In this game of bringing life to the night, Michael Ault (pictured, below right, with his wife) is an original. He is an innovator. There are facets of this industry that we now take for granted that are, in fact, direct results of his vision – take bottle service, for instance, which was his baby, and the ultra-lounge an offspring of his imagination.
So it should come as no surprise that his latest nightclub incarnation, opened in late August in Austin, Texas, was inspired by his son and is themed with his personal passions. It is a place that, like its owner and designer, takes the nightlife seriously.
Revisiting Michael Ault a year later [Bar Business Sept/Oct 2008, “Bottle Service”], expectations were of valued opinions on today’s economic effects on the nightclub scene from one of the most respected names in the game. But, always unpredictable, we find Ault reinventing his own club, pulling his powerful Pangaea brand from Austin and painting a new portrait – almost literally.
In just a few short weeks, Ault shut down Pangaea and created, in the same space, The Phoenix. It is a plush, crushed-red-velvet venue, decadent and brooding. Its décor features a collection of classical paintings, creating an environment that could easily serve as classroom for an Art History 101 course at nearby University of Texas.
From Pangaea to The Phoenix is like night and day. Ault has accomplished something here; he has reinvented his club while staying truer to himself than ever before.
BBM: How did you decide on the timing for closing Pangaea and then creating The Phoenix, and what was the impetus behind it?
AULT: The timing was pretty much based on the season: August gets very slow here and it’s hot as Hades, so there’s no reason to open a club our size, ever, in August. If you had a small club that fit 50 people, 100 people, no problem; but if you’ve got a club that really needs 1,500 people in and out all night to make it work, you don’t want to be open through August anyway.
We’ve had two full, great years where we totally dominated the market-we dominated Texas, really. We’re the only really true, big, world-class bottle club in Texas. But after two years we were seeing the club with a relatively static market.
We completed the conversion in three-and-a-half weeks. As they say, ‘Be the last to show, the first to leave, and always leave them laughing.’ And with new clubs opening next door, we thought a pre-emptive strike would probably be the best strategy.
BBM: Obviously very different from Pangaea, what was the inspiration behind the décor and the theme of The Phoenix?
AULT: Interestingly, it’s a theme that I did years ago in a series of clubs called Chaos. One of the inspirations for the original Chaos was to surround ourselves with a museum setting, with spectacular old masters. The subject matter was heavy and it was very thought-provoking. All of the paintings are about the contemplation of life in a very heavy way. There’s life, there’s death, there’s violence, and there’s a lot of introspection in all of the works.
We chose Caravaggio, Van Eyck, Rubens, Delacroix, Jericho, and we chose pieces that would probably not be known by non-art aficionados. The nightclub world is a time of fun and it’s a time of fantasy and it’s a time of escape, but it’s also a time of darkness. It’s a time of mystery and it’s a period of apprehension, of not knowing what’s going to happen, and not knowing how things are going to play out. And that tension, if it’s channeled in the right way, can lead to a great party, and certainly an exciting place where there’s a sense of anticipation of what’s going to happen.
I think a club is an extension of your home, or at least for me it is. I don’t like clubs that look like clubs. I don’t think of myself as a club guy like that. I think of this as the living room where I get to entertain my friends.
BBM: Beyond the look, did you do anything differently with The Phoenix, in terms of staffing, door policy, etc.?
AULT: One of the things we did at Pangaea that was very controversial was we had a New York-style door policy. It was even controversial in New York when we did it initially. And it was controversial in Miami when we started it, and I’m sure it was controversial in Vegas and in L.A. when they started doing it. But when we did it here, in Austin, it was a shocker for a town that is largely a very, open, friendly, beer-drinking city.
Conspicuous consumption is frowned upon here in a very distinct way. So when we came in with a New York door and a 65-bottle-table room, it was incredibly controversial. And with the door – although it was very successful and the club did very well – we made some enemies. In a town like Austin, that really matters because they don’t want outsiders coming in and ruining what they’ve got here. They don’t want it to become like Dallas or Houston, L.A. or Atlanta. They really don’t want it to become like New York or Miami.
So we thought the second time around it might be smarter to do something that’s more Austin-friendly, and we don’t have any door restrictions at The Phoenix. It’s completely open to the public and people seem to love that.
Plus, we hired an entirely new staff that is not trained in the New York or Miami style, like the first staff was. They’re all Austin regulars, luminaries, and popular with the kids here. We do have a VIP section inside, which is pretty tight, and we have a few less bottle tables. So we’re still selling a lot of bottles, but you can also just walk in and be part of the experience, and I think that’s really helped out a lot.
BBM: Stepping outside of The Phoenix, what do you think has changed in the nightclub game over this past, tumultuous year?
AULT: I’m just going to be frank with you: The days when nightclubs were owned and run by really interesting people that knew how to entertain, people who had a flare, who had something pretty special, are gone. I’m thinking about people like Steve Ruebell-quirky and interesting and eccentric. Eric Goode did some fun stuff and Andre Balazs did some fun stuff, and I’d like to think that I’ve done some fun things. I think back to the Peter Stringfellows of the world, and those types of guys – they were real nightclub owners. They were like the nightclub equivalent of a rock star. They were weird, they were a little freaky, and they had incredible dramatic flair. I think that’s all gone now, I really do. I don’t think that exists in the nightclubs, at least not the ones that I’ve seen.
BBM: What about bottle service in this economy? Is it dead, dying, still viable?
AULT: I sold 350 bottles on Sunday night at Pangaea and The Griffon at the Hard Rock in Florida. I had a monstrous night. Now, I don’t expect those numbers on an average night, because people are much more judicious with their money.
If I compare the numbers on a typical night, without a big party planned, to what I might have done two or three years ago, I’m probably off 30% or 35%. So it means that I have to work harder, I have to dig deeper to make it special, I have to spend more on marketing and promotion and I have to spend more on hosting. The cookie-cutter stuff just doesn’t work anymore, because people will just get drunk at home and they’ll come out and won’t dance and won’t party.
But the bottom line is this: People have less money to spend, and they’re also much more careful with it. They don’t need to go out four nights a week. They’ll pick one night. And if you have the best party of the week, then you’ll have a great night. But if you don’t, you will get your ass handed to you.
That’s just how it is.
Click here to read the full article “The Phoenix Rises” in the
September/October 2009 Digital Edition of Bar Busines Magazine