“This is the worst market in nightlife history,” says certified club king Richie Romero.

Romero cut his teeth working at Peter Gatien’s legendary clubs, learning the intricate details that make a nightclub run at Limelight, Tunnel, Club USA, and Palladium (now NYU’s Palladium Hall dormitory), before taking that experience to countless other successful ventures. His most recent hit is Nebula, a 10,000-square-foot, three-level classic megaclub just off of Times Square, where no other nightclub has previously thrived.

With Romero’s expertise, the club is going three years strong, against all odds. “In 32 years of doing this, I’ve never seen such a bad market in general,” he says, attributing the decline to New Yorkers not going out with the same urgency they had in the past, in addition to having fewer reasons to stay in the city.

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

“There’s Sundance, Coachella, SXSW, Ultra, Paris and Milan Fashion Weeks, the Super Bowl,” he says, “So many things are pulling people away from New York.” Romero also notes the current attitudes toward the cost of tables and bottle service — the very lifeblood of the current club landscape. “You can go to the club and buy a table or go to Bora Bora for a weekend spending the same amount of money.”

Many of New York’s most famous clubs were ultimately short-lived; Studio 54 was open for just 33 months before shutting down for tax evasion, as the more cutting edge crowd moved downtown to venues like the Mudd Club. And yet, Midtown’s Lavo, a prototypical megaclub that closed in January, spent 13 years on 58th Street.

In an industry that relies on the whims and debauchery of its community, it can feel that any club, no matter how hot, could be destined to fail. What separates those that reign from those that fall? Is there a secret ingredient to staying alive in nightlife? How can you save a nightclub?

The Three Pillars of Nightclub Success

Identity, staffing and programming: According to Romero, these are the three components that make or break a club. He says the first mistake many clubs make is lacking identity, the particular experience guests come to a space for. It could be tempting to make major adjustments based on trends, but aligning to a specific product pays off over chasing fads. “The biggest thing that most people mess up on is they don’t know what the story is,” Romero explains. “When you open up something like 1 OAK, you knew what you were gonna get exactly every single night.” (1 OAK was a celebrity-filled Meatpacking District megaclub — Rihanna once threw a Met Gala afterparty there — that was evicted in October 2022 for a balance on its $72,000 per month rent after nearly 15 years of world-class parties.)

Reliability and consistency help grow and maintain an audience; committing to what the venue does best and doubling down on that keeps clubgoers coming back. Conversely, if a crowd doesn’t know what they’re getting, the club has lost the plot — and without the plot, the experience becomes convoluted.

Romero’s second pillar of nightclub success relies on hiring certified professionals in every position. A club will simply cease to function without a solid staff who allow the story to exist in the first place. “These are the actors in your play you put on every night,” he says. “It’s getting the DJs, the door person, the managers, bartenders, the bottle service girls — they’re all supporting the story and making it happen.”

In his book, “The Club King: My Rise, Reign and Fall in New York Nightlife,” Romero’s mentor Gatien notes the importance of the team having a common mission beyond simply serving drinks. In Gatien’s clubs, the goal was to “create culture,” and each employee played a major role, making up the fabric of the club in the way they dressed and acted, the energy they brought, and the “character” they played in the club’s overall narrative.

Keeping the neighbors happy is increasingly challenging in an ever-changing city and becomes a sort of vicious cycle; nightlife makes a neighborhood cool, more residents move in, then complain about venue noise enough to minimize nightlife.

Brandon Collins, director at Williamsburg’s Baby’s All Right, a time-honored cool club and live-music venue, subscribes to the absolute necessity of having the right staff at the club. He attributes that culture as a major part of the venue’s 11-year success. “Everyone has to do 100 percent and more, … it’s a small business,” he says. “I don’t allow anyone who has any toxicity or is a big gossip. I get them out ASAP if I get a whiff of that.”

For a nightclub to sustain a long life, it can’t rely on the same people to populate the crowd each night. Programming distinct parties on various nights that target contrasting audiences is key. “You want different eyeballs,” says Romero. “You don’t want to wear your audience out, and you want to draw new people in.”

Nebula is home to the 30-year-running party “Tuesday Baby Tuesday,” almost exclusively for service workers on a night that might otherwise be quiet. “To keep a nightclub open, you need an industry night,” Romero insists. “That’s what keeps a place going.” He credits the now-shuttered, Gatien-owned Chelsea institutions Limelight (an otherworldly remodeled church on Sixth Avenue) and Tunnel (a warehouse hotspot that the New York Central Railroad freight trains previously ran through) with teaching him the storytelling he still employs in his club today, particularly the specific parties and programmed nights.

