Call it brave or call it foolish, but opening a new nightclub in the middle of a pandemic is not for the faint of heart. Restrictions come and go and many people are hesitant to spend a few hours in an indoor structure packed with people. Nightclubs were also the first to close and generally the last to open. Manhattan used to be a place teeming with good dance nightclubs, going back to the days of Studio 54 and Paradise Garage through Tunnel and Limelight. Those days are long gone as the most exciting nightclub spaces for electronic music have moved to Brooklyn, priced out of sky-high rents in Manhattan and developers who wanted to turn cultural spaces into generic apartment and commercial buildings. For those that have lasted, they generally cater to bottle service and high-priced VIPs looking to show everyone how much money they have.
However, someone was brave enough to do it – open a club in Manhattan that is about dance music. Nebula is a new nightclub that opened in October of 2021 near Bryant Park and has been ramping up the events through the New Year. So far, they have had DJs like Gryffin, Victor Calderone, Sven Vath, Themba and Nic Fanciulli all play.
New York nightlife veteran Richie Romero and Yang Gao, co-founder of MIXX LIFESTYLE GROUP, opened Nebula. TCE Presents founder, Rob Toma, is curating musical programming.
With a mix of dancing for regular people and bottle service, the club has a futuristic look to it with curved edges and dark lighting everywhere. Surviving in this business is hard enough, so we wanted to chat with Richie Romero about why he decided to open this club, it’s music policy, what made some of the older clubs so great and much more, for a new Industry Insider feature.
Romero in the past worked at clubs like Limelight, Palladium, Tunnel and Exit. Romero founded Clique, a marketing and events company that worked with a range of restaurants, nightlife and hotel clients in New York, Las Vegas and Miami. He worked with a slew of other nightclubs in the 2000s and then got into the restaurant business. Romero also serves as Marketing and Executive Director at Butter Group, East Coast Consultant at Wynn and is an owner at The Diner.
What do you think made the Manhattan clubs of the 90’s like Exit, Tunnel & Limelight so special beyond just nostalgia, as powerful as that is?
In the 90’s NYC was king; Las Vegas and Miami were secondary markets. They weren’t what they are today. New York was the Mecca, truly a melting pot, where all walks of life could enjoy it.
On a Friday or Saturday between Limelight, Tunnel, USA and Palladium; there were 8,000-12,000 people coming through the venue. With different rooms in each venue, there were different music experiences and different crowds of people. You didn’t have to leave a club to go to another club like today. You went into another room like the “Kenny SCHARF Room” in Tunnel, the “Michael Todd Room” in Palladium, “The Chapel” in Limelight and “The Slide Room” in the USA. They were each an amazing experience and made Peter Gatian the King of clubs in the ‘90s. It was fun promoting a room for the night because it felt like it was your own club and you gave it the experience you wanted.
A few years later working with David Marvesi to open Exit, we used the same mindset. He would literally build and change the other rooms and rooftops for new experiences. This is the biggest change from then to now. The stage was bigger than the DJ’s. DJ’s needed to play those main floors. Today with so many DJ’s in the markets all over the world, they can pick and choose more.
You have done promoting in not just New York, but also Miami and Las Vegas. How do you differentiate the types of marketing between the different clienteles? What is something that works in NYC, but doesn’t in Miami or Las Vegas?
In New York, we use more promoters.
We joke, Miami is the 6th borough, more and more, especially now that most New Yorkers I know moved down there. Doing events for Art Basel, WMC, Food and Wine festivals, Swim week, etc- the majority of New Yorkers go down there and are staying there.
Las Vegas is made up of crowds from all over the country. That clientele comes down with the mentality that you’re only as good as the hotel you’re in, then the talent and the venue you attend.
Midtown Manhattan is a very difficult place to operate nightlife with the expenses and constantly changing scenery. Why did you all open the club there?
