The Future of Bottle Service

Apps may make getting in easier, but clubland is not a democracy.

In 1989, the neon signs and deco facades on Ocean Drive were behind scaffolding and Michael Capponi was on his skateboard handing out flyers to the beautiful people strutting through Lummus Park. Miami Beach wasn’t Miami Beach yet. The Living Room would open in 1996. Nikki Beach would open in 1998. That skater kid was providing a public service to would-be partygoers who didn’t know where to go. Now that he’s grown up – and become a millionaire developer – he wants to do more or less the same thing.

In October, Capponi and his business partner Gideon Kimbrell will officially launch InList, a members only nightlife app designed to make the VIP section more accessible for – well – the people who belong there. Like any tech entrepreneur worth his equity, Capponi says his product will disrupt the industry, but he’s eager to point out that he’s not actually trying to change it. “We’re not democratizing or making clubs more accessible,” he says. “We make it easier for venues by letting them know where the VIPs are and for the VIPs by letting them know where to go.”

Capponi and Kimbrell will fete their digital club at exclusive events in New York, Vegas, and Los Angeles this fall in an attempt to gin up publicity and position their app in a pond full of small fish. Apps claiming to streamline the process of finding the party and getting in are clogging the Android and Apple app stores. Some (ClubZone) serve as digital phone poles coated in fliers, some (Night Clubs UNLTD) don’t do much at all, and some (England’s FIXR) are promising if incomplete, but the entire genre seems to have been constructed on a shaky premise that going out should be convenient for everyone.

Inlist has an attractive interface that connects clubgoers to both managers and concierges.

If exclusivity breeds extravagance – and promoters say it does – doesn’t hacking the velvet rope defeat the point? When talking about InList,CapponinamechecksUberwhile making a strong case that nightlife will defy Uber-fication. “It’s a sort of old-fashioned business,” he says. “There needs to be a human-to-human element.”

Shawn Kolodny, Manager of New York’s VIP Room, echoes Capponi’s point about curation – a buzz word in the age of aggregation – while staying out of the app-on-app club brawl. “There’s limited downside for us if we try things,” he says. “Business is business.” That’s why the VIP Room currently works with several companies, including BottlesTonight, NightUp, and Tablelist. Each connects partiers with Kolodny’s staff, allowing them to get tables and bottle service on a whim.

“We fit 600 so we need a lot of traffic,” says Kolodny. “We can always hide things if need be.”

And that’s the crux right there. Parties don’t just happen when booze, humans, and music happen to coexist in a common space. Parties need to be manufactured and driven. “The nature of club operators is that they want to control their guests,” says Kolodny. “And that’s where the two messages diverge.” The Tablelist app may help fill his 5000-square-foot venue – a relatively low percentage of his customers use apps – but the programmers behind it can’t hard code a good time. They can only serve as go-between for the club managers and potential clients.

“I wanted that relationship to be built for me,” says Julian Jung, the co-founder of Tablelist, which just received $2 million in funding. “I want them to know I’m a good spender and take care of me.”

Jung approaches the nightlife experience from the perspective of a guy who likes to go out. Jung, who worked as a real estate investor during his undergraduate career at Northeastern University, decided to build his business after graduating last year because of an experience trying and failing to find a decent dayclub in Rio. Starting at Back Bay mainstay Storyville, he went club by club through Boston, convincing promoters his app would help them bring in new spenders and track their growing clientele. They were reluctant at first – he met a few bouncers – but they came around.

From the perspective of the club owners, apps like Tablelist, which also provides partiers with a way to split and foot the bill, present a better way to organize information about spending. Data can help determine who gets served first and by whom – host and hostess performance, like seemingly everything else, can be moneyballed. They also help tentative clubbers – think bachelorette parties – navigate a daunting landscape.

“The idea of bottle service has this stigma attached to it, but I think we can change that,” says Jung.

But the guys at InList, who bounce around between New York, Miami, Saint Tropez, and Vegas, aren’t so sure. There attitude is that any stigma encourages self selection. Unlike Jung, they’re not investing in creating a broader demographic because they’re not convinced there is one.

“What Tablelist is doing is fine, but they’re targeting a different part of the market,” says Gideon Kimbrell. “I’m just not sure about the long-term benefit.” InList is a tech business with a human backbone. The firm employs a number of “concierges” to help sort clients and cater to the elite.

Michael Capponi and Gideon Kimbrell

In essence, Tablelist wants to help everyone and InList wants to help those who don’t need it. The difference isn’t so much about business model – Tablelist’s Platinum program is very similar to InList – but about public policy in clubland.  Jung wants to enfranchise the dressed up and downtrodden. Kimbrell and Capponi want a more efficient free market. It’s a debate as old as time – or America anyway – and there isn’t likely to be resolution any time soon.

But change is gonna come. What makes these apps more than the latest step in the evolution of hype – flyers to emails to Facebook invites to this – is that they track the small spenders. Unlike the whales, unknown partiers have swum largely under the radar in the past, which made it difficult to emerge from party monster anonymity. Automated payment and data collection will show spending trends and help increasingly enthusiastic partiers transform themselves into VIPs.

What it won’t do is provide instant access to elite experiences. When it comes to bottle service, spending and earning are the same thing. Tech may simplify that business model, but it won’t make drinking with models a simple business.

Photos by Angelo Cavalli / Corbis