If you want to open a successful new bar or nightclub, or want ideas to improve your existing establishment, look to the best music festival, Chicago’s Lollapalooza, for inspiration. It’s a giant version of everything that makes a nightclub or bar popular and durable.
I live in Chicago and never miss this fest. I love the music of course, but being in the nightclub and bar business I am impressed with every aspect of how this event is created and executed. It’s a pleasure to experience. Here are 5 key things we in the bar and nightclub business can learn from Lollapalooza:
Friendly, fast service creates loyalty and profits.
Notice I said “Friendly” before “Fast.” Fast gets money in the till and is vital. But Friendly AND Fast makes the customer feel good and builds loyalty. Making people feel good about spending their money is the route to truly impressive profits and longevity! Lollapalooza pays greeters at the entrance just to welcome customers and get them fired up about the event. Keep in mind this is a sold out event and everyone walking up has already paid their admission! Still the fest makes extra effort to welcome their guests. There is zero arrogant attitude throughout the entire event! We get more smiles and chat at the gates, food and drink stations and vendor booths at Lollapalooza than at 90% of the bars and nightclubs I’ve visited. What’s wrong with that picture? If a huge pre-sold show can be friendly, how much more valuable would relentless friendliness be for a bar or nightclub where the money is still in the customers’ pockets when they walk in the door! Sure, Lolla is a huge festival so you are bound to have some lines for restrooms, food, drinks and other discomforts, but in all my years of going to shows and festivals, and also night clubs, I have never seen anyone do a better job of minimizing inconveniences and making the waiting and purchasing experience as pleasant as possible. Their efforts pay off.
Excelling at entertainment is worth it.
Lollapalooza could probably book half the acts it does and still sell out. It could probably make plenty of money as a big rave with all DJs and be a lot simpler to execute. Or they could feature only the top bands and still do well. Lollapalooza over delivers with a wide variety of top acts and hot newcomers in multiple musical genres, and also adds a farmers market and many vendor booths with a wide range of entertaining customer experiences (and shopping opportunities of course). When was the last time you visited a local bar or nightclub where the entertainment was better than just “OK?” When have you seen a local DJ or opener that injected obvious, unique energy into a room? How often do you see unusual entertainment options for bar customers to have fun and interact?
When we opened Vision night club in Chicago (2002-2012) I noticed right away that we made the most money when we had the most “expensive” DJs and the largest variety of entertainment options within the building. The most unprofitable nights were when we skimped. Over 10 years of bookings that trend remained consistent. Of course you have to book wisely and not waste money. But superlative entertainment tends to more than pay for itself, building customer loyalty and a reputation that leads to longevity – the hardest thing to achieve in the hospitality business. This applies not just to big venues, but also down to the simplest corner bar avoiding lazy music programming. BONUS: Since most bars and nightclubs don’t invest in entertainment excellence, it’s a prime neglected opportunity to beat the competition.
Adapt to succeed.
Lollapalooza started out as a traveling rock festival. With the rise of single location fests such as Coachella and Bonnaroo (not to mention fuel prices), Lolla changed with the times and became a single location festival. But it did not simply mimic, it actually improved the new model by placing the fest in a vibrant urban area instead of a country field. We live in a time of rapid change. In the businesses I own, I have changed 80% of our marketing and business practices over the past 5 years. How many bars and nightclubs can say they have kept up with their changing customers and maxed new marketing, entertainment and operational options? This is an opportunity for big profits for the few bars and nightclub willing to do the work to adapt and excel.
The Vibe erases all sins.
Sure, we had to wait in line for porta-potties. Sure the food was expensive. We didn’t like every musical act. There was some mud. Last year it rained. You can only get the sponsors’ liquor and beverage brands at the bars. Hey, some people threw up on the sidewalk. The friendly, comfortable, welcoming vibe turns all those irritations into footnotes. At Lollapalooza, guests are made to feel so comfortable they smile when bumping into each other, happily step over mud and garbage, and have fun conversations in the restroom lines with people they have nothing in common with. We are older than most Lolla goers and never feel awkward. I’m sure with 200,000 people there are a few incidents, but in all the years I’ve seen minimal negativity. A positive vibe rules, created by the Lollapalooza team. Ever been to a nightclub or bar where you were packed in like sardines, had to wait for a drink, maybe the music was not to your taste, but you had a great time anyway and felt you were in the place to be? That’s the Vibe, and as operators that’s our pot of gold.
Systems, more than people, are the key to success.
How do they do it? Where does this great vibe come from? As good as their people may be, it’s their systems that enable excellence. Nightclub and bar professionals please think about the following as it applies to our business. Lollapalooza does not have 3 genius owners that everyone has to speak with to decide every issue that arises. It’s obvious that festival management does not wait for problems to happen, they anticipate and pre-train their team to deal with issues quickly and properly. They don’t “wing it.” They train and practice. They train and practice. They plan extremely well as a group and then stick to the plan. But it’s also obvious the fest’s systems are flexible, constantly evaluated in an organized, thoughtful way. You see changes each year, such as this year’s new double entry line configuration for those with and without bags.
They clearly hire experts in each area and respect their expertise. Qualified specialists masterfully manage all inventory, money, staffing, entertainment, security, staging, food, beverage and traffic flow. Perry Ferrell does not decide the day before the fest that he’d like to move his “Perry Stage” to another part of the park cause he’s the boss. He sets the overall theme and goals and lets everyone do what they are best at. It’s business organization, control and customer centered execution at its best.
I like the music at Lollapalooza but I love their system. It’s a thing of beauty, and an inspiration to all of us in the hospitality business.