Nightclub Industry Interview: Will Norton

25415_833785100847_3503041_nName: Will Norton

Official title: General Manager, TONIC Nightclub

How long have you been in the Bar Industry?

I’ve been in the Industry since I was 21 – so 8 years – but I started in the Service Industry at 16. I was a server at Clarke’s Charcoal Broiler, a restaurant in Los Altos, CA. I started working here in town at a local resort when I was 19 and studying at UCSB. Right at 21, I became a bartender there. I started working here at TONIC when I was 23, and I’ve been General Manager for almost a year and a half.

Was the GM position something you were looking for or were you offered the job?

When I was first working here one of the owners took me out to dinner and asked me, “What do you see for yourself?” I told him that when I was 13 years old, I saw the movie ‘Cocktail’ and thought to myself, “I want to do that!” When I came to TONIC and saw how things worked on the Bar and on the Management end, I realized that I really got it. About 6 months after working here I got my first bartending shift. And I became Bar Manager a week after my 26th birthday.

I actually had to compete with about 10 other people for the Bar Manager position. I think the reason that I got the job was that I had the knowledge to do it. I’d worked from the bottom to the top. The GM role was more of a forced hand. The previous GM had moved on to Operations and the owners approached me and said, “So, this is what is going on personnel wise…congratulations, you’re the new GM.” But they also knew that I wanted it.

What is it about the GM position that you like?

One of the pros would be the fact that I am managing the main club for the partnership. It’s nice to know that I’m known for running a successful establishment. Not because I want to be a big shot, but because it is nice to receive recognition for a job well done. But the main pro is the people.  It’s getting to know people, being able to throw a party, and knowing that people are having a good time. Being able to give people a good experience and doing it right is very fulfilling.

What do you think it takes to give people that good experience?

Most of it is attention to detail. Being able to relate to folks on a personal level. Letting them know that you aren’t just there to suck money out of them. You’re there because you genuinely like them having a good time at your place. Developing a personal relationship with your customers is PARAMOUNT. Even though you aren’t partying with them, you’re making sure that everything is taken care of so that all they focus on is having fun.

What do you think you do personally to create that positive experience?

In this job, it’s a labor of love. Be genuine! If you’re a jerk at heart, but try to act nice, you’re going to fail. People can sense that. Being a nice guy and making sure individual complaints are addressed is so important. Sometimes it is as simple as just listening because someone wants to vent.


What would you say are some of the cons of the job?

Most of the cons are the assumptions that people make about you. They think that because you are in the industry and working in a nightclub, that your work isn’t a real job. So they don’t take you seriously. I come in to work every night; this is a job. I just work different hours then everyone else. People give me grief for “sleeping in” because I’m not up at 9 a.m. I’m not sleeping in, I just happen to work late hours. So my climbing out of bed at 1 p.m. is just like your climbing out of bed at 9 a.m. I’m in bed at 5 a.m., so getting that 6-7 hours gets me out of bed later, people!

People really think that it is not a “real” job. Well, I get paid to do what I love. People think I work 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., three days a week, and then go home. That is so not the case. In reality, I’m here during the week, holding meetings, prepping with my Staff. For big events I might put in 80-100 hours of work to make sure everything goes off as expected.

What percentage of your time is spent working with Security?

When I first started here, Security was the one aspect that I didn’t know anything about so I devoted about 50% of my time to it.  I made it my job to know everything from running the Front Door, to ejection procedures, to placement of Security Guards. Now I’m at about 15%. And it is more of a morale thing. Making sure that my Head of Security is checking on his guys and that I am checking in on him. I want to make sure that they are doing well, both from a work standpoint and in terms of their state of mind.

I’m really here as a buffer between the Security Staff and the Patrons. If there is a conflict, I can step in and sort out what is going on. You’ll never see the GM of a club at the Front Door. But it’s something that I like to do. Our Security guys wear black polo shirts and black pants. Having someone at the Front Door, in a suit, relieves some of the pressure from Security. People see the suit and think, “That’s the actual boss, I can talk to him. He’ll help me out” What they don’t realize is that I can also be the “Bad Guy” and say “No”.

How do you think Security has changed since you started working in Bars?