Legendary parties like the queer-coded Disco 2000 on Wednesdays at Limelight differed greatly from other nights like Tuesday’s Communion, which targeted the goth-alternative crowd. And while Tunnel is often remembered for breaking out major rap artists, hip hop was relegated to Sunday nights while other nights were more focused on house music.

Neighborhood Watch

As many club owners like Gatien have learned, and what might be the harshest reality of New York nightlife: Even when a club has the perfect recipe for success, the city itself can tear it down. Before opening two of the city’s most reliable dance floors, the seemingly untouchable downtown micro-clubs Paul’s Cocktail Lounge and Paul’s Casablanca, nightlife expert Paul Sevigny had iconic West Village hot spot the Beatrice Inn. From 2006 to 2009, it brimmed with celebrities smoking cigarettes outside (and inside) and maintained a constant line at the notoriously tight door. The residents of West 12th street and the surrounding blocks kept the 311 line ringing daily. According to the The New York Times, the club received over 300,000 noise complaints in its three-year run before the city shut it down, labeling it a “Detriment to Life.”

“We all really enjoy doing this work. We enjoy helping the businesses and we’re working hard to keep nightlife vibrant in New York City.”

Keeping the neighbors happy is increasingly challenging in an ever-changing city and becomes a sort of vicious cycle; nightlife makes a neighborhood cool, more residents move in, then complain about venue noise enough to minimize nightlife, and ultimately price out the clubs and crowd that made it cool in the first place.

Collins inherited a lawsuit with the Baby’s All Right landlord when he joined the team in 2017, as well as major issues with the tenants living above the club. “The tenants wouldn’t leave and they also wouldn’t pay rent,” he says, “It took a lot of extraordinary measures. … I had to have an expert witness come in at $1,200 an hour to run acoustic testing in the club.”

The efforts paid off: The lawsuit was settled, the tenants left, and in a classic New York plot twist, Collins now lives in the apartment above the club. As former nightlife hotbeds become increasingly residential — particularly in Manhattan — noise complaints remain a battle ground between club owners and venue neighbors and a major threat to the fate of a club.

Yet, an unlikely club ally has emerged.

New York City’s Change of Heart

Beginning in the ’90s, nightlife was vilified by not just neighbors and concerned citizens, but the city itself. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani developed a task force called the Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots, or M.A.R.C.H., specifically to crack down on nightlife venues. Raids by the agency sent officers in riot gear, and left venues feeling intruded upon and with expensive fines, often for violating ancient Cabaret Laws that regulated dancing in commercial spaces.

That began to change in 2017 with the Cabaret Law repeal and establishment of the New York City Office of Nightlife, specifically designed to support NYC nightlife. In December. 2023, the city disbanded M.A.R.C.H. in favor of more solution-based programs like MEND (Mediating Establishment and Neighbor Disputes), which brings a business owner and those with complaints together with a mediator to address issues. “[In] 85 percent of cases, MEND has worked. … This is about a communication process as opposed to enforcement,” says NYC’s new nightlife executive director, Jeffrey Garcia, who is often referred to as the Mayor of Nightlife. “Something as simple as moving a speaker from the back of the venue to the front of a venue could mitigate a sound complaint.”

If a nightclub finds itself in a precarious position, the Office of Nightlife is an invaluable resource and Garcia urges business owners to reach out. Further programs include Commercial Lease Assistance, the BEST program to help cut through red tape when opening a venue, and Funds Finder, which helps with funding needs. These approaches change the city’s previous villainization of nightlife venues to full support. “We just feel really positive about how the industry is moving forward in NYC,” Garcia says. “We all really enjoy doing this work. We enjoy helping the businesses and we’re working hard to keep nightlife vibrant in New York City.”

It may feel bleak for many clubs persevering in the treacherous market, and as history has shown, all hot nightclubs are destined to one day close their doors. But even in these trying times, nightlife remains a vital part of New York City’s landscape. With a population that craves culture, and more resources than ever, there are countless examples of clubs maintaining their spark and keeping the dance floor alive. Will the pendulum swing back the other way? It’s the city that never sleeps, after all…

This story is a part of VP Pro, our free platform and newsletter for drinks industry professionals, covering wine, beer, liquor, and beyond. Sign up for VP Pro now!