LAS VEGAS -- The noontime sun is beating down on milky-shouldered tourists. They unfurl poolside on chaise lounges, downing mojitos, agog at the bronzed cocktail gals sashaying, as if in a music video, to Rihanna and Kanye West. The air smells of sunscreen and salt, and bikini-clad beauties tiptoe into the pool, never wetting their curls or ditching their shades. Even amid the bustle, it's easy to pick out the college students: They're clad in canary yellow and scurrying and stressing and not sure what to do about the strippers.
This party is their final exam.
Nightclubs -- and their daytime counterparts, pay-to-sunbathe pools -- are the Strip's newest moneymakers: LAX, Blush, Tao and their ilk are where celebrities flock and reputations are made. It's a lucrative industry that sells fantasy: Customers shell out hundreds of dollars (cover charge, tips, smokes and martinis) to buy a fabulous time. If the clubs don't deliver, they're gone -- there's always the casino next door.
Though a new club seems to grace the Strip every few months, the local college's esteemed hospitality program had long overlooked the industry, says Bryan Bass, a 31-year-old former beverage manager at MGM Grand. So he created a nightclub management curriculum at his alma mater, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Field trips are to hot spots: the Palms' Rain and Moon and Planet Hollywood's Prive, where students learned that every hour the "shot" girls also table-dance. Required reading: the glossy ads in Las Vegas Weekly, which demonstrate how to promote night life; apparently the key is scantily clad models -- who knew?
Homework: three papers that sized up hot spots. Student Cheryl Martin analyzed Tao, whose decor includes women soaking in tubs; Pure, which the IRS recently raided; and Tryst, where she languished in line for 45 minutes. (Bass said that was a short wait.)
Lecturers were Bass' pals in Vegas' nightclub community, which has its own distinct culture. The hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the office, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. at the club. The uniform for men, who dominate the industry: striped button-downs and blazers (polo shirts come summer) and a buzzing BlackBerry.
One afternoon, a speaker shared two commandments: 1) never get more messed up than your clients, and 2) you don't need to be the last person to leave. There are other rules: Hand out booze and business cards. Buddy up to concierges and VIPs. Never change your cell number.
Academics, Bass says, don't get it -- they even tried to cancel his spring semester class. Sure, the final is an alcohol-soaked bacchanal, but he rigorously grades his students on how well they plan and promote their event and whether their efforts made money.
This past spring, his class partied at Wet Republic, the 53,000-square-foot "ultra-pool" outside the MGM Grand Conference Center. During their event, the pool lured more guests and sold more alcohol than a typical Thursday, and a few students even carted their experiences to club jobs. Not bad for a group of twentysomethings who spent weeks sweating over guest lists, cocktail choices, media blurbs, wet T-shirt contests and other minutiae, all in hopes of luring partied-out Las Vegans to yet another bash.
These things, a textbook can't teach.
Lesson 1: Planning
It's April, and the class is meeting at Wet Republic, which is designed as a desert oasis: cream-colored daybeds, a 60-foot-long bar, six waterfalls, two saltwater pools and six spas. The students get carded. They gather in a bungalow, where a golf tournament unfolds on a flat-screen TV and a waitress uses her gold sash as a bikini top.
Cheryl Martin crosses her legs on a bed with pink cushions. Scholarly and only seemingly prim, she came from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where her wildest nights were spent in the more sedate town of Springfield (best known for the Basketball Hall of Fame). Early in the semester, Martin was overwhelmed by an unfamiliar city and its after-dark scene. She eventually became the class' organizer-in-chief, though the biggest parties she'd planned were a Wiffle ball fundraiser and her mom's 50th birthday.
Today, she eyes folks from Angel Music Group, which promotes Wet Republic, and a liquor supplier who wants the bash to advertise 10 Cane Rum. They all wear polo shirts and some are barefoot, but their tone is all business. She pitches the party: An end-of-school bash. Lots of college kids. An irresistible mix of bikinis and booze.
The polo shirts nod in approval and ask what else could bring in sunbathers. Classmate Lauren Bergher, a budding chef, suggests mix-your-own daiquiri or mojito kits. Or "vodka in a watermelon served by a girl in a bikini with a big knife." Other students propose shot girls and shot bars and shots poured down an ice sculpture. The Angel Music folk shoot down a wet T-shirt contest.
"We're classier than that," one of them says.
Another idea: Students could occasionally ring a bell to signal drink specials.