Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When is entertainment not entertainment?

A person playing a game of Solitaire with a deck of cards is engaging in a recreational activity, which can involve emotional involvement ranging from the euphoria felt from a win, to the disappointment of a loss, but is this genuinely an entertainment experience, or another form of recreation? A game of Solitaire with a deck of cards passes the time, so it is a pastime, it involves participation so it is also leisure, if it is participated in regularly it may also be a hobby, but whether it can also be considered entertainment hinges on the philosophical debate as to whether the player who is generating the activity can also be the audience to it. In other words, is it possible to be both the entertainer and the audience at the same time? There will undoubtedly be various viewpoints on this, some who will believe that it is, as well as those who do not. In the same manner it could be asked does a person singing entertain themselves? And does a person sculpting entertain themselves? They are all likely to be occupied and involved in what they are doing, they may be doing what they are doing as part of a recreational pursuit, their activities may also be amusing, enjoyable and satisfying, but is this really entertaining to them whilst they are doing it? As I have highlighted previously, there is no globally accepted definition as to what exactly constitutes entertainment, leisure, and recreation, in the same way that even global bodies such as the United Nations cannot agree between their own departments (UNCTAD and UNESCO) as to what exactly constitutes culture and creativity. Until a globally accepted definition of ‘all of the above’ can be given, this debate will remain a largely philosophical one, and entertainment sub-sectors such as gaming will always struggle in terms of identity as to whether they belong wholly, partially, or not at all within the entertainment industry.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cultural Gastronomy

A distinct characteristic of many cultures, are the types of food and drinks that are associated with them. In this advanced age of globalisation many of these are now well traveled, and emigration is largely responsible for the spread of food and drinks beyond their traditional cultural borders, which is why: Mexican and Italian food are extremely popular in the USA; Indian food is popular in the UK; Japanese and Thai food is popular in Australia; and Chinese food is popular globally. In addition to this, tourists experiencing foreign holidays often partake in new gastronomic experiences, which they may subsequently want to take home, or try again when they return home.

Global gastronomic spread has also been assisted by major corporations with international reach, brands such as Heinz, Pataks, and Old El Paso have helped to raise awareness of food types in countries foreign to their origins, whilst Smirnoff, Bells, and Moet et Chandon are now globally recognised alcoholic drink brands. Also, television exposes potential audiences to a variety of types of food and drinks through cookery and travel shows, as well as films and dramas that are created in different countries from where they are being broadcast.

Demand for gastronomically exotic cultural experiences has fuelled a global rise in themed outlets, particularly restaurants and bars, which are themed around a specific culture. Globally the largest spread of culturally themed restaurants are American, Chinese, French, Greek, Indian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Spanish, Thai and Vietnamese, although these are now being challenged by relative ‘newcomers’ such as Australian, Cuban, Lebanese, Polish, Turkish and Moroccan restaurants.

Many urban centres have significant established Chinese populations that occupy a specific area which may become known as a ‘China Town’, examples of cities that have a ‘China Town’ include Manchester (UK), Nagasaki (Japan) and San Francisco (USA). In China Towns, Chinese restaurants provide a culturally authentic experience to diners, by not only providing Chinese food, but also a suitable ambience that includes elements of décor, smells, textiles, utensils, language and music.

Participation in cultural gastronomy is about more than satisfying physiological needs through consumption. This is potentially a very rich and immersive entertainment experience as those in the audience can be stimulated in all five senses, which can trigger emotive responses amongst them. It is also very sociable, and commonly participated in by groups of individuals, who themselves become part of the ‘cast’ by partaking in such an entertainment / dining experience. The shared interaction of diners with their surroundings and food often provides entertainment for other members of the dining party.

In the UK, Indian restaurants have grown in popularity since an initial wave of immigration from Commonwealth countries including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in the 1950s. At the turn of the Millennium it was widely reported in the British media that the nation’s favourite dish was Chicken Tikka Masala, which is a mild curried chicken dish in a creamy tomato sauce. Since then, a growing number of Asian entrepreneurs have transformed the Indian dining experience, and are now creating a contemporary ambience with enlarged menus based around traditional recipes, but surroundings that are very different from the Indian restaurants of previous decades. Gone are patterned wallpaper and carpets, in favour of Wooden floors and more neutral colour schemes, also gone is ‘piped in’ Indian music in favour of flat screen TVs playing the latest Indian music videos featuring well known ‘Bollywood’ stars. This helps to maintain interest in the Indian dining experience amongst younger diners, who may feel more comfortable in surroundings that they perceive to be ‘cool’, but at the same time, this is a step away from the authenticity of the cultural experience. In terms of growth, culturally themed restaurants in the UK have suffered ‘from a certain amount of stagnation thanks largely to a distinct lack of innovation in the sector’ (Mintel, 2008), this new generation of Asian entrepreneurs are at least making steps to combat this.