In terms of numbers, we had far less Security Staffed back then. I think that we had maybe eight guys working. We’ll now run double that on a busy night. Our increase in Security is a direct response to increased liability. People are so litigation happy now that we just have to be covered. We want to make sure that we have coverage throughout the club to cut down on anything bad happening. We wanted increased response time to incidents as well. All of the training and certifications that the guys go through now have made a huge difference as well. They’ve helped to change the mentality of the Security Staff.

How do you think the mentality has changed?

Security Staff now realize that they are on the hook as much as the club is should something go wrong. Back in the day, it was common knowledge that Security would physically address conflicts in a much more “hands on” manner. And this is across the board, across the country. It was a mindset and a mentality. Now, if there is any type of physical contact, point of negligence, or even minor slip up, someone wants to sue you. Five or six years ago, Security didn’t have to worry about what happened to the intoxicated Patron who stumbled out the door. Now they do. If that person gets in trouble, we – and Security by proxy – are on the hook. And that has greatly changed their approach to the job.

In addition, Security is now a part of Customer Service. Before they were kind of “seen and not heard” unless something went wrong. Now they are directly involved in making sure that the Patrons are doing well, giving them directions, answering any questions, etc. I encourage all of my Security Guards to engage with the Patrons. They represent the club just as much as my bartenders do, just as much as I do.

Do you think that the public’s view of Security has changed as well?

The public has about a 50/50 split when it comes to Security. ½ of them know why Security is there and the other ½ just see them as the bad guys, keeping them from having a good time. In reality, Security is there to ensure that you have a good time, REPONSIBLY. If every club were full of happy partiers that just wanted to have fun and not cause trouble, it would be amazing. But that’s just not the case.

537585_10151570076323332_1017975242_nHow often do you have to take liability into consideration when doing your job?

All the time. All the time. Sometimes, it’s all I think about. The club will be busy or not be busy. Not much I can do about that besides promote and ensure people a good time. But liability is something you always have to look out for. And it goes for Security as well. If something happens, are we responsible? If there is a fight, are we responsible? If someone is spraying champagne and the dance floor is wet and someone slips, are we responsible? The answer is ALWAYS YES!!!  It is the responsibility of the venue and its employees to provide a safe environment for its Patron AT ALL TIMES!  The lines of liability have increased beyond “someone punched someone else”. Everything can lead to something else. And it’s about seeing those things and stopping them before they happen.

All clubs carry insurance. The more lawsuits you have, the more your insurance goes up. It gets to the point where you are uninsurable. There are so many bars out there that run the same revenue margins that we do. But if they lose one major lawsuit, they’re done. That’s not only a bar closing, but an entire Staff without jobs. People think that clubs make a ton of money. The profit margin might not be what you think in many cases. Many bars are only open 3 nights a week. And they are fully staffed – bar staff, bartenders, cocktail waitresses, expediters, cleaners, security, etc. That is a lot of people to pay. Plus advertising, marketing, inventory, rent, electricity…it all adds up. Without a constant stream of money you can be screwed. A ten-day suspension for a liquor violation will put a bar out of business, just like that.

On the rare occasions that you get time off and go out to bars, what is the one thing you see lacking?

Almost every club that I go to – with the exception of Las Vegas – there is a lack of Security presence. Oftentimes, I am literally not being able to find a Security Staffer when I go out to other clubs. I’d like to think that sometimes their Security is in plainclothes, but realistically I just don’t think that they place their people in visible positions. Consistently, I see a lack of Security presence. I think a lot of clubs are still in the mindset that if Security is visible, people won’t have fun. But you know, if you train your Staffers to be proficient in customer service, people will see them as helpful and not threatening. Letting people know that Security are there as representatives of the club and not just there to tell you, “No.” works really well.  Running a nightclub is a customer service/hospitality-based job.  The only time you don’t let some do something is when it can affect the safety of the Patron or the safety of the club.  And when you do say “No”, you do it in the nicest way possible without antagonizing or instigating a reaction out of them.  Those will come out naturally.

Any advice?

The one piece of advice that I would give to anyone in the Bar Industry: let it be known to the Upper Management and the Owners that you want more from your job. Otherwise they are going to think that you are happy where you’re at and keep you there. Let them know what you want.  Communication is key!


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