Underground meets tough competition

“Disconnect” between students and campus nightclub persists, AMS VP says

DJ KLYNK at the Underground during the QPop Music Festival.
DJ KLYNK at the Underground during the QPop Music Festival.
The Hub on Princess St. includes Ale House and Canteen and Stages Nightclub.
The Hub on Princess St. includes Ale House and Canteen and Stages Nightclub.

The Underground has made strides to improve, but students aren’t seeing it, according to AMS Vice-President of Operations Justin Reekie.

The Underground competes with a number of downtown nightclubs for student customers. As a non-profit organization, though, its objectives are different — it aims to provide social benefits to students rather than make money, according to Underground management.

Reekie told the Journal via email that a disconnect between The Underground and students has persisted “despite many changes to the operations and events at the club that have been directly responsive to student feedback.”

The Underground was rebranded from Alfie’s Nightclub in 2013. The rebranding included new seating and the addition of student artwork to its walls, along with the name change. The project cost the AMS “less than $50,000”, according to then-Vice-President of Operations Nicola Plummer.

The current management team has addressed student demand in drink prices, operating nights and event themes, Reekie said, but many students are unaware of the changes.

The Underground ended its Wednesday night events and began Throwback Thursday theme nights last year. It also introduced a line skip program for Saturday nights.

“In part, this has been fuelled by the focus and tone that has been communicated to the student body through campus media outlets, which has centred on the finances of the establishment and has carried a persistently negative manner,” he said.

Reekie later added that he was referring to the “general tone of media on campus, not one specific outlet.”

The AMS Pub Services (TAPS) — the AMS service that runs The Underground and Queen’s Pub — has posted a financial deficit every year since 2010. This year, TAPS is projected to run a deficit of $19,188.07.

Prior to the most recent rebranding, the AMS has spent over $330,000 on renovating the space since 2001. In a report on a $285,000 renovation in 2001, the Journal reported at the time that the nightclub — previously a pub — had lost money since the late 1980s.

The Underground competes with other nightclubs in Kingston for student customers. The majority of local nightclubs are located near Princess St. or the surrounding area, with the exception of The Underground on campus.

The Hub Group Inc., owned by Scott MacPherson, includes Stages Nightclub, the Brass Pub, thGrizzly Grill and Ale House and Canteen on Princess St.

The Spot, a smaller nightclub, is situated near the intersection of Brock and Division Streets. Fluid Nightclub, meanwhile, is located at Princess and Division Streets.

Reekie said the advantage of The Underground’s location is its proximity to students, as well as safety services like Walkhome, Queen’s First Aid and Queen’s Security.

As an on-campus establishment, however, The Underground must abide by Queen’s Campus Alcohol Policies, which enforces restrictions that off-campus nightclubs don’t have to follow.

“An example would be that we are not allowed to market the consumption or pricing of alcohol,” Reekie said. Other restrictions include a ban on sponsorship by alcohol manufacturers.

He said The Underground has logged better attendance this school year than in 2013-14. The AMS was unable to provide exact numbers by deadline.

Although TAPS is projected to post a deficit this year, the AMS corporate services are projecting a surplus of $70,000, Reekie added.

“The projected deficit of TAPS is not creating a deficit in the AMS,” he said.

Reekie said he consulted AMS Retail Operations Officer John McDiarmid about the Underground’s financial performance prior to running for AMS executive in January.

From speaking with McDiarmid and other industry professionals, Reekie said he believes the service’s deficit is due to cyclical trends.

“If you look at any of our corporate services, they each face cyclical trends of surpluses to deficits to surpluses,” he said. “This is due to a change in the landscape of our campus and changing interests.” McDiarmid was unavailable to comment.

The Underground’s operations are based on a different set of priorities than the nightclubs in the Hub, according to TAPS Head Manager Ben Schoening, who oversees The Underground and Queen’s Pub.

Schoening said TAPS aims to provide a “socially accessible” and beneficial service to students. These benefits include employment opportunities and a safe drinking environment, he said.

Unlike other Kingston nightclubs, The Underground operates with a “double bottom line”, Schoening said. In this analogy, the first “bottom line” measures the service’s financial well being, while the second measures its benefit to students.

“Assessing The Underground in a vacuum and purely on its financial merits is missing the full picture,” Schoening said. A number of factors dictate how financially successful The Underground is during the year, he added, such as minimum wage, drink prices, student attendance and rental costs paid to the Student Life Centre.

TAPS currently employs 107 students and eight managers, including Schoening.

The Underground uses customer surveys and employs a volunteer marketing team to track campus trends and gather feedback on the service’s strategies. TAPS also partners with student groups to run special events and offers line skip to students on their birthdays, Schoening added.

He said theme nights, such as Throwback Thursday, are successful when they create a group of students who consistently attend the event.

“Providing a theme for students to associate the club with allows us to generate a connection to different student demographics,” he said.

Other nightclubs also offer theme nights. Ale House and Canteen runs Tumbleweed Tuesday, a country-music themed night, while Stages runs “Stage Rage” events on Thursday nights, when cover charges and drinks are sold for $2.

Jennifer Whitaker, ArtSci ’16, said a good nightclub experience for her involves smaller spaces and a broad range of music.

Her favourite local nightclub is the Ale House and Canteen, she said, while she finds Fluid and The Spot less appealing.

“Fluid is sketchy. I also feel nervous when I’m in The Spot. Just grimy … it’s dirty,” Whitaker said.

Fluid Nightclub opened in May 2013. Prior to Fluid, Elysium Nightclub operated in the same location, opening in 2010 and closed in 2012.

Fluid didn’t respond to requests for comment. The establishment’s phone number wasn’t in service when a Journal reporter called.

According to Brett Elder, Sci ’15, it’s important for a bar to look like it’s seemingly full, even if there are few people in attendance.

“Places like Ale House and Stages, they have an upstairs, so even if they are empty, there might still be people,” Elder said. Fluid and The Underground each have one main dance floor, meanwhile, which he said can appear empty when there are few patrons.

Part of a nightclub’s popularity is generated through brand recognition and the impression that a venue is popular, Elder said.

“People are like sheep, especially bar-hopping,” he said. “Stages and Ale are not the best clubs, but they are places where people will actually be.”

Stages Nightclub was unable to comment by deadline. The General Manager of Ale House, Scott Hopkins, declined to comment, citing concerns about sharing business strategies with competitors.

The Spot, meanwhile, opened five years ago. According to Jordan West, the nightclub’s owner, operator and general manager, it’s open every day except Christmas Day.

“The first year I was open, I had to specifically work every single day of the week,” West said. “People are very confident in their experience when they come to The Spot. It’s been established.”

The Spot rarely does themed events, West said, as they can be profitable, but don’t bring in long-term patrons.

He said The Spot focuses on “quantity and value”. According to West, The Spot’s revenue has been steady for the past three years.

West said he doesn’t associate his business with any specific group of people or type of music to attract a diverse range of customers, although he does gear it towards younger people.

“I specifically don’t like DJs that are set on one kind of genre. Like deep house all night, it will be garbage,” he said. “If I play hip hop all night, I will attract the wrong people.”

He said hip-hop attracts a “more violent crowd” due to its lyrics and beat. He wants to attract a diverse crowd that’s not “so specific for certain groups of people”, he added.

“To be honest, hip-hop music brings in a thuggish element if it’s specifically the only thing you are playing,” he said.

His establishment is different than Stages and Ale House, West said, adding that The Spot attracts customers looking for something smaller and more intimate.

“I don’t really compete with the Hub. They are 10 times the size of The Spot there,” he said.

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