Vegas-sized profits

Nightclub owners next generation of moguls

People enjoy a night out at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. In the past few years, nightclubs on and near the Strip have grown from just a handful to about 30 today, bringing success to a new breed of Vegas entrepreneur. Before long, one expert said, Well definitely see a nightclub making $100 million in gross revenue, and thats

? It’s almost 3 a.m. at the Tao nightclub on the Strip, and the anthem for the night is still blaring: “Party like a rock, party like a rockstar : “

Photographer Hew Burney, high on energy drinks, cuts through the dancing crowd with the practiced stealth of a running back spotting holes in a defensive line. He snaps pictures of cleavage-baring women who smooch for the camera and tilt half-full bottles of pricey champagne to their lips.

He flits to the next group, but not before tossing out a handful of business cards reading, “That picture you don’t remember taking last night. :” By the time Burney calls it quits at 4:30 a.m., he’s shot 1,400 pictures that will be posted online before most revelers have slept off their hangovers.

The Web site may masquerade as a Girls Gone Wild knockoff, but it’s a sophisticated marketing machine logging 12 million page views a month, with banner ads from every hot spot in town. It’s the brainchild of Ryan Doherty, 31, and Justin Weniger, 26, who have launched five different businesses in four years, all tethered to the exploding Vegas nightlife scene. Their enterprise, Wendoh Media, also operates a printing business, publishes two magazines and sells VIP passes to nightclubs.

No casino needed

Ryan Doherty, left, and Justin Weniger have started five businesses in four years, all tied to the burgeoning nightlife scene in Las Vegas.

Doherty and Weniger are the new breed of Vegas entrepreneur, finding success in Sin City without ever stepping foot in a casino. Over the past few years, nightclubs on and near the Strip have taken on a life of their own, mushrooming from a handful to about 30 today, with more in the pipeline. The clubs are considered as vital as a poker room, with casinos carving out thousands of square feet for them and erecting huge digital billboard marquees.

The Venetian’s Tao restaurant and nightclub raked in more cash than any other restaurant in the country in 2006 with $55 million in sales – nearly half of that in alcohol – so it’s no surprise that Vegas’ robust nightlife is producing the city’s next generation of moguls.

So much cash is flowing into these venues that even the management companies are branching out. The Light Group, the mastermind behind the Light nightclub at the Bellagio and Jet at the Mirage, is planning three new restaurants, a loft project off-Strip and the Harmon Hotel & Residences at MGM Mirage’s $7 billion CityCenter.

The money also is helping buy respect, said Bryan Bass, who teaches nightclub management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“There’s definitely a younger generation that’s starting to have a larger impact on Las Vegas,” he said.

The Light Group managing partner Andy Masi, 37, agreed, noting that the Bellagio once nixed his company’s idea for a nightclub. Today, the Bellagio’s parent, MGM Mirage, “has given us a hotel to operate and market and run. They no longer think of us as the nightclub kids.”

There are no official measures of the economic impact of the clubs. But industry insiders say they are generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, driving people into casinos and hotels and creating scores of new jobs – from bartenders and bouncers directly employed by the clubs to publicists and club photographers such as Burney who feed off the frenzy and feed back into it.

‘Library for people’s lives’

By day, Doherty and Weniger publish two free magazines – 944 and Racket – that tout the city’s nightlife. They sell VIP access passes to clubs. Their printing company produces posters and just about every postcard and advertising billet handed out to the throngs of people roaming the Strip. In four years, the staff has grown from three employees to 95.

Each night, they send out a team of photographers to capture voyeuristic pictures of bar-hopping clubbers, creating what Doherty calls a “library for people’s lives.” It’s a symbiotic relationship: Clubs give the photographers almost unrestricted access; in exchange, deft editing on makes every lounge look packed with gorgeous, buxom women – even when it’s not.

“We could be in New York or San Francisco, but Vegas is definitely a better brand for us to develop,” said Luis Kain, 28, whose software, Oosah, powers the Web site. “There’s more money here, and the level of growth can come faster. I don’t think there’s a ceiling here.”