Culture is also utilised in order to theme pubs and bars around a particular national identity, common global examples include American, British, Irish and Australian themed pubs and bars. In such establishments the surroundings are very often more authentic than the beverages being sold (most of these bars sell brands that are internationally recognisable and therefore less authentic culturally), although some specific brands are heavily promoted in these types of establishments. Common examples of draught products promoted in themed pubs and bars include: Budweiser (American); Fosters (Australian); Guinness (Irish); and John Smiths (British).

Finally gastronomic markets and festivals are also popular attractions that allow visitors to them, to become immersed in a specific culture. In Germany, beer festivals are extremely popular amongst residents and tourists alike. Most notable on the cultural calendar is the Munich based Oktoberfest, which is the world’s largest event of its kind attracting six million visitors annually. Oktoberfest is a sixteen-day festival that begins in September and finishes in October. At Oktoberfest the main attraction is the beer on offer, all of which is supplied by German breweries, but traditional German dress, music, tankards (steins), and food – particularly meat, potato and bread products all count towards creating a uniquely German, culturally gastronomic experience.

Despite its current popularity, the short to mid term future growth, for cultural gastronomy is largely going to be dictated by wider economic factors. Forecast rises in the prices of food, fuel, gas and electricity do not bode well, and may ultimately lead to many in this sector struggling to maintain profitability, particularly in the face of falling tourist revenues, and supermarkets being able to provide a similar or the same product, albeit without the full cultural experience. The question from a consumer’s perspective could be, ‘what am I interested in, the food / drink, or the experience?’ If the answer to this question is ‘the food / drink’ expect: competitive price cuts; and special offers; in restaurants and bars, as well as a reduction in menu size, in restaurants, as businesses themselves begin to tighten their belts.

Ref: MINTEL. (2008) Ethnic restaurants and takeaways – UK. London, MINTEL International Group.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Business of Nightclub Promotion

It may well be a clichéd saying that ‘life is a rollercoaster’, but I can share with you first hand that the life of a club promoter is full of ups and downs, dictated by a number of factors, some of which are within the control of the promoter, but many other factors are in the external environment, and there isn’t a thing that can be done about them. Before I go into detail, I’ll explain a little more about what a promoter actually does, and how they relate to nightclubs from a business perspective.

First of all the word ‘promoter’ is defined by the 2008 Oxford English Dictionary as a ‘person who…promotes, advances, or furthers any movement, project, institution, etc.; an encourager; a supporter’. A club promoter carries out a function, which is key to the marketing strategy of a nightclub – promotion, one of the four Ps of the marketing mix.

A nightclub is a venue, or a unit, a versatile space that can be themed with props and décor and utilised for a variety of purposes. The main function of a nightclub is the night-time entertainment on offer – typically music played by a DJ, as well as the sale of drinks (mainly alcoholic) and sometimes other refreshments. Visitors to a club typically participate in recreational socialisation activities, the predominant one being dancing, but attracting potential partners is also high on many people’s agendas, and as such clubs are perceived as being ‘sexy’ venues, which is something that promoters often latch onto, ‘sex sells’ is a very true adage.

The relationship between clubs and promoters varies from club to club, it is very often the case that one is in a stronger position than the other, so can dictate terms. This can be influenced by a number of factors, but a strong and concurrent factor is competition. In an urban area where there are many clubs in close proximity, the competition is likely to be strong between them to attract customers, especially when the product being offered is very often similar. In a scenario where a club is not reaching its potential in terms of footfall and bar revenue, a promoter is likely to be in a stronger position to be able to dictate financial terms with a club as to their involvement. A typical scenario, is that the promoter keeps the entry revenue, and the club keeps the bar revenue, but there are also situations where a percentage of either may be shared with the other party. There is also the issue of entertainment within the club, and who will pay for that, the promoter or the club, this is typically down to the promoter, but there can be financial splits with the club also. This is a very simplified explanation, but at many clubs it is as straight forward as that. However, there is also strong competition between rival promoters who are keen to expand their business, where this happens a club can be in a stronger position to dictate terms. This is an example of: competition; the power of buyers; the power of suppliers; and the threat of new entrants; which are four of Michael Porter’s Five Forces.

