Like most soirees in Dubai, it begins with a red carpet.
It’s 10pm on a Wednesday at the Meydan superclub Drai’s DXB, which has just turned one year old, and the carpet has been rolled out in preparation for the big birthday bash ahead.
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Security guards, dressed in all-black suits, are huddled for their briefing while ticketing staff confirm last-minute table reservations. The big spenders are on their way; they have already snapped up tables worth Dh20,000 and more.
Fast forward by two hours and the club is packed. Its LED screens (there are more than a dozen) project psychedelic images, while the dance-floor – shaped like a horse shoe to accommodate the central bar – is heaving, as the latest RnB and hip-hop tracks blast out of the speakers.
Strolling casually among the 1,500-strong crowd is club manager Elie Saba. He’s quiet and unassuming; his important stature revealed only by the sheer number of handshakes and hugs he’s dishing out to patrons. As the operations manager of Addmind, the Lebanese entertainment company that runs a range of premium nightclubs, including Drai’s DXB’s neighbour, White Dubai, and Abu Dhabi’s Mad on Yas Island, Saba explains that operating a nightclub is more boardroom than dancefloor. He says his day-to-day, which includes daily and weekly briefings and meetings, crunching numbers with the accounts and social media teams, analysing security camera footage, and making deals with big-name DJs and artists.
"The key is to always look ahead," he says. "From our DJs who tell me about the latest music to the marketing team who follow what is on social media, we need to keep our finger on the pulse. "This is what works for us, but of course, there are different ways to run a club. You have to find out what works for your brand and customers."
Getting that brand power
It is a quest that has become increasingly important to UAE’s club managers. With nearly 100 active nightclubs, beach clubs and party spots all vying for an audience – whose expenditure is reportedly decreasing – the competition is getting fierce.
Clubs are doing what they can to stand out. And one of the ways they’re doing this is by associating themselves with an international brand. Drai’s DXB, for example, is an off-shoot of Drai’s, the popular Las Vegas hip-hop club located within a casino at the Sunset Strip. It joins other of internationally renowned club brands in the UAE, including Cannes’s Gotha and the recently opened Sky2.0, a branch of the popular Beirut nightspot Sky Bar.
“Doing it this way is a necessity,” says Nikki Beach general manager Hanna Azzi. The luxurious Pearl Jumeira beach club recently celebrated its third anniversary. “When you look at the different array of people in the UAE, from those living here and tourists, they can more easily recognise a venue that is associated with a successful brand.”
That means consistency is key. With Nikki Beach part of a network of venues in places ranging from Miami Beach and Ibiza to St Tropez and Barbados, its wealthy and loyal clientele expects a certain vibe when they visit any branch around the world. “When you have a successful concept you shouldn’t really mess with it,” Azzi adds. “There are some venues that try to localise it and it doesn’t always work. And Dubai is such an international market that you don’t really have to adjust the food or things for that location. We at Nikki Beach stuck to our guns and our customers responded.”
But, as with most things in business, and life, you also need to be flexible. This was something Saba found out when he faced complaints from women about White Dubai’s initially strict door policy regarding the wearing of high-heels. “We eventually changed that and made it more casual and customers can wear flats now,” he says. “What we did was try to impose a Lebanese nightclub mentality on Dubai – because in Beirut we dress up for clubs like we are going to a wedding – and that didn’t work here.”
Staying true to the concept
Having a clear mission has also yielded success for the small home-grown Dubai party Analog Room. Even if that means the team is constantly looking for a new home. Such is the predicament for founder Mehdi Ansari. His weekly club night – which until recently ran at Stereo Arcade, in the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Dubai – Jumeirah Beach – is moving to a new location, which will be announced soon.
This would be the venue’s seventh location in nearly as many years. “It’s the same story,” Ansari says with a rueful laugh. “We normally find a place within a hotel, that’s not being used and then we go there and build it up and the hotel gets inspired and they tell us to add this and those things that don’t appeal to us and we have to leave. One hotel even asked us to include karaoke and we just knew we had to go.”
But the Analog Room crowd are a faithful lot and they continue to follow Ansari wherever he goes. And that’s because he and his team built its enduring success on the back of their dual mission of playing adventurous electronic music and instilling a casual vibe. “We are not the place for you to come take selfies,” he says pointedly. “We ban photographers from newspapers and video recording with flash. We are not even a big club. We are a small and dedicated party that’s all about the music – and people who are looking for a real experience come to us. That’s why I feel that we are the real Dubai party.”
It maybe a well-deserved boast considering its success, but it’s not entirely true. The fact is, Dubai, like the rest of the Emirates, is so cosmopolitan that a variety of different clubs can operate comfortably within the party landscape here.
The rise in ethno-specific parties
Another clubbing concept that is quickly gaining ground in the city is that of regionally specific parties. From the plethora of colourful Filipino nightclubs such as Boracay Club in Deira to the exuberant African vibes of DIFC's Kiza, particularly on its Afrodisiac Fridays, clubs can also act as a nostalgic taste of home in addition to a place to hear the latest sounds from their respective regions.
Bollywood-themed club nights, or Desi Nights, are becoming particularly popular. Where once these were limited to areas such as Deira and Satwa, the concept is now spreading to central Dubai and taking a foothold in exclusive venues; both the ritzy Armani / Prive and Billionaire’s Mansion now have dedicated Desi party nights. “People are definitely loving it right now and we are also getting a lot of tourists, many from India, who are visiting us,” says Deepesh Chellani, manager of popular Bollywood club Headlines, which boasts a Goan-beach-club-meets-sports-bar feel.
He explains that such nights have become successful because they are cost-effective. You also have a captive audience and you don’t have to bring in international headline acts, as the music – not the artist – is what people come for.
“And if you are doing a great job then the word is spread,” he adds. “We don’t do too much advertising, most of our customers come through word of mouth on social media. But the key is how we treat our customers. If you treat them well, people will come back.”
And that’s essentially the golden rule that determines which spots live and which ones perish in the UAE’s party jungle. It’s the land where the revellers call the beat.