Violence in and around nightlife venues appears to be on the rise. From the medical student who died in January after a brawl inside San Francisco’s Temple nightclub to the scores of “meatheads” scuffling in Seattle’s establishments to Edmonton oil workers’ pervasive and nasty fistfights in Canadian clubs and bars, patrons seem to be more unruly than ever.
No average clubgoer expects to be injured — or even die — during his or her night on the town, and no venue owner expects it will happen on his or her property. But it is happening, begging the question: Who is to blame for these reprehensible actions?
The operator often is first on the hit list, with those in the local community pointing a stern finger at the venue itself when a transgression surfaces. As many operators, owners and safety commissioners will admit, the venue can play a role in a skirmish. Although owners and operators increasingly are striving to do all they can to ensure a guest’s safety, they find themselves at the mercy of a small subset of patrons who simply are behaving poorly.
“Individuals who engage in violence are responsible for their own behavior,” Jim Peters, founder and president of the Responsible Hospitality Institute, explains.
Peters is tasked with running summits for operators, regulators, police and community groups to craft safe nightlife zones for denizens. He attributes the mounting pandemic to social conditioning as a result of poor economic times.
“We’ve always had bar fights. What’s new is the frequency and vehemence of the attacks. With the downturn in the economy, the nightlife district has to be more competitive and cast a wider net to attract new clientele,” he explains. “[Some of] these guests are facing under or unemployment and, as a result, are more agitated before they leave the house at night, not to mention the clubs that inadvertently hit up gangs coming to the new areas and venues. Warring factions on new turf will always fight to assert their dominance.”
So will Canadian guys who work on isolated oil rigs for most of the year.
“Take a large group of young males who are in a naturally competitive environment daily and removed from interactions with women,” Peters says. “Return them to the city of Edmonton with excess money, which they used to drink to excess, and they fought over any available woman. The fights were a city-wide issue.”
The demographics of a typical fighting patron haven’t changed much over the years.
“The only generalization is that it tends to be younger people. If they’re in a drinking establishment, they’re of age, but the most problems happen in 18-and-over venues, and age-wise, they’re up to the mid-20s,” says Jocelyn Kane, executive director of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, which regulates, promotes and enhances nightlife and entertainment in San Francisco.
Beyond that, anyone is capable of causing a ruckus, regardless of race or economic background: There’s no set profile for who will cause trouble inside a venue.
Operators agree that the larger the group, the higher the risk of an unsavory situation.
“Bachelor parties are always a problem,” Eric Millstein, co-owner of Dusk nightclub in Atlantic City, N.J., says. “People feel it’s OK to get entirely too intoxicated, and one bad apple spoils it for the bunch. It’s always the one guy who’s not used to nightclubs, who doesn’t understand protocol or how to behave in a bigger venue, and then you’ll have an issue.”
But don’t attribute all the fighting to the fellas: Even gender is a hazy indicator of a brawler. Kane suggests women are just as violent as guys.
“They’re using their fashion accessories as weapons. If you have someone sneaking into your venue with a knife, that’s a serious issue, and you can take the owner of the club to task for allowing it in,” Kane says. “But if you take off a stiletto and wield that like a club, as girls now are doing, you can’t hold the venue accountable. That’s her shoe.”
As for why the negative behavior appears to be mounting steadily, “what’s important to understand is we’re a society driven by pop culture, where glamorization of violence is real. It’s a badge of honor,” Kane offers. “Why do people think that ‘Jersey Shore’ — highlighting people getting into fistfights with one another while clubbing — is cool? In these peer groups, young people get the message that if you take authority on or bring violent culture out into the streets, then you’re suddenly cool.”
It’s a widely agreed upon sentiment: The debauched behavior of today’s reality stars will permeate the impressionable minds of young, future clubgoers, leaving an indelible ideal for nightlife that, when they’re old enough to legally enter, they’ll mistakenly assume is the norm.
“When [‘Jersey Shore’ reality star] Snooki gets punched in the face at the bar, or when Ronnie knocks someone out on his way home from the club, it was upsetting to me personally,” Millstein admits. “They’ve completely sensationalized fighting in nightlife, and it’s now how [people] think you’re supposed to behave in a club.”
How does a venue take on an infectious mind-set in which television and the media are glorifying untoward conduct and behavior? In Edmonton, they did it via a simple social-media campaign aimed directly at the instigators.
“The program’s messaging was simple. ‘Be a Lover, Not a Fighter,’ was the theme,” Peters outlines. “That slogan, which appealed to the mind-set of these males, also gave the women something to say to the guys when they got out of control. The city handed out kits that contained a condom or a Band-Aid, — [the tag line] said, ‘Which would you rather use tonight?’ It’s been highly effective.”
In Seattle, a “meathead law” was passed recently. The law calls for a $100 fine for rowdy behavior, such as fighting, making threats, creating noisy disturbances or even urinating on a building, after the bars close.
Nightlife-venue owners shouldn’t wait for their township or city to step up to the plate, however. There are plenty of things an operator can do to nip this type of epidemic in the bud. For example, proactively prevent guests from turning bottles into weapons.
“On busy nights, you take away glass and replace it with plastic bottles or cups,” Kane suggests. Alternatively, pay closer attention to how you seat your clients.
“My job is to understand placement,” Sebastien Lefavre, general manager at New York City’s GoldBar, says. “You seat the room according to the crowd because you don’t want large tables of guys posturing next to a similar group. Sometimes there’s tension between two tables, so you pick up one table, tell them you’re moving to a better spot and then the tension calms.”
At Dusk, fighting is “absolutely not a problem,” Millstein says. And it’s because of what the club doesn’t do.