Of course some clubs specialise and put on particular nights aimed at a specific market segments, for example The Cockpit in Leeds is both a club and live music venue, but the ‘club’ aspect is one that is targeted towards fans of ‘alternative’ music i.e. not main stream ‘pop’. Therefore within Leeds they are not in direct competition with the likes of Halo or Oceana, who both predominantly run nights centred around pop music, ‘cheesie disco’, RnB, dance, and commercial basslines. The Cockpit are however in direct competition with other alternative music clubs and venues.

The city of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, is an excellent example of an urban area with a high concentration of nightclubs and hybrid bars within a short distance of each other, the largest of which is the Luminar Leisure owned Oceana, and the smallest being any one of many hybrid bars. A hybrid bar is a late opening bar with DJ and dancefloor that functions as a combination of both pub and club. In England and Wales these have largely appeared since the advent of the 2003 Licensing Act, which relaxed the rules around opening hours and entertainment. When Oceana opened in Leeds, it signalled the death knell for many other Leeds clubs, early casualties were Creation and Majestyk (also owned by Luminar) and Halo – which since re-opened largely thanks to their main promoters at the time The Absolute Life (now Voodoo Events). What Oceana offered, was nine themed areas that could accommodate for different tastes – it was also new, and in Leeds (as in many other cities) the ‘new’ club becomes perceived to be ‘the place to be’.

Leeds is also a ‘student city’ in the sense that it has two large universities, as well as a number of further and higher education colleges. There are an estimated 100,000 students in and around Leeds who are 18 or over, and these are prime targets for club owners and promoters. Many students in Leeds are seasonal residents, who are there predominantly for term time only, but others are permanent residents, and as such the year fluctuates in terms of population.

The busiest time by far in Leeds is the September to November period of the Autumn term, when many students move to Leeds for the first time, and when student loans have been paid, so there is an early peak of student affluence. This is when promoters are at their fiercest in terms of competition, to try and get students ‘on board’ at their club nights. At this time of year promoters use a combination of both traditional and innovative methods to promote club nights, these include: posters; billboards; flyers; websites; web 2.0 particularly Facebook, Bebo and MySpace; giveaways including t-shirts, CDs, sweets, and drinks; eye-catching decorated vehicles such as monster trucks, smart cars, and travelling billboards; and by paying big name acts or celebrities to appear at venues. This can often be a loss-leader as it is an investment for the longer term. The ‘peak’ times for club promoters in student cities are: the beginning of the academic year in September / October; Halloween; just prior to the Christmas vacation; the beginning of the second semester in late January / early February; Valentines; St. Patrick’s day; the weeks before the Easter vacation; the week after the Easter Vacation; and the end of the academic year in early May.

An essential weapon in any club promoter’s army, are students – especially those who live in halls of residence, where they can slip in ‘under the radar’ with flyers and posters, and where tickets can be sold door-to-door. Many students (especially first years) relish the opportunity to be seen amongst their peers as the ‘cool kids’ who can get in to clubs for free, and often into VIP areas due to their promoter connections – for many this is their payment for working for a promoter, although some do get a financial ‘cut’ on the number of tickets that they sell. Some of these students are also studying relevant courses such as Entertainment Management, and as such gain an industry insight through their vocational activities. The most talented student promoters often go on to become promoters working for themselves, promoting their own nights that they put together on limited budgets, and largely taking advantage of networks of friends, who can not only help promote, but who can also DJ and help entertain the audience.

One person acting as a student / promoter / DJ is not uncommon, an example of a very successful one is Kane Towny who started off with fairly small and modest nights targeted towards a young and often ‘chav’ audience (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense), but who now runs very successful nights around the increasingly commercial bassline scene. Kane, and business partners were early adopters of the bassline scene in Leeds, and have turned it into something bigger and more glamorous than what many others have managed to do. As such they are making Leeds and their signature ‘Movement’ nights market leaders on the bassline scene. Most recently, Kane was one of three partners who organised Movement 2 at Victoria Works in Leeds, which featured over 30 DJs, and eight live performers spread over three arenas. On the night, well over 2,000 people who had paid up to £30 each for a ticket, turned up to the event, which was an outstanding success, and will be followed by four more ‘Movement’ parties in 2009.

