"We're on the eve of a major bender," nightclub promoter Mark Mello says in a thick Mancunian accent. It's around eight on a cool Friday night, and Mello, 27, is standing outside the Park View Hotel, a massive youth hostel on 110th Street. Clapping his hands with anticipation, he announces, "Tonight's going to be absolutely mental!"
Mello is at the Park View to pick up a dozen of the 50 or so tourists he's taking to the Flatiron-district nightspot Cheetah for its weekly "Great British House" party. None of his clients are the kind of tourists who come to New York for the Statue of Liberty or the art museums. "These are the kind of people who go from one country to another getting wasted and then discuss which country's got the best drugs," Mello says. He's only partly joking. "New York has always had the best D.J.'s in the world, from Larry Levan in the seventies to Junior Vasquez now. The people who come out for a night with me have been looking to New York for inspiration since house music began."
Thanks to the global rise of D.J. culture, what's marginal in New York has become mainstream in Europe, especially England. Lured by breathless features about New York nightclubs like Twilo and Vinyl in style magazines like The Face, tourists are arriving by the hundreds each weekend seeking dance-floor transcendence, a glimpse of nightclub history, and an appropriately debauched evening they can brag about back home.
Before that, there's beer. Pulling Heinekens out of a paper bag, Mello meets his tour group for the evening, an international Real World mix that includes Rolf and Marissa, a couple from Germany; David, 22, an Amsterdam native who's spent the past few weeks clubbing in New York; and Claire, a 23-year-old former bank worker from outside London, who enthuses about Thailand's "Full Moon" rave parties.
After a ride downtown on the 2 train, Mello spots "Great British House" promoter Tom Dunkley at the head of a hundred-person line outside Cheetah. As he ushers the group through the velvet rope for half-price, Mello, who is paid by Dunkley for each person he brings into the club (he won't say how much), gleefully relates that he's wrangled more than 50 tourists tonight. He's rewarded with a leopard-print banquette and two complimentary bottles of champagne he proceeds to share with the better-looking members of the group.
"The British are coming," says Tom Sisk, one of the owners of Centro-Fly, "and they're coming hard." According to Sisk, the new club-conscious tourist is "not Eurotrash, jet-set, or from the Von-whatevers; they're upwardly mobile, cool kids who are coming over for the weekend to catch a set from an Erick Morillo or Roger Sanchez." He says he's even been talking to Virgin Atlantic about chartering flights for club tourists, the way London superclubs like Ministry of Sound do. "Virgin understands the value of this," he says. "Just look at the music they're playing on the airline: They've got Roger Sanchez doing a mix."
Twilo "definitely gets people flying over specifically for nights like Paul Van Dyk, Sasha and Digweed, and Junior Vasquez," says the club's publicist, Ryan Thomas. At "Body & Soul," "we see people who get a cheap flight just so they can come down to the club for the weekend," says John Davis, who promotes the party at Vinyl. "You'll hear them say things like, 'While we're there, let's also see the Statue of Liberty.' They're not tourists in the traditional sense. I'd call them nightlife-heads."
While Davis can't give an exact figure on how many "nightlife-heads" come in each week, they make their presence known on both his dance floor and his balance sheet. "They buy the album, the T-shirts, all our merchandise," he says. "And they're almost always the only nightclubbers who do so with credit cards." "On an average night, these folks will spend at least $100 per person," Mello says. "I had a guy at Cheetah last week who put $400 on his credit card. He was like, 'I'm going back to England tomorrow. Fuck it.' "
Both Twilo and "Body & Soul" are building their brand names globally by releasing series of D.J.-mix CDs; Twilo even publishes a monthly magazine. "There's a fascination with Twilo here that borders on the obsessive," says Viv Craske, features editor at the London-based dance-music publication Mixmag. "You'll hear people arguing about the finer points of the club's sound system. It's ridiculous." On the "Body & Soul" Website, on a post entitled "More UK than U.S.A.?," an English fan wrote: "There seems to be a disproportionate number of UK postings on this bulletin board. Is the fan base bigger here?"
The potential of these tourist dollars goes largely unnoticed by the Giuliani administration, says Andrew Rasiej, president of the New York Nightlife Association, who points out that a search for dance music on the city's Convention and Visitor's Bureau Website brings up the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Dance Theater of Harlem. "They need to reach out to the legitimate nightlife industry," he says, "recognize its economic contribution, and understand how to market it to tourists."
A bureau spokesperson denies that the organization is hostile to nightlife, noting