Reinventing the Party Machine

In the wake of the Great Recession, nightclubs have been a crucial part of the identities and business plans of Las Vegas casinos. Major operators such as Wynn, the Venetian and even the storied Caesars Palace have made their clubs integral to their overall operations. Meanwhile, such resorts as the Palms and Hard Rock Hotel have built themselves almost from the ground up as party destinations. When clubs work, they generate buzz, foot traffic, ancillary casino gaming and food-and-beverage spending. But when they don’t, they can be a drag on a property.

That’s why clubs aren’t the most long-lived of Vegas destinations. Studio 54, it’s true, hung on for more than a decade before announcing in November that it would close Feb. 8. In general, though, the half-life of the average Strip nightclub seems to be three to four years.

So, how is a new club reborn on the bones of an old one?

If you have any intention of doing it right, there’s much more to it than changing the name over the door. Richard Wilk, vice president of nightlife marketing and operations at the Tropicana, is opening a new club in a space vacated by the one-season-and-done Club Nikki, part of the busted Tropicana/Nikki Beach experiment. The new addition to the crowded Vegas nightlife scene will be RPM, a club that Wilk says will be radically different from Club Nikki.

“The approach was not right there,” he says. “They had the idea that ‘If you build it they will come.’ But Vegas is a different animal—what works in Miami or Cancun won’t work here. You have to create something people will be thinking about when they go back home, that they’ll be dying to come back for.”

Those who walk into RPM’s grand-opening party on Dec. 30 will see a space transformed, with more than a million dollars of renovations for a facility that’s less than a year old, including a new DJ booth and sound system. Club-goers can’t be thinking Nikki when the management wants them to be immersed in RPM.

But the most important thing, Wilk insists, is the team. Customer service can make or break a club, particularly in a town as well-connected as Las Vegas. He stresses a collaborative decision-making process that features regular “roundtable” meetings in which ideas are gathered from everyone from the club general manager to the wait staff.

“Nobody’s boss there,” he says. “We hammer things out together, just talk ideas—talk about everything. No idea is a bad idea, and we use many of them. The team picked the club’s name, the names of the theme nights [WTF Fridays, Unleashed Saturdays], and much more. “That keeps the club evolving with a sensitivity to the people who matter—the patrons.”

One of the biggest questions to answer is who will man the DJ booth. With the rise of superstar DJs, this choice is crucial. Wilk feels that building the goodwill of locals, particularly those who work in the hospitality business, is critical, so he brought on veteran local DJ Hollywood to front the club’s industry night. If DJ Hollywood can get plugged-in locals happily grooving on their nights off, the theory goes, they’ll recommend the club to their out-of-town friends and those they are serving on the Strip.

Similarly, tapping DJ Sourmilk of Los Angeles radio station Power106 is a move designed to appeal to Angelenos, who make up a large share of Las Vegas visitors. The name recognition is essential for a casino like the Tropicana, which doesn’t have a web of sister properties and a millions-strong marketing database. Name DJs generate word-of-mouth and social-media buzz—the kind of advertising that gives a relative little guy like the Trop a chance in the increasingly big business of Vegas clubs.

Plus, name-brand DJs are hits on the Strip for the same reason that Denny’s and McDonald’s thrive there: People, even when they’re vacationing in a land as self-consciously strange as Las Vegas, are comforted by the familiar. With bottles selling in the neighborhood of $400 each, a night out is a big investment. If they know who’s spinning, they can be virtually guaranteed that they’ll like the music, and they’ll be more likely to give a new club a try.

All of these elements—décor, audio-visual design, talent and customer service—combine in a way that, if it’s working, has the dance floor packed and the cash registers ringing. If not, it’s back to the drawing board. Whether it’s in one year or 10, one thing is certain: Eventually the buzz will fade, and when it does, the space will be reborn again.

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