Movement 2 @ Victoria Works, November 2008

This type of success doesn’t go unnoticed by jealous rivals, and often threats and underhand tricks such as advertising that nights have been cancelled are the norm. The most unscrupulous rivals will even employ people to set off fire alarms at ‘rival’ nights, or persistently cause fights or problems at venues, in order to break up the ambience and put off customers from returning. This means that promoters need to be prepared, and the first line of defence are club security. At many clubs, security are the responsibility of the venue rather than the promoter, but there is a great need for all to work closely together. At Movement the security was the responsibility of the promoters, who employed a highly visible and strong security presence, which controlled access in and out of the venue, as well as airport style metal detectors at the front entrance. This was a sophisticated set-up, but it needed to be. Victoria works is well out of the city centre, and there are no CCTV cameras on the badly lit streets around it, a good security presence minimises risk, and risk management is another responsibility that a promoter needs to take on board. It is entirely likely that after the success of the first two Movement nights, that the Movement parties of 2009 will be in a more central and secure location, such as the Leeds Academy, that has the capacity, and lessens the risks involved. If Movement continues to grow, it’s home in a few years time could well be the new Leeds Arena, which may seem like a long way off to many, but what is happening with the bassline scene is hardly different to what happened with the ‘house’ and ‘rave’ scene in the early 90s.

The founders of Cream began with a small house night, before moving to the Nation nightclub, and attracting names such as Paul Oakenfold and Sasha. Today the Creamfields festival takes place annually in the UK as well as varying locations abroad, and Cream run a regular night at Amnesia in Ibiza during the main club season, it is a multi-million pound business. Similar ‘seeds’ that have grown into ‘giant beanstalks’ are Godsktichen, and Ministry of Sound. It will be interesting to see what has happened to Movement in ten years time, but the pride, tenacity and commitment of those behind it, certainly bodes well for its future.

Finally, a warning to the wannabes who see this apparently fun, vibrant, sexy, cash-cow – be warned, the majority of club promoters, never make it beyond their first night, unscrupulous venue owners, competition, and the weather are just three of the rungs on the rickety success ladder that need to be climbed – there are many more. For those that do make it beyond their first night, life is hard and certainly not glamorous. Standing in the freezing cold on nightclub steps while drunken revellers try to blag their way in for a freebie loses its sex appeal pretty quickly, especially when abuse is hurled by them after a knock-back. For many, life as a club promoter is a hit and miss affair, few manage to get ‘regular’ successful slots, and those that do, have to fight to stay ahead of their rivals, this is a business where you can’t afford to be complacent, and as such promoters need to be proactive and energetic with drive, ambition and determination in abundance – if you haven’t got that, stick to being a customer.

Before I finish, I’ll share with you some personal experiences of success and….well not success. Firstly the success – F-Block Party, we have held three of these now and they have all been charity fundraisers for both Cancer Research UK, and St. Gemma’s Hospice. Our most recent one was the most successful yet, attracting 700 customers, and raising £1,130 for Cancer Research. This took several weeks of planning, assisted by the excellent and helpful people of Voodoo Events and Halo. A team of my own students promoted this event around Leeds Met and in halls of residence. To show you how low promoters can go, a jealous rival (who will remain nameless so as not to give them publicity), attempted to hijack the night by putting on their own ‘spoiler event’ at a local club, and targeting it at our captive audience of students that study in F-Building at Leeds Met (and incorrectly advertising it as an official night). Our night was for charity, their night was a commercial enterprise….a pretty scummy trick, but unfortunately one which the more unscrupulous promoters are prepared to do. I’m pleased to say that they failed miserably, and we had a record-breaking night whilst one of our ‘spys’ counted under 50 at their venue.

F-Block Party @ Halo, October 2008

Now for the not success…..a combination of poor timing, apathy, lack of finances, competition, looming assessment deadlines…..and an unexpected cold spell, which lead to SNOW (we never get snow these days), meant that our recent Beach themed club night aimed at students, attracted vastly fewer students than what we had hoped for, and whilst it made a modest profit for a good cause – it’s not something that I’ll be singing about in future. Even the most successful promoters have had stinkers, if they say otherwise then they’re liars, but if you want to be a club promoter, taking the rough with the smooth is par for the course, that rollercoaster ride does have ups, but there are also many downs.