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The days of underground, grungy, basement-like minimalist clubs are long gone. In the mid- to late '90s, Miami Beach pioneered the high-profile über-clubs that soon became standard South Florida fare. Shortly after the much-hyped opening of Amnesia (now Opium Garden), preferred customer passes fetched about $400, unless you knew someone and could get one for free.
A wave of glam spots -- with names like Stereo and Liquid and Chaos -- followed; it was a be-seen power grab. Velvet ropes drawn, the VIP rooms began stratifying the high-rolling clientele from common clubbing folk.
Now, VIP rooms have evolved into more of a business model. Buy a bottle or two for a handful of friends and hang in the exclusive area. Rather than being simply a glitzy backdrop for nightlife photo spreads in glossy mags, they carry a set of bragging rights.
"VIP does not really stand for its original meaning," says Mark Lehmkuhl, marketing director of Opium Garden. "South Beach is not the exclusive mecca it once was." Other than bottle minimums, nightspots generally don't have many rules for VIPs. But you can count on more women than men in the crème de la crème sections. And bling ain't no thing when you're one of the hottest, A-list, celeb VIP rooms on the SoFla club scene.
"We are much more loyal to the clients who spend money and the regulars than celebrities," Lehmkuhl asserts. "[We] have turned many down because of dress code, etc. It's a very competitive business. When you're top, you can get away with murder -- when you're not, you can't pay people to come in."
He offers advice on getting behind the velvet curtains: "Let them know that you're there to spend money, calmly and with class," he says. "Not obnoxiously. 'Yo, man, I wanna buy ten bottles of Cristal' will not get you anywhere."
And VIPs' high-priced booze bottles have become venues' nightly standard. They account for anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of its total revenues. "The VIP room is the priority, understanding that we are in an upscale club and our business is measured by how beautiful the people inside are," Lehmkuhl says.
Prive, Opium's VIP room, makes more money per square foot than any other part of the club, even though it accounts for only 10 to 15 percent of the club's capacity of up to 2,000 people. "Our market has always been -- without trying to sound snobbish but telling you the truth -- the rich and beautiful," Lehmkuhl says. "So it is a necessity."
Zubar's general manager, Jay Gee, says his VIP room, Heaven, makes 20 to 25 percent of the Fort Lauderdale club's revenues. That figure climbs to 35 percent on better nights. "I wouldn't say it's what keeps us thriving," Gee says. "It always helps the overall numbers for your business. Basically, what it does is it drives your per capita up."
Miami's recently renovated Space 34 has three VIP rooms, which are nearly always sold out, and half of those packing in are regular customers, VIP manager Robert Collazo says. "A lot of people think VIP is really expensive," Collazo says. "A lot of people are intimidated because they think it's totally out of their league."
With celebs like Christina Aguilera, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, and a roster of professional athletes, curiosity and prestige feed the VIP draw. "People don't want to be hidden away," Lehmkuhl says. "They want to show off, have the biggest table with the most bottles in the middle of the room with a bevy of beauties dancing around them."
Along with the beautiful people, there's the convenience of cushy seating, which is scarce at clubs, and table service, which allows the visitor to be free from the hassle of jockeying for a position at the bar. Then there's the whole have and have-not atmosphere that stems from the VIP game, which could turn off the average Joe from going to clubs to see his favorite local bands or DJs.
"I don't necessarily have a problem with VIP areas," South Florida turntablist DJ Stryke says. "It's the elitism I don't like. I think there should be a chill-out area, and if you are going to a VIP area, there should be a general area for people to chill and relax. Now we have this whole separation of VIP and non-VIP, and you're treated as such, and to me it's not cool. But it's making these clubs some serious cash."
After more than a decade spinning records in South Florida's nightclubs, Stryke suggests this simple solution: seating available for everyone across the board. "Everybody should be comfortable," he says. "You shouldn't have to pay for the privilege to sit down and be comfortable. I personally don't think it would take away from VIP at all. This is Miami. Everybody wants to be a star."