Looking for the Heart of Saturday night

Photo by James BunoanIt takes days to plan one night at V20, one of Long Beach's poshest new nightclubs—so the people who run it start early.

They meet Wednesday afternoons, weeks before partiers arrive, to strategize and make cryptic notes to themselves on yellow legal pads. But in the end, turnout will turn on something barely quantifiable—a rare blend of promotion and buzz that separates a good club from a bad one, as it does at every successful spot in Southern California. And promotion—perhaps the most crucial leg—will always be tenuous: they may think it's working, but they never know until around 9 or 10 on any night, when the cover discount typically ends.

"For V20, we have a base crowd of Thursday-Friday-Saturday, anyway, between 500 and 700 people," says Matthew Higgins, the club's general manager. "If we did absolutely nothing and opened our doors, we'd have 500 to 700 people. Of course, we're a 2,000-person place."

Perhaps the situation is starker here in downtown—in The Pike at Rainbow Harbor, the city's priciest, glossiest new development, a mere mile or so from where the QueenMary, which arrived in 1967, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March. More likely, V20 is a microcosm for every club facing long odds in getting the doors open or—in this case—keeping them open, keeping the place packed, night after night, week after week. V20 is approaching its first anniversary, a long hang time. Most clubs open and close much more quickly, even in Long Beach, so these half-dozen people have a lot to discuss.

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"We've been trying to find our identity, as a new club in a new city," says Higgins. "We've kind of learned who and what people want on certain nights. We've learned there's a huge Asian population out there Saturday nights." Lately, they've been coming here. His club has done other deals, but it recently brokered a short-term Saturday-nights partnership (club-promoter deals are always brief) with a conglomerate called Eternal Events, which hosts dance events in seven area clubs for a predominantly Asian audience. Eternal, he says, is the granddaddy of Asian promotion teams.

"We're kind of moving up the ladder," he says. "We really wanted Eternal Events from the beginning." Getting them solves only one problem, though, and V20 has many—none fatal, all vexing. There is drink: a vodka company that sends cases with sealed-but-empty bottles. Is it a bottling error? Is it malicious? Either way, it's costly, and so Rob Matthews, who handles food and drink, must investigate. Also, champagne: the club will sponsor a champagne station at an upcoming bash—which means free champagne, which means notCristal."I need the cheap," Higgins says. "I got three cases," says Matthews, an ebullient blond man in Dave Matthews Band flip-flops that we find briefly fascinating. There is also food: something called a "freezer cleaner," which involves, er, cleaning out the freezer. Or at least ensuring the hors d'oeuvres enjoy a regular rotation from freezer to kitchen to server to you.

Mainly, though, there is promotion; this—as much as buzz—is what puts bodies in motion on the dance floor, in the raised, overstuffed VIP area where surgeons drink deep, and in the Bamboo Lounge—the corner dance area reachable only through a gorgeous hardwood tunnel-ramp. Somehow, everyone must hear about V20, and about Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights—a club's three crucial nights. Promote them too early, and people forget. Wait too long, and everyone has other plans. It's not easy. Or is it?

Thursdays, Higgins says, are usually college nights, which explains the booty-shakin' contest; they take care of themselves with a little judicious campus promotion. Fridays are local industry night; the surrounding area, he notes, with its hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions, is a real boon. Saturday nights are Eternal, and he hopes—they all hope—for a full house.

"You don't want to switch things up too often because you want to develop a continuity, you want people to develop habits," Higgins says. "It's a tricky game. You ride the wave, and right before the wave dies you kick out and catch another one. It's critical that you move on at the right time."

Eternal Events could be the right promo team at the right time: not only do they promote with fliers and e-mail bursts, which may not drop until that afternoon, but they seem to have perfected mailings. If you let them, Eternal will scan your driver's license at an Eternal event—adding you to its mailing list. Then the team will mail you personalized invitations to its various events—and deep discounts on your birthday. Which happens only once a year—except Eternal's friend list is 10,000 deep. That's a lot of birthdays.

"That's a big plus, 'cause they know if they get four people [in] free on a birthday, 10 are gonna follow," Higgins says. "The personal mailer is really one thing that sets them apart." Or at least, it will—for probably three or so months.

"It's wonderful that you get a promotion and let it ride," Higgins says. "But it's extremely rare that a promoter will stay longer than three months."

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