Into the heat of the night

London's massive new Home club has entered a fickle market, writes Dan Gledhill
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The Independent Online
Nobody likes growing old but Ron McCullogh seems to have a particular problem with the ageing process. Save for the occasional family wedding, most 46-year-olds have long since hung up their dancing shoes. McCullogh, however, refuses to move to the beat of Father Time's drum. Last week, the Glaswegian architecture graduate opened a seven-floor nightclub in the heart of London, which is hoping to attract a nightly crowd of 2,000 of the capital's hippest young things thanks to its "cutting-edge modern design with 21st-century technological chutzpah". Developing a loyal following is the key, hence the name, Home.

There is no doubt that McCullogh, who also owns Glasgow's leading venue, The Tunnel, has the pedigree to make Home a success. He has recruited Duncan Hughes, of Liverpool's legendary Cream club, plus top DJ Paul Oakenfold as musical director.

Dave Swindells, clubs editor of London's Time Out magazine, says: "You could argue that Ron McCullogh is already removed, being 46, but he designs brilliant clubs."

Thursday's launch could hardly have been better; numbers were boosted by a host of celebrities including Whitney Houston and Brad Pitt. The guest list was at bursting point but from now on, far from keeping people out, the task will be to get them in. Leicester Square, epicentre of London's tourist trade, may seem like an ideal venue but those hardcore clubbers who sneer at such a tacky location will take more convincing.

Nor is this a particularly auspicious time for the industry. More than 100 nightclubs have been put up for sale by three big operators - Rank, First Leisure and Allied Leisure - which are bent on getting out of the business.

Running nightclubs is a thankless task. The fickleness of fashion can turn a booming venue into a ghost town almost overnight. As pub opening hours become more flexible and other forms of entertainment, like cinemas, try to muscle in on the post-11.30pm market, nightclub operators are having to work harder and harder to fill their venues. More local competition will come from the renowned Hammersmith Palais, which reopened this month after a pounds 1m refit.

Quoted nightclub operators have not found much favour in the City. So this is hardly the ideal scenario for McCullogh's multi-million pound investment. But, then again, this is a labour of love.

"I started in clubs when I was a student supplementing my earnings as a mobile DJ," he says. "I'm just a frustrated DJ really. I still like house music and I understand the scene."

McCullogh portrays himself as just another clubber, but there is no doubting his deep understanding of the market. After all, it is 10 years ago that he first contemplated opening a venue in London and the launch of Home has been three years in the making.

McCullogh realises that Home's success depends on far more than just filling the club. Ministry of Sound, the south London club set up by Lord Palumbo's son James, blazed a trail in the early 1990s. Far more than just a nightspot, Palumbo has created a global brand supported by a devoted band of followers. The revenue from its venue on the Elephant & Castle is supplemented by income from CDs, merchandising and a multitude of global live events.

Sheffield's Gatecrasher, which is planning a huge millennium party at the Don Valley stadium, and Cream are operations that have become far more than just the eponymous nightclubs. McCullogh is confident that he can repeat the trick.

"I think I will be unable to stop the rest of it happening," he says. "It will be enormous, and the ancillary income streams are already happening."

In fact, Home has already opened in Sydney and a New York branch is planned for next year. McCullogh has put on two festivals here under the same brand and a range of merchandising is in the pipeline. Nevertheless, others wonder whether clubbers will welcome another "superclub" like Ministry, where the brand becomes known throughout the world .

"I'm not sceptical about Home's success, but there is a question mark about it also being cutting-edge," says Swindells. "London is very volatile. Super-clubbing has gone out of the window - it's a '97 thing. There's been a reaction against it in London."

What counts most in McCullogh's favour is his humility. "I'm only one of a large team, he says. "The real decision-makers are younger management. It is essential to devolve responsibility further in a moving market. In music, style and media, the people best-placed to make decisions are those connected to the market. If you look at companies like Sony and Mushroom records, you see that good-quality younger management are given authority."

Willingness to delegate is even more important for Clive Preston, managing director of Northern Leisure, which operates 71 clubs. Most of the group's clubs are located in "secondary towns", where the need to keep up with fashion is not so great. But that does not mean Preston, at 62, can afford to take his finger off the pulse.

"You can't insult people," he says. "They still have some knowledge of music. The people who work here are a generation removed from me. We've a lot of good managers under 30. These people understand the business and the music scene totally."

This may be the reason why Northern Leisure, which is reportedly close to buying Rank's nightclubs, is expanding its empire while others are withdrawing from the scene. The company has also recognised the need to look beyond its traditional customers in the 18-25 age group by providing special sections for over-25s.

McCullogh and Preston may be catering for very different markets - the achingly trendy clubbers likely to patronise Home contrast with the provincial types who frequent Northern Leisure's clubs - but they have much in common.

An acceptance that customers should be treated as guests is one. Entering clubs can be intimidating, with punters forced to run the gauntlet of aggressive bouncers just itching for an excuse to deny entry. This is a particular problem in Leicester Square with its resident population of undesirables.

Swindells says: "Home's success all depends on how well they run the door and if they're efficient and friendly in an area where that's difficult." Once inside, McCullogh's background in catering and architecture should guarantee visitors to Home a spectacular experience.

In the modern world, the clubbers hold all the aces, and there will be plenty of room on the dancefloors of venues that fail to satisfy their fickle tastes.