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What it takes to become 'Best Dive Bar' - ILS

THROWING chunks of money at a watering hole doesn't ensure that the horses will drink there, and the success of I Love Shanghai shows what it takes to become "Best Dive Bar," says Aubrey Buckingham.

There is almost an alchemy involved when it comes to running a successful bar ?? not only must the right elements be in place, but at times it seems like the long-term prospects of keeping a watering hole in business requires the consent of the cosmos.

This, of course, is not simply a matter of playing with a budget capable of supporting the troops in the Middle East. This city has seen its fair share of big money flops, and it goes to show it does not pay to assume that hurling large chunks of money at a venue is enough to sustain business in the long run.

The success of I Love Shanghai is thus an interesting case study in focusing on and building a local following from the ground up. The bar, which celebrates its third anniversary next month, is now in its second iteration in Jing'an District after it was forced to move from its original perch on the Bund last October.

Helming the bar, which can best be described as resembling a dormitory frat room, is American Jeff Young. The 31-year-old marketing guru was drawn to China five years ago, and one of the first things he noticed was a dearth of nightspots that catered to Westerners.

"I had some friends from grad school visit and there was nowhere good in their eyes at the time," he explained. "There was the KTV stuff and Chinese-style night clubs but nowhere to really hang out. So we wrote (the idea for ILS) down on a bar napkin, which I still have today."

Why not have it framed and displayed behind the bar then? "It gets pretty rowdy here, and it would probably get smashed," he added with a chuckle.

For all its success today, ILS got off to a rocky start. For the first six months, business was slow in the room that comfortably fit about 150 revelers; in its heyday, the bar was packed to the rafters with partygoers going off the proverbial hook, with crowds of more than 200 hardly uncommon.

According to Young, fortunes turned around when he tapped into his wealth of marketing experience and harnessed the power of the Internet to get word going.

"We used a lot of Internet marketing like Myspace and SmartShanghai, while we also called a lot of attention because we were on the Bund. We were always cheaper than the other Bund bars, and we had a lot of options, such as just 15 yuan (US$2.20) for a Tsingtao."

Ironically - despite most drinks costing upwards of 40 yuan, which put prices close to those of establishments such as Malone's or the Big Bamboo - ILS was consistently voted the city's Best Dive Bar by various local expat publications.

Still, the importance of community was not lost on bar owner Young, and the Seattle native remembers its involvement from Day One. "We had a private party before the grand opening, and we still had no tables, chairs and sofas on the day. The trucks later rolled up 15 minutes before the start, and we had a 'Customer Opening Party' with the guys slashing the plastic and designing the place themselves. It was pretty nerve racking."

Sports teams are also a must in this town, and ILS contributes to darts, football and softball, among others.

Other draws are the myriad theme nights ILS hosts, which is standard fare for American bars, pointed out Young. The bar hosts Filipino nights on Monday, while Ladies nights are always a massive draw across the scene. "Our regulars don't always remember what night it is, but they know there's at least something on."

One paradox the fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker quickly discovered was the unprofitability of hosting DJs. While such events boost awareness of a spot, Young soon found that he made more money when he scrapped such nights. "Not only did we have to pay the DJs and bring in more equipment we didn't already have, it also brought in a crowd that wasn't spending money. At the same time, the people who bought drinks stayed away because they couldn't talk to people and socialize." Therefore, Young intends to remove the DJ booth from his Jing'an location to free up more floor space.

With the shift to its current venue, which it shares with the Orchard CRC Singaporean restaurant, Young has noticed the makeup of his clientele has also changed somewhat. While the Bund venue pulled in the student crowd, his current location draws a slightly more mature crowd who see ILS as their local.

This shift has also brought about a shift in focus. Starting this week, Young will be offering cheap pub grub, such as (about) 30 yuan cheeseburgers and other snacks. Filipino food will also be on the menu, catering to a large, previously overlooked community (or, as more astute observers will point out, a market niche).

With all the marketing savvy put into the place, the latest addition to the promotional arsenal is a good old-fashioned sign outside the front door. The bright, lighted ILS sign catches the eye as traffic goes past, and many are invariably drawn in to take a gander; with all the importance of the new media, it would be foolish to forget the effectiveness of the tried and tested ways of old.


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