“We don’t have excessive lines so people don’t wait long, and we don’t charge an extreme amount of money to get in, so they’re not agitated when they get inside,” Millstein explains. “We don’t have security; we have crowd-control specialists. They’re ambassadors who train and role-play how to best interact with our guests. They don’t touch people, and we use women specialists at the women’s bathrooms so girls don’t feel threatened. We don’t use swear words with anyone. We have sobriety checkpoints on the way in where we can spot over-served patrons immediately. We even keep the air conditioning cranking because we know a hot room can lead to angry guests.”
Being proactive and preventative always starts at the door.
“For us, the door is a numbers game. We have one security staffer,” Lefavre shares. “If six guys come up drunk, asking for five bottles, we won’t let them in because they’re already messed up; it’s too much of a risk. Sometimes people look at it as foregone revenue, but I’d rather not take their money if I think we’ll have a fight break out in our club.”
At Temple in San Francisco, a recent unfortunate death resulted in the implementation of a new ID scanning system.
“We can now take someone’s ID and share personal information across the board with other venues,” Amy Donnelly, marketing director for Temple, says. “If another nightclub on the server has flagged a patron for grabbing girls’ bottoms or been thrown out for fighting, we’ll know instantly when his or her ID is scanned at our door. We can either deny them right away or make sure to keep an extra eye on them inside.”
Additionally, pat-downs can go a long way to ensure weapons aren’t part of your guests’ group.
“Every time I go to a concert or a baseball game or festival, I get searched. Why should it be different in any place such as a club? If you don’t want to go through the metal detector, then you don’t come in,” Kane says. “If you’re not going to war or hunting, what do you need a weapon for?”
Ultimately, the reaction to violence in nightlife needs to be a combination of responses. First, the business has to be prepared for anything, remain in a good balance — many owners agree this includes keeping a proper ratio of guys to girls — and have control over their crowds.
“They also need to not over-serve patrons. [Too much] alcohol will lead to aggression,” Peters says.
But most importantly, clubs need to educate their patrons.
“Guests should understand they can’t get obliterated in your venue and that they have responsibility for their actions,” Peters surmises. “If you establish that your organization won’t condone any behavior that’s aggressive, you won’t have issues.” NCB
Security for the New Millennium
Thorough ID checks, adequate and well-trained security personnel, responsible drink service: These are the basic rules of creating a safe environment for patrons. With some of today’s patrons exhibiting more aggressive behaviors, what once was considered going the extra mile on security is becoming the norm. Steps bar and club owners and operators are or should be taking to head off violent incidences and protect their patrons and staff, as well as their businesses, include:
• Go high tech: ID scanners, video-surveillance cameras and even motion detectors can help prevent intoxicated or unruly guests from entering a venue, and their presence signals to possible malcontents that Big Brother is watching. What’s more, such technology can alert staff to a scuffle and document any drama that occurs inside or outside of the venue.
• Use a soft touch: Training security staff in intervention tactics and language skills that help diffuse developing situations pays off. When security acts less like stereotypical bouncers — ready to spring into action and bust some heads — and more like ambassadors ready with a smile, guests will be more likely to ask for assistance should an issue arise. Additionally, positive interactions, such as helping a guest find a restroom, allow security to assess patron behavior. It also sets a civilized tone for the venue.
• Bulk up: Staff your door properly so wait time is minimal, and consider other areas in your venue in which patrons could become agitated with service levels, available seating or other facets of their experience. Agitation can lead to aggressive behaviors.
• Be realistic about special events: When booking a hot DJ or hosting a party for a celeb, invest in extra security personnel and systems. An evening designed to draw a huge crowd and raise your profile and profits can backfire quickly if an incident occurs because you didn’t anticipate the crowd-control needs created by an excited mob of partiers.
Web Exclusive: Eyewitness to Bad Behavior
As a nightlife journalist who has spent a vast amount of time in and around nightclubs, I’ve witnessed my fair share of late-night transgressions, skirmishes and full-on brawls. It’s always shocking to see violent behavior unfold before you, and some encounters have been far worse than others. Such as:
• A day before this article was due, some friends and I ventured to Bunker Club in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Less than five minutes after we’d arrived, we were waiting in line for the bathroom when a group of drunken guys completely cut the line and slurred that they “really had to go.” When the bathroom attendant did nothing in response to the outcry of those of us who’d been waiting, my friend reminded one of the guys that it would be courteous if they would respect the line. The man turned and wordlessly punched my friend in the face. He split my friend’s eyebrow open and bruised his cheek so badly that the bleeding and swelling was visible even in the pitch-black room. The management did nothing beyond offering my friend a free tequila shot with a promise that they’d find the guy. They didn’t, despite having three cameras trained on the bathroom line.
• Two members of one ultra-famous rapper’s entourage got into a heated scuffle with off-duty cops doubling as security guards during a MTV Video Music Awards afterparty held at one top New York City spot. After refusing to go through the metal detector that had been installed temporarily for the event, the men began arguing with the security that the detector was an invasion of their privacy. A slew of slanderous words flew, which led to fists — and then flashlights — flying. One of the guys was clocked in the head by a cop’s baton before being arrested.
• At a downtown Manhattan club, I was standing next to the doorman and bouncer when a group of guys were thrown out of the venue. They took their parting shots at the staff, but one crossed the line when he called the bouncer a racial epithet while kicking the velvet-rope stanchion at him. Before the pole had hit the ground, the bouncer hit him so hard upside the head, the man flew into a nearby car before falling unconscious to the ground. A frenzied brawl erupted between the four guys and the four staffers for the next five minutes. At the end, each of the patrons were knocked unconscious, apparently not taking a lesson from the guy who'd dropped the racial slur.