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The Evolving Traditional Gay Bar Scene

The Evolving ‘Traditional Gay Bar’ Scene
// Written by Drew Allen –

The nightlife here in New Orleans is obviously unlike that of any other city in the United States. Historically, New Orleans has been known as a social haven of sorts for those in the LBGT community. New Orleans has also been a leader in respecting LGBT rights, and its history of supporting traditional gay bars is noteworthy. Over the years, New Orleans has come to represent an especially unique social setting in America.

Bars have always been a primary meeting place, providing a social lubricant for meeting people, relaxing, and having fun. However, traditional gay bars have had to endure many particular challenges over the past 10 years, both worldwide and locally. Fortunately, traditional gay bars located in New Orleans are uniquely situated to endure and overcome many of these challenges going forward

Traditional Gay Bar Trends Worldwide:

In recent years, members of the LGBT community worldwide have inexorably turned away from exclusively patronizing traditional gay bars. Instead, members of the LGBT community are increasingly enjoying the option of patronizing both traditionally straight, and traditionally gay bars.

According to The Economist (Christmas Issue 2016), traditional, “gay bars are vanishing” worldwide. At least 16 gay bars closed in London alone between 2014 and 2015, an, “dozens have disappeared from cities over the past decade.”

On a macroeconomic level, one reason for this trend may be something as mundane as higher rent. Many long term traditional gay bars were initially intentionally located in the more obscure areas of a city, in part to provide a degree of privacy to bar patrons. A positive externality of this was that their rents were comparatively lower than at other venues throughout a given city. Over time, as many of these cities became wealthier and rent pressures increased throughout the city, rent for these bars, even in traditional out of the way locations, rose markedly.

Combined with increased rent, traditional gay bars over the past 10 years have also had to deal with increased competition from a couple of unlikely sources.

With the advent of the Internet (which Al Gore famously claimed to have helped to invent), many people, rather than go to a traditional gay bar in order to connect with someone, instead have found it easier and more convenient to connect with someone via online (examples include Grindr and Her). Another advantage of connecting with someone via online, rather than going to a bar, is also the decreased time and costs involved. This is especially true in bigger cities. After factoring the costs of transportation, cover charges, drink charges, etc., these costs quickly become substantial. The Internet also provide easy access to pornographic websites, which for some, serves as a substitute for connecting with another person (“My right hand and I are having a torrid love affair…we go everywhere together.”)

In addition to the Internet, the main source of competition to the traditional gay bar, are traditional straight bars. In most parts of America, many gay people no longer feel the need to congregate at only a few traditional _gay_ bars, to the exclusion of all other venues. In fact, with the increased acceptance of homosexuality in America and much of the rest of the world, many in the LGBT community feel like they, for the first time, have a wide array of choices when compared to the social scene in years past. Yet the societal evolution and acceptance of those in the LGBT community worldwide has actually helped to create an ironic paradox of sorts; the increased acceptance of the LGBT community has actually served to partially cause a decrease in the number of traditional gay bars worldwide.

With the advent of this increased competition, both from the Internet, and from other traditional non-gay bars, another reason for the contraction of the number of traditional gay bars is simply due to the comparative inability of many traditional gay bar owners (present company excluded of course) to evolve their businesses in response to changing marking conditions. It is no longer enough to expect a steady clientele at a traditional LGBT bar simply by being one of the only openly traditional gay bars within a given metropolitan area. Instead, traditional gay bars must be run in an efficient manner. Owners of these bars need to constantly innovate. Otherwise, many owners of traditional gay bars will be unable to compete with other similarly situated bar owners who acknowledge the changing nature of the marketplace and adapt their business plan accordingly. 

Traditional Gay Bar Trends in New Orleans:

            Open 24 Hours

Every city has its separate bar scene, and unique issues and challenges. Fortunately, New Orleans retains some substantial advantages over other similarly situated cities in America. For instance, in New Orleans, bars are allowed to remain open 24 hours, a rarity in America. New Orleans also has benefitted from ever increasing record numbers of tourists visiting the city on an annual basis. However, even with the distinction of allowing bars to remain open on a 24/7 basis, and the lucrative tourist trade, the number of traditionally gay bars open for business on a 24/7 basis in the French Quarter has decreased over the past few years. In other words, several of these bars have made the decision to remain open for business, but at reduced business hours. This, I believe, is due in part to the following factors:

-The perceived added costs of remaining open on a 24/7 basis.

-The perceived inability to hire quality bartenders who exclusively work graveyard shifts.

Given that a bar’s major costs are fixed, it seems like the potential amount of money saved by reducing business hours would be minimal at best. Examples of fixed costs include monthly rent, insurance, and utilities. The small amount of money presumably saved by reducing the operating hours of a traditional 24/7 bar should be compared to the actual costs of limiting the operating hours (examples include security costs, added employee wages to compensate for the time spent closing the bar, and then later opening the bar for business). Not to be forgotten are the costs associated with losing potential patrons (i.e. those who show up at the given bar late at night, find it closed, and select a new bar to patronize).

Of course, a main key to the success of operating any bar on a 24/7 basis is to have qualified, entertaining bartenders working on the graveyard shift. I personally have never had a problem in finding qualified entertaining individuals who are eager to work several graveyard shifts per week, so long as these bartenders are not forced to work on non-graveyard shifts on a regular basis! Even though the total ring for a given graveyard shift might be below that of other shifts, the percentage of the tips to the shift ring that bartenders normally receive is usually much higher, as many patrons show up on given nights at least partially because a particular bartender is working.

General Considerations

I note that most owners of traditional gay bars in the French Quarter have transitioned their bars in order to appeal to the ever-increasing potential marketplace of LGBT and straight clientele (notwithstanding the number of straight individuals who, after 2 drinks, end up straight to my place).

The presumed choice facing bar owners between operating a traditional straight bar vs. operating a traditional gay bar in today’s marketplace is a false choice. Instead, those bar owners who are able to update their business plans (and their minds) to accommodate a wide variety of people, including both LGBT and straight clientele, will tend to thrive, versus those bar owners who do not adapt to the changing marketplace. Of course, I still remember a complaint from a one-time patron, who complained that my bar was “no longer a gay bar.” I replied that if he was better looking and occasionally brushed his teeth, it might be.

This is not to say that in the future, the decision to operate a traditional gay bar will always be an unduly challenging one. On the contrary, the growing acceptance of LGBT members in society should serve to increase the numbers of the previously closeted segment of the LGBT community to socialize at public venues, including traditional gay bar venues.

But most importantly, by making modest improvements to the traditional gay bar business model going forward, the sense of community, which traditional gay bars have (almost singularly) provided to the LGBT community in the past, will continue to be provided by traditional gay bars well into the future.

Drew Allen is the owner of Voodoo Lounge, and is the Minority Owner of French Quarter Phantoms, a local tour company. Drew is also a licensed civil trial attorney licensed to practice law in Illinois and the Federal Courts. Most importantly, Drew is excited at the prospect of receiving a Pulitzer Prize for his monthly columns in FLAME.

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