For a steep price, clubs make you a VIP
Hey, big spender. South Beach clubs can make you feel like a million bucks, but it might cost you thousands -- for a few bottles, that is.
By Lydia Martin
It's Sunday night at the Shore Club hotel's Skybar, and a couple of guys from Indianapolis are living the South Beach dream. They're up in the VIP section with their hot blonde dates, a bottle of hip-hop's over-invoked Cristal and another of Grey Goose on their table.
They're spending more than $1,400 for the bottle service that guarantees admission to the VIP rooms of most South Beach clubs. The lure of those roped-off enclaves can be intoxicatingly strong. One problem: when the bill comes, the high living can end in clubland sticker shock. Add alcohol, and disputes over the bill can turn ugly.
The culture of the VIP room came under scrutiny earlier this month after three guys who agreed to buy a bottle of vodka to sit in the VIP section at Mansion, 1235 Washington Ave., were roughed up by a crew of bouncers when they refused to pay what they said was an inflated bill.
"At most clubs, even before you get your first bottle, they have already run your credit card to make sure that you have funds, " says Gerry Kelly, marketing director of The Fifth, a posh club at 1045 Fifth St. "This eliminates 99 percent of the problem. But sometimes, a customer will get carried away ordering too much, and then their card is declined. They are humiliated in front of their date, and that's when the altercations can start."
There have long been club-goer complaints about jacked-up bills and arbitrary consumption minimums. But sometimes the urge to party like Diddy, Paris and company takes over.
"We're on vacation in South Beach. We don't care what we spend, " says Jeremiah Hammon, 39, an Indianapolis restaurant manager partying at the Shore Club. "We ain't nobody, but nobody knows that here."
JUST A CREDIT CARD
Indeed, in the early days of South Beach's rebirth, when the superstars and jet-setters descended, you had to be -- or know -- somebody to get into the hottest new VIP rooms. These days, you just need a credit card that isn't too close to maxed out.
"If we made you buy four bottles, and you're only four people, you can bet we didn't want you there, " says longtime party promoter Tommy Pooch, who, with partner Alan Roth, is behind jam-packed Tuesday nights at the Delano and Sundays at the Shore Club. "You're probably ugly. We were hoping you would just leave. But you were so desperate to get in, you agreed to the four bottles, and now we're stuck with you."
While Pooch talks from his VIP table at Skybar, he pulls from his pocket a card that reads "complimentary bottle" and hands it to an associate who has spotted a crew of bored girls by the bar. They're a blur of long legs in short shorts and miniskirts. Great bait for big-spending guys. The girls are shown to a VIP table near the front.
"Now we've got them for a couple of hours, " Pooch says.
In a designer-label culture in which image is all, and ego squashes restraint, club owners don't flinch over the prices they set.
"It isn't so much the bottles that you are paying for but the real estate, " says Eric Milon, co-owner of Opium Group, which operates the celeb-graced Mansion, Set, Privé and Opium Garden.
Milon won't comment on the April incident at Mansion, but he will say that at all Opium Group clubs, bottle prices are detailed on menus that remain on the tables so there should be no surprises at the end.
Even so, some patrons will balk, says Kelly, who has helped run several top Beach clubs, including Liquid, Bar Room and Level.
"Most of the time, it's because people don't read the part where we say sales tax, resort tax and gratuity will be added, " Kelly says. "That's 29 percent more. The occasional customer will fight about it."
Most clubs have policies on what to do when a customer gets aggressive.
"If someone is violent or drunk, you immediately take them off the dance floor or out of the VIP room so that there is not the potential for other customers to be harmed, " Kelly says. "You either escort the violent customer out . . . or, if they refuse to pay their bill, you take them to the back -- you never beat them -- and you call the police."
THE NECK OF A BOTTLE
Mostly, patrons are happy to pay for the privilege of calling themselves VIPs.
"The neck of a bottle sticking out of a bucket on your table is all you need to feel like a big deal, " Pooch says.
In fact, opting for bottle service can make sense: Agreeing to buy a bottle will get you through the velvet ropes at the front door. And at $13 to $15 a cocktail, you and your party could spend more by ordering from a club's crowded bar than by going with a bottle of premium vodka -- brought to your table with complimentary mixers -- for about $300.
Plus, now you're in the coveted, cordoned-off section where you might end up within gawking distance of celebs and ballplayers behaving badly. You get to sit instead of stand. And at least for one night, you can pretend you're a player. (Note to the guys from Indianapolis: Taking snapshots of your bottle of Cristal can only ruin your game.)
Romy Grantley, 39, a financial trader who moved to South Florida from London a few months ago, never misses a Friday night at Set, 320 Lincoln Rd. Set makes buying bottles a requirement for almost everybody who gets inside.
"I'll spend about $3,000 every Friday on three or four bottles, " Grantley says. "I usually split the bill with a buddy. It's worth it. . . . There is no place that's better anywhere in the world. Not in Ibiza. Not anywhere. When I first started coming here, nobody knew who I was. Now, because I have my own table, I'm well known at the top club on the Beach."
Mostly, it's guys who buy bottles. Women in the know understand that if they're cute, showing enough skin and traveling in a pack, they'll probably be escorted into clubs without paying the cover or being asked to hand over credit cards to ensure bottle service.
"Girls only buy bottles when they come in for a bachelorette party or something like that, " says Michael Capponi, the promoter behind Set's high-powered Friday nights.
Tayo Otiti, the VIP hostess for the Tuesday night party at the Delano's hot lounge Florida Room, is focused on upselling you when you get to the velvet ropes outside the hotel. Maybe you were hoping to just buy a couple of cocktails from the bar.
"But you might not get in at all, " Otiti says. "So I might take you aside and tell you that if you agree to spend a minimum of probably $400, I can get you into the VIP section. The truth is, most people are happy to spend more than that. The other day, we had a celebrity -- I can't divulge who -- who spent $27,000."
BATTLE OF EGOS
Stay late enough at some clubs, and you can watch while the egos fly out of control. As the biggest spenders get drunker and drunker, the competition heats up.
"The guy at the table next to you starts ordering magnums of champagne, so all of a sudden you're ordering them, too, " says Vanessa Menkes, Opium Group's publicist. "You see the bottles coming and coming as the guys try to outdo each other."
At Opium Group clubs, champagne disputes take center stage because the most expensive bottles ($600 and up) come with sparklers spitting fire.
But even without sparklers, club-goers get competitive. "The other night at Mokai, this guy bought four or five bottles of champagne, and the guy sitting next to him . . . ordered 10, " Pooch says. "He dropped more than $6,000. He didn't have enough people with him to drink that much champagne, so at a certain point he was just giving it away to anyone who walked by."
'LOOK AT YOUR BILL'
But not everybody who parties on the Beach is that impetuous.
"I've been going out less, because you just get tired of getting ripped off, " says industrial engineer Felipe Cheverria, 28. "Everywhere you go, you have to look at your bill carefully. I was with some friends at a place on Ocean Drive, and they talked us into staying because they had happy-hour prices. When we got the bill, it was $120 more than we expected. The manager told us that when the place gets busy, they start charging more. Of course, they didn't tell us that until later."
The fun always ends later.
"I've never actually been overcharged by a club, " says Oscar Gonzalez, 23, a post-production editor for Channel 7. "But sometimes the bill is more than you expect, because you let other people take control of the ordering. You're living in the moment, and you forget to realize you're going to pay for it in the end."
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