Iconic Las Vegas afterhours venue Drai’s threw its farewell bash Sunday night, as Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall closes its doors for the year to undergo an extensive rebranding and renovation. While Drai’s will return to the hotel upon its reopening—and will keep the party going at a temporary venue this spring—the closure nonetheless gives pause for reflection on the once-thriving era of the afterhours club.
Mega-clubs may dominate Strip nightlife into the early hours of the morning, but that hasn’t always been the case. A decade ago, the selection of traditional nightclubs was far more narrow, and closing times far earlier, making afterhours venues the destinations du jour of Vegas nightlife.
“Clubs would start dying out or you’d be ready to go to the next place, and that’s where the afterhours kicked in,” says nightlife expert and marketing veteran Jack Colton. “So you’d go to Seven or Drai’s or the Empire Ballroom just because that was the next place to go to.”
The afterhours concept got underway in the ’90s, when nightclub veteran Tony Verdugo and current Light Group CEO Andy Masi began throwing monthly late-night parties in Las Vegas for the Southern California party crowd at venues such as the House of Blues and the Spearmint Rhino.
“The appeal was the 24 hour-ness of Vegas, whereas in SoCal last call is at 1:30, 1:45,” Verdugo says. “So we’d come throw these big parties until three-ish and then after it would keep going for the staff. It caught on then that that time was happy hour for industry people working in Vegas as well.”
The success of those parties inspired Verdugo to pursue a more exclusive and permanent afterhours experience, and together he and Victor Drai launched Drai’s 15 years ago. The club’s instant success gave rise to a thriving afterhours scene that at its peak included around 10 different (most of them now-defunct) clubs, such as Verdugo’s own Elysium at Seven Nightclub, A.M. at 40 Deuce, Rise and Shine at Voodoo Lounge and the freestanding club Glo, as well as numerous strip clubs around town.
The late-night party precedent set by those venues was soon usurped by the booming mega-club scene, whose expansive, multi-tier dancefloors and till-dawn DJ sets pushed afterhours clubs to the sidelines.
“Nowadays you can have an Avicii set go till the sun comes up over XS, so the clubs go till 5 or 6 in the morning if the people constitute it as such,” Verdugo says. “And now every club has that option.”
Today, there are three afterhours clubs in town—Drai’s, The Artisan and Body English at the Hard Rock—but they’re not to be written off as a vestigial relic of Vegas nightlife past. Instead, Verdugo and others, such as Hard Rock Vice President of Nightlife Michael Goodwin, plan to focus on afterhours’ industry crowd roots.
“What we’re gonna provide is something that will be embraced by locals,” says Goodwin, who enlisted Verdugo to help shape Body English’s afterhours experience. “[Afterhours] started as that and it’s still that, but with more clubs and restaurants opening than ever, that means there’s more people working in the industry than ever. A lot of them would love to come party with us, and now they have the opportunity.”
Verdugo embraces the niche status of the afterhours market as a welcome response to the bank-breaking standards of the mainstream nightclub experience.
“I’ve watched nightlife evolve in Vegas so that you’re only treated good if you’re spending a lot of money. Just because someone can’t spend 10 or 20 grand on a table doesn’t mean they aren’t important. How is a bar back or busboy gonna be able to spend that on a table? But they make your club run,” Verdugo says. “My focus is on local love. We try to greet them by name, we give them a place to sit. We’re gonna give the party back to the people. The people are the party.”