Reaching Out to the Cloud Crowd

Springfield Club Owners Take to the Sky with New Entertainment District Venture
Steven Stein and Mike Barrasso

Steven Stein and Mike Barrasso, at SkyBar overlooking Springfield, adopted the concept of a rooftop bar from several successful venues worldwide.

From their newest venture in Springfield’s entertainment district, club owners and developers Steven Stein and Mike Barrasso have an enviable view: one that includes the city’s skyline and comes complete with comfortable seating and a chilled martini.

Located at Stearns Square in the heart of Springfield’s club quarter, Skyplex is Springfield’s newest nightspot, replacing Stein and Barrasso’s former business, Rain Entertainment Complexes, with the goal of catering to an older, more sophisticated crowd.

The facility will include three separate clubs, each the product of months of research and redesign on the part of the business partners; the ground floor has been converted into a country western bar dubbed Buck Wild, while the second floor has become Vivid, an interactive, video-driven dance club.

But it’s the complex’s third component that is creating the loudest buzz. Modeled after similar ventures in other parts of the country, SkyBar is an open-air rooftop lounge complete with private VIP seating, cabana bars, and a view of the Springfield skyline.

Rooftop lounges are becoming popular venues in several major cities across the globe, including Las Vegas, New York City, and London. Stein and Barrasso, known locally for large-scale projects including the purchase and renovation of the Hippodrome, formerly the Paramount Theatre, in 1999, said they’ve tried to bring some of that big city flair to Springfield in an effort to improve the city’s economic picture as well as its overall image.

“We try to stay ahead of the trends, not follow them,” said Barrasso, “and rooftop ultra bars are huge right now. What we’re trying to do is attract more people from the disposable income crowd – it’s all in keeping with ongoing economic development.”

Leaping Tall Buildings

The partners said they embarked on a country-wide fact-finding mission last year in search of fresh, new ideas in the entertainment sector, and they happened frequently upon rooftop bars teeming with patrons. Such facilities capitalize on little more than some savvy design schemes and fresh, night air. Country-western themed bars, they said, have also proven to be lucrative in other parts of the country, and tend to attract an older, more sophisticated crowd. Similarly, they noted that dance clubs such as Vivid remain a constant draw for a diverse customer base, especially in urban areas.

But applying big-city formulas in a smaller locale, one that has seen its share of financial woes of late, isn’t the only risk the duo has taken in changing the property they manage. In completely overhauling the complex, Stein and Barrasso made some substantial financial committments.

In addition to the creation of SkyBar, Buck Wild, the complex’s country western offering, for instance, includes a mechanical bull that was installed at a cost of $15,000. It also features the first of what Stein and Barrasso hope will be many cross-promotional items with area businesses – a Harley Davidson from Tibby’s in Springfield.

Similarly, Vivid includes a full lighting system, private dance floors, couches for seating, and a 360-degree video-screen that is fully-synchronized with the sound system – allowing for dj-mixing and video presentations that reflect the beat of the music.

Technological upgrades such as these have been paired with more-pressing renovations, such as a new sprinkler system and handicapped-accessible elevator. All of these improvements have added up to a price tag that exceeds $250,000.

“The cost actually ended up being about double what we originally anticipated,” said Barrasso. “But we’ve done our best to use local contractors and local materials, and we expect that the amount of business we’ll attract will more than take care of it.”

Climbing to the Top

That’s not to say the partners are blindly optimistic about their new venture, Barrasso added; they are aware of the leap of faith involved with overhauling an existing club in a struggling city.

“We know this is a risk, changing the format completely at Stearns Square,” he said. “But the Hippodrome and Rain were also risks with which we believed we could serve a new entertainment market niche in Springfield.”

Indeed, both venues turned profits. The Hippodrome remains a popular nightspot that draws national acts to its stage regularly, and Rain, formerly the Hot Club, also maintained steady traffic prior to the format change and renovation project. However, Barrasso explained that over the past two years, its clientele began to shift toward a younger, rowdier set.

“There were a lot of factors that led to that,” he said, noting that among them were crime statistics that kept many older, more discriminating club-goers away.

We weren’t happy with the direction the complex was moving in, so we decided to shut it down and start over.”

Stein added that since the new venue has been modeled directly after similar venues in Vegas and California, he expects new audiences to visit if for no other reason at first than the curiosity factor.

“It’s something that is totally unique to Springfield,” he said, adding that a twist on the rooftop concept in Springfield will be the expansion of service not only at night, but during after-work hours and for private and corporate functions.

Stein said he hopes to see the Springfield business community leading the way toward utilizing the space for after-hours socializing or as a venue for events ranging from networking opportunities to office parties.

“We’re getting feedback already from the city’s professionals who work in the high rises,” he said, “because they can literally look out and see our progress in transforming the roof into an open-air gathering place. I think this beats any other function space you can find, and with the demographic we’re trying to hit, cooperation with the business community is a perfect fit.”

To further promote that idea, Stein and Barrasso have begun an extensive marketing campaign announcing the creation of Skyplex, targeting adult contemporary radio stations, local television networks, and private households through a direct mail campaign.

“We’re also very Internet savvy,” said Barrasso, “and that has helped us get the word out to our key demographic. We’re looking for a nice mix of professional, 25- to 45-year-olds, and using E-mail and certain Web sites like MySpace are a great way to reach them.”

SkyPlex’s page on MySpace.com – the well-known networking site that is increasingly prevalent in the marketing repertoire of many entertainment-based businesses – has already attracted more than 300 ‘friends,’ or MySpace users who receive regular bulletins and event listings from the club.

Watching the World

Stein conceded that even he is amazed at how much his industry has changed, both in terms of trends and the role that virtual marketing plays.

“It’s a new world out there,” he said with a laugh. “It’s our job to keep up with it.”

He and Barrasso have a vantage point, however, that allows them to see many things coming early – be it a rain cloud on the horizon, or a new venture – or adventure.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]