So you want to own a nightclub — pulsating beat, fabulous people, the whole deal?
Take some advice from Peter Gatien, whose party palaces infamously ruled the New York City scene in the ’80s and ’90s. Gatien’s empire was headed by the converted church Limelight, a sanctuary for celebrities and other hedonists. Gatien was hounded by the feds for allegedly fostering drug commerce at his clubs before he pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 1999. He was deported to his native Canada in 2003 with just $500 in his pocket. The documentary Limelight, chronicling Gatien’s 20-year after-dark reign, opens this weekend.
Gatien, 59, offered The Price of Fame seven ways to rule the night in what he calls a recession-proof business:
1. Don’t join the party. You’re in business, not another club kid looking to paint the town red. That means keep the drinking and the “anything else” to a minimum. Gatien said he learned his lesson when he opened his first club in his hometown of Cornwall, Ontario, at age 19. He made the scene and his checks began bouncing within three months despite a packed house every night. Thereafter, he made it a point not to overindulge on the job. “I don’t consider myself a mercenary,” he said via Skype. “I consider myself a practical person.”
2. Pay your dues. You’re not going to get the disco ball rolling right out of college. Do time in the music business, art business or fashion industry. These are the arteries that will keep the heart of your venture pumping. “You have to develop your own relationships,” Gatien said. He reminded TPOF that it took him 20 years in the business, including stops in Hollywood, Fla., and Atlanta, before he stormed the Big Apple.
3. Make every night an event. That’s right. Even weekdays have to be productions. Between his four mega-clubs — Limelight, Palladium, Club USA and Tunnel — Gatien always juggled themes or music genres to attract different crowds. “It was almost like setting up a Broadway play every night,” he said. “There’s a lot of details that go into making a night organic and making it last for years.”
4. Work business hours. Night crawlers don’t plan extravaganzas and devise marketing strategies. Businesspeople do — and they do business when the sun shines. “My real work started at 11 in the morning when we organized the parties, the DJs, and had creative discussions with the different staffs,” he said. “Where I was most valuable was in the daytime.”
5. Show up during club hours. You may not have an eye patch (hockey puck accident) or a malevolent gaze like Gatien, but being there will keep employees on their toes. “If you’re in the service industry, your staff needs to know you’re there in case of an emergency and that you’re alert,” he said. “It’s the only way to do it.” Between tips No. 4 and No. 5, you’ll be working 16-hour days. Serving the rich, famous, fashionable and ferocious is no techno-funk romp. It’s a dance marathon. Clubs usually last no longer than the average NFL running back — two years — often because owners simply won’t put in the time to keep them humming.
6. Delegate with a clear message. You might not be the one to directly hire the bouncers and bartenders, but have clear marching orders for the person who is. “My thumbprint was pretty much in every aspect,” said Gatien, who was partial to aspiring writers, actors, singers and designers as employees. Doormen manning the velvet ropes were critical to Gatien’s operation, and he wanted them to project a certain image. His mandate was married men over 30 who had families. That hopefully meant they were interested in getting home without fighting and without hitting on the clientele. “I’d rather have the guy 5-foot-11 who can talk his way out of an issue than a guy 6-foot-6 who liked to slap people around,” he said.
7. Attract a diverse crowd. Gatien adored the idea that his clubs opened their doors to punks, rappers, gays and goths alike. Welcome all walks of life — as long as they’re cool or famous or, God willing, both. Building a paying clientele depends on having free entries who get attention.
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