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How do you run a successful gay venue in this day and age?

How do you run a successful gay venue in this day and age?

London night Brut

Gay scenes around the world have seen a spate of closures in recent years.

In the last 12 months, Gay Star News has reported on the closure of some of the world’s oldest gay venues, such as the Hippo in Baltimore and Urge in Auckland.

One city hit hard is London, which has said goodbye in recent months to Barcode Vauxhall, the Joiners Arms, The Green Carnation, Manbar, Candy Bar, Madame Jo Jo’s, Escape and the George & Dragon.

The Black Cap in Camden shut its doors suddenly in April, but campaigners continue to try and fight the closure and hope to launch a community bid to buy the premises.

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern
The Royal Vauxhall Tavern

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern was bought by an Austrian property developer in 2014. Campaigners concerned about its future have successfully lobbied for it to be granted Grade II-listed status, which makes it harder for it to be adapted or redeveloped, should its new owners wish to do so.

It remains open for business but it would be short-sighted to assume its future as an LGBTI venue has been secured.

Why are so many venues closing? Firstly, escalating real estate prices and gentrification. Secondly, the arrival of hook-up apps that have drastically and permanently altered the way in which many gay people meet one another.

Thirdly, because of growing acceptance of LGBT people in wider society, many gay people are more relaxed about hanging out in mixed or mainstream venues.

Other reasons include local factors, such as the introduction of smoking bans in many countries and a drop in the price of liquor in supermarkets.

Given these reasons, why would anyone choose to open an LGBT venue in 2015?

Wayne Shires
Wayne Shires

Veteran London club promoter Wayne Shires is one person who has, with the launch of Bloc Bar in Camden and monthly club night Brut, which takes place in a series of railway arches beneath Cannon Street Station.

He says that reports of the death of the gay scene have been exaggerated; it’s just changing, as it has always done.

‘I don’t think people are necessarily going out less. Things change. I’ve been operating for over 20 years, and years ago when I was a young, Earls Court was the gay hotspot, then for whatever reason that went into decline, and then Vauxhall flourished, and that had a good ten years and now that’s in decline. The scene has always been fluid.

‘I think as long as there are people who want to do things, LGBT entrepreneurs who want to put on a party or open a bar or café, or whatever, then there will be a scene. They will find somewhere to do it.’

Bloc Bar is not the only venue to open. Earlier this year, the acclaimed Precinct DTLA opened in downtown Los Angeles. A new LGBT club, Revere, and gay-friendly M Hotel, has just opened in Orlando, Miami – the first to launch in the area since the 1990s.

This weekend, Stonegate Pub Company will launch Mary’s in Cardiff – a new LGBT venue in which the company has already invested £250,000 in refurbishment work.

Jonny Woo is co-founder of The Glory in East London
Jonny Woo is co-founder of The Glory in East London

Another new addition to the London scene is The Glory in Dalston. It was opened in 2014 by cabaret performer Jonny Woo and three friends.

‘I think it’s really premature and I think it’s nonsense to talk about the death of the scene. There are bars opening and closing,’ says Woo.

‘People forget that there was no gay scene in Soho at the end of the 1970s. The gay scene will move around, but there’s always new blood coming through, you only have to look at something like Sink The Pink, which has become a really successful brand.

‘There will always be people coming in who want to put on nights and do stuff for their own kind.’

The notion of doing stuff for one’s ‘own kind’ is shared by Gary Henshaw, owner of the Ku Bar chain of venues in central London. Ku celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend, and Henshaw says that in terms of business, he’s just enjoyed his most successful year.

‘We no longer ‘need’ gay bars as the world has moved on,’ he says. ‘Look at recent developments in my home country, Ireland, as an example of societal acceptance and equality,’ he says. ‘But we tend to enjoy the company of like-minded people.

‘Hence the proliferation of Irish bars, rock venues, pop venues, etc, and that is why we will always have gay bars.’

Gay travel guide publisher Damron says that it has seen dramatic drop in the number of US LGBT bars and clubs in its database – from 1,605 in 2005 to 1,056 in 2014: a significant 34% decrease in just under a decade. However, although that would indicate a trend in closures, it also masks the fact that some closures have been replaced with new openings.

So, how do you maximise your chances of running a successful LGBTI venue in this day and age?

Location clearly plays a huge role. In London, old pubs that boast spacious staff quarters above them – such as the Black Cap or Royal Vauxhall Tavern – are vulnerable because of their redevelopment potential.

Secondly, those we spoke with agreed that appealing to a wide cross-section of LGBTI people had also helped their success.

Ku Bar owner, Gary Henshaw
Ku Bar owner, Gary Henshaw

The Ku chain, across its five premises, caters for different sections of the scene, including the women-oriented SHE Soho, a younger, pop-loving crowd at Ku Klub, and a ‘metrosexual, hip crowd’ at Ku Soho.

Bloc Bar is open day and night, and Shires says it aims to, ‘Make everyone feel welcome. We have different nights to appeal to as many different groups in the LGBT community as possible.’

Woo concurs: ‘We do a lot of programming of entertainment at The Glory, and we’ve become involved with many different sections of our – loosely-termed – community. I’m not going to say LGBTQI because I feel very much part of East London in its broadest term.’

He also says that you’ve got to work hard to maintain standards.

‘As a business, you’ve got to remember that your bar is your product, so if you take your eye off it, people will start to drift elsewhere.

‘You’ve got to look after business, and the environment, to make sure people want to keep coming back and drinking. The competition for bars, generally, is really, really high. Just because it’s gay, you can’t scrimp on any of that.’

Last month, San Francisco voted to offer financial assistance to long-running businesses in specific districts to help preserve the identity of historic neighborhoods. This will include some long-running LGBTI businesses.

Ku Bar Soho
Ku Bar Soho

It’s a unique scheme that other cities might consider adopting.

That said, it only benefits older establishments, and might not provide all venues with protection from some of the threats they face.

When asked if there was any legislative change that they would like to see, the London promoters we spoke to all gave similar answers; protection from new property developments on their doorstep.

‘One thing that gets my back up is when new housing goes up near a venue, and people move in, and then immediately start complaining about noise,’ says Shires, ‘despite the fact that the venue was there first and they should have been aware about it when they moved in.’

‘There should be some sort of ‘buyer beware’ notice. If you choose to buy a flat next to a nightclub, you can’t move in and then complain about the noise afterwards.

‘It seems draconian to me,’ agrees Henshaw. ‘A resident can move into a flat above a bar that has existed for decades, complain about the ambient noise, and the bar can be severely punished and even lose its license. There needs to be a change in these attitudes.’

The Glory in East London
The Glory in East London

Ultimately, despite the challenges, they believe there remains a strong market for LGBT nightlife, but it will only survive if people continue to take risks.

‘If you have an impetus to open, just go ahead and do it,’ says Woo. ‘Businesses are opening in East London everywhere. If there’s any trend, I think you’re going to start to see more independent gay bars, which will only make for a more interesting scene.’

He believes independent businesses can often respond to fluctuations in trade quicker than brewery-run establishments.

But, warns Shires, ‘Whether they’re chain-owned or independently owned, it still comes down to the same thing; people need to support their LGBT venues if they want them to survive.’