rande and Scott Gerber [principals of The Gerber Group, an influential nightlife proprietor] as they were getting ready to open a few places in Chicago. I was hired to open the two W Hotels in Chicago and run their operations.
After the first few months, … I was hooked. You mean I get to entertain my friends, meet incredible and interesting new friends and I can make money doing this? There is just something positively amazing about throwing a great night — the crowd, the music, the energy; it is just addictive.
All of the subjective and romantic reasons aside, as an entrepreneur at heart and a businessman, I saw opportunity. Plain and simple, nothing romantic there. I saw how a properly run business could really thrive.
In my position now, you need to maintain an acute focus on decidedly unglamorous aspects of running a mid-size company: investor relations, tax implications, strategic financial planning, labor issues and on and on. But some of my favorite times are when I get to be on the floor for the night. Those are few and far between now, but the reason I got into hospitality is the same: I just love to serve.
NCC: Your company, Element Collective, owns a lot of Chicago’s nightlife venues. Can you tell us about Element?
Dexter: Element is a hospitality collective that my business partner Chris Freeman and I founded as a response to what we felt was lacking in larger national nightlife groups. We started Element with the strategic plan of not only opening in several larger hospitality markets at the same time but with the very clear vision of each concept being singular to that market — a “local” national group that immerses itself in the unique culture and scene of each market. We have already done this in San Diego and Chicago and are opening projects in Los Angeles and Boston within the year; we have four concepts currently open (Nellcôte, Old Town Social, RM Champagne Salon and Quality Social) and will have three more within the year in Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston.
We also have a consulting company, Catapult Consulting, that predominantly focuses on hotel nightlife management and a design-build firm, JW Construction, that focuses solely on hospitality projects.
Further, we believe strongly that most hospitality groups tend to mass market one concept and then roll out one or more of them in different markets but don’t really change the concept itself. To us, that just doesn’t make sense. What works in L.A. doesn’t work in N.Y. What works in N.Y. doesn’t work in Chicago. We live in an artisanal world now: The consumer is more educated, savvier and wants to feel the handcrafted components of a concept.
We focus on what we see is the new paradigm of luxury: glamour meets grit, luxury meets approachable, refined and sophisticated meets unpretentious. Each of our concepts is launched with a vision so simple, it’s almost radical: a balance between the progressive and the approachable. We try to appeal to an audience based solely on attitude and lifestyle rather than conventional demographic restraints. Reflecting our own personal aesthetic, we enjoy a consistent mix of highbrow and lowbrow, and our concepts reflect that.
NCC: You are well travelled. What is unique about the Chicago market?
Dexter: Chicago is such a staggeringly cool city. First and foremost, the nightlife and culinary scene here is undergoing a true renaissance; the line between high-energy nightlife and traditional dining experiences are becoming increasingly blurred, and it’s really exciting to be a part of. Chicago is a chef-driven town with an increasingly popular restaurant scene that's garnering international acclaim. That’s what we have done at Nellcôte: blend a high-energy nightspot with an upscale restaurant aesthetic that contains all of the elements of a luxury experience.
There is a young crop of innovative nightlife impresarios doing big things, taking risks and executing high-quality endeavors. Unlike some other markets, there is less conspicuous consumption and more education and sophistication overall.
Finally, Chicago is very unique in that while it is one of the most urbane and cultured cities in the world, it still retains a refreshingly blue-collar sensibility. There is less of the jaded nature of other cities of similar size and scope. Chicago is like a gorgeous woman that hasn’t lost her way or been eaten alive by the big city: She is still down to earth, witty and humble, but she knows she is gorgeous.
The Element Collective's Nellcote is located in Chicago.
NCC: You are expanding to other cities. Tell me about your plans and what steps you are taking to ensure success in "foreign" markets.
Dexter: In addition to the expansion plans I mentioned previously, we have turned down several offers in Las Vegas and New York until we are a little further along. It is vital in our development and growth that we not dilute our vision nor our brand. Expanding too quickly would inhibit our ability to create a “locally” focused nightlife group with a national scope. One of the things I get off on the most is immersing myself in the local market. I love to meet the “cool” kids of a particular city; the tastemakers, the leaders of the nightlife scene, the artists and misfits and fun ones to be around. Once you have done that, you get a real sense of the way that city operates and thinks.
The consumer is educated; you need to be honest and authentic and true to that market. They smell a chain a mile away. As such, we work extra hard to make sure our concepts genuinely reflect the market in which they are based.
Pragmatically, we find local investors rather than just getting easy money from previous investors in other markets. We often are willing to take smaller investments because those investors tend to be brand ambassadors that we feel fit our brand well.
Financially, this is a business after all, so we make sure to really understand the economic realities of the commercial real estate market in each city fully before committing to a location. A bad deal is a bad deal in any market, regardless of past experience or confidence. The deal still needs to pencil out.
NCC: As an owner/operator, how do you clone yourself or train management to understand your systems?
Dexter: Work 16 hours a day. Seriously though, it’s not so much that I want a clone of myself as much as I want each manager to “think like an owner.” We have an extensive managerial training program that we have spent years putting together, and while we are very hands-on as owners, we also strive to empower the managers and support their initiatives.
The systems are imperative in having each concept be successful. Either myself or my business partner Chris Freeman spends at least a week a month in each market at separate times, so one of us is almost always around to help and support the management and staff. But as you well know, human capital is very difficult to find, train and keep.
NCC: Are each of your places separate organisms, or have you centralized accounting and other departments?
Dexter: Each place is a distinct legal entity strictly speaking, but we have implemented several economies of scale when it comes to accounting, marketing, operations and public relations. We have several senior managers who work for Element as a whole, not just an individual concept at the local level.