There are two reasons why I’m doing Nebula in Midtown. In 2020, I started focusing more on my other projects in Hospitality QSR (quick service restaurants: Zazzy’s, Innocent Yesterday, Snob Health, Double Dirty Dogs and other concepts in the works under the company “Coming Soon Food Group;” Hidden Lanes; and Temakase to name a few) restaurants and bars.
After meeting and becoming friends with Yang Gao, his passion and vision of Nebula excited me. He is the first reason why I wanted to work with Nebula because at the time I was pivoting from nightlife to QSR and really didn’t want to open more clubs.
Anyone that knows me how I operate; the people, passion and a great work culture come first before anything else when collaborating on a project.
The second reason, which also answers about the location, the history of the Midtown venue intrigued me as well. Some places just work and others are jinxed in the city. I have a past history with the room where Nebula is presently and have always loved it, either as a weekly event producer or consultant, I worked the room when it was Saci, Show and Arena. Through it all the room always worked; even when 9/11 happened and the 2008 crash of the market -- the room still stood.
I have made many relationships and friends while in that room. One of those friendships was with Scott Aling (rest in peace) who owned it when it was Show, Arena and later on as Circle till his passing.
Another one of those friendships was with King of House music, Rob Fernandez (rest in peace), who did his legendary Assaterra party on Sundays there straight through from Show, Arena and Circle until his passing.
History and time have shown the location works.
How was the internal layout decided, especially the balance between a large, open dance floor in a prime location and high-margin bottle service tables?
We wanted Nebula to be a hybrid experience. Having that dance experience with energy from the DJ mixed-in with high-end table service experience for people to mingle gives the customers choices for the experience they desire. Everyone gets to experience our state of art sound, lights, LED screens and moving ceiling panels; however, we will keep enhancing the immersive experience as we go. You’ll see things in February that you didn’t see last month. We are excited for the downstairs private club rooms to open as well. Nebula will truly be a New York nightlife innovator.
Nightclubs and restaurants are not known to last long, unfortunately. What is a key factor, which businesses can control, that leads to them closing and a key factor in them being able to stay open for a long time?
It’s the strategic balance of the right audience, adapting when needed, and not just “selling-out” yourself out for money. Longevity is all about the story of the business. In a good book or movie, there is a story and important characters involved in the plot. You want to keep people interested so that the story keeps going and evolving. You achieve that and your story will make your identity and brand.
The pandemic has completely upended nightlife in too many ways to list. But are there lessons that club & concert venue owners can take from this into a more endemic future? Will it create a future of more adaptable and flexible venues?
Opening businesses takes a lot of planning, budgeting and hard work to begin. With Covid, it brought a lot of uncertainty and confusion, especially in New York from the lockdowns, to building venues outside on the street as extensions of their indoor dining areas, back indoors with masks and plexiglass, changing curfews, and back outside again until vaccine mandates were made official for indoor activities. We have been learning the new protocols by the local government, while taking the risks to operate successfully and upholding the new rules of business in NYC. If the future of being more adaptable is being fully online like the Metaverse or something-- it’s not for me.
How did you get involved in the nightlife business?
In my early teens, I threw a lot of house parties, parties in parks and even would break into McDonald’s playgrounds, bring kegs of beer, a boom box and had my older friends as Security. It was an operation. By the age of 15-yrs-old, my older middle sister worked in nightclubs and would sneak me in. I started meeting people and started promoting by handing out flyers. I was pretty much raised in nightlife.
What is the booking policy for Nebula and how adventurous will it get?
For house and techno music, the booking strategy is handled by Rob Toma. He’s a beast who really knows his business and has great relationships in the industry. We are definitely getting creative and adventurous with all music and talent in the coming months for our spring ’22 lineup of DJ talent.
What skills and attributes do you look for in potential new hires for Nebula & your companies?
People that bring in good culture for team building are essential. They are passionate about becoming strategic creative leaders. It’s a “one of us” approach. I don’t believe in glass ceilings and want them to break through and grow their careers. I won’t box people in certain job positions and want them to want to create and evolve in their careers.