Blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-alcohol. Or more specifically, blame it on the bottle popping that epitomized the over-the-top partying and opulent celebrations of much of the last two decades.
Whether it was showcased in hip-hop music videos (hello, “Big Pimpin’”) or reality television (fist bump to Jersey Shore fans), a generation (or two) of young people grew up being taught how to party their asses off — with expensive VIP bottle service at exclusive nightclubs.
But is bottle service on track to becoming another victim of the ongoing millennial killing spree? It looks that way in Charlotte.
It caught many by surprise when Bubble Charlotte closed its doors last month. The one-time EpiCentre hotspot opened in 2013 to much fanfare as the city’s first champagne bar and lounge. It closed following this year’s lucrative CIAA weekend parties.
Bubble was designed to have little to no distinction between dining, lounging and dancing, as is often found at trendy venues in major cities.
It attracted guests during special tasting events after work, couples for a light dinner of small plates and cocktails, and late-night partiers who showed up after 10 p.m. (more like midnight) for some clubbing to the blaring sounds of a DJ.
And all of the options were pricey, including bottle service, which started at about $250 for a bottle of champagne and a small table that could accommodate two people. If you had a larger group, you’d easily shell out twice that amount, not to mention what tax and tip look like on a bill that’s hundreds of dollars.
Bubble’s closure was preceded by the closing of Label nightclub last June after it, too, enjoyed a nearly five-year run. As one of the city’s largest clubs and one that specialized in bottle service, Label’s management cited the decline in Charlotte’s VIP market as the reason the venue closed its doors. It was replaced by World Nightclub.
The nightlife landscape is changing in Charlotte, and millennials are driving the trends.
“The demo that ‘goes out’ the most, 21 to 35, doesn’t enjoy clubbing as much [anymore],” says Michael Kitchen, managing member of The Sol Kitchen, a Charlotte-based company that plans and promotes events ranging from parties to concerts. “They would rather save and do other things, like festivals and cultural experiences.”
April Smith, founder of Social Ape Marketing, agrees. And it’s something many of her clients in the hospitality and food and beverage industries are keenly aware of.
“The younger generation is leading the way for the most desirable target audience for restaurants, bars and breweries to get in front of, and they act differently than previous generations before them,” Smith says. “The younger folks don’t mind spending money, but they prefer to spend it on experiences rather than an expensive night out of bottle service or a $100 steak dinner at a fine-dining establishment.”
Many longtime Charlotteans and newcomers are embracing the rapidly growing craft beer and cocktail scenes.
Charlotte has more than 20 breweries (and counting) within city limits, and there are about that number combined in the surrounding small towns that make up the metro area.
They’re places where people can grab a free seat at the bar of the taproom and enjoy fresh-made beer — sometimes with free live music entertainment. That kind of casual, family-friendly, all-day hangout vibe stands in stark contrast to the late-night club scene.
And the success of new craft cocktail bars like Dot Dot Dot suggest that Charlotteans are looking for a quieter, more formal nightlife experience where the focus is on the quality, not quantity of drinks.
Hotels are also tapping into the market long dominated by standalone upscale bars and nightclubs.
Several of the new hotels that have opened here within the last year (and several more on the way) feature swanky bars like Merchant & Trade, a 19th-floor rooftop bar at the Kimpton Tryon Park Hotel, and Sophia’s Lounge, a sophisticated cocktail lounge at The Ivey’s Hotel.
These businesses are seeking to keep out-of-town guests “in-house” while also appealing to locals.
“People are looking at other alternatives besides clubs,” Kitchen says. In addition to the trend at new hotels, he points out the resurgence of neighborhood bars in Charlotte and the rise of speakeasies. Two options that are known for their laid-back appeal.
Charlotte is always in search of its identity.
The ultra-exclusive nightclub, popping-bottles experience was Charlotte emulating what Atlanta and Miami have.
Recent visits to several Charlotte nightlife venues that offer bottle service found the VIP sections not nearly as filled as they would’ve been a year or two ago.
Some even allowed patrons to sit on the black leather couches for free, sans bottles, when that used to not be permitted.
While Kitchen continues to organize successful events at venues that include nightclubs, he says the appeal is often in his themed events such as ’80s vs. ’90s music or Prince vs. Michael Jackson. There, the DJ and the music are the star of the show, and many of the attendees “couldn’t care less about bottle service,” he says.
High-end nightlife won’t completely go away in the Queen City, and it’s still needed. But maybe it’s going back to being a special occasion experience people seek. And perhaps we’re finding our identity by returning to our roots.
“Charlotte is very much a casual Southern city,” Smith, the marketer, says. “And environments where people can enjoy themselves without too much pressure seem to be more popular now than ever, especially with warm weather right around the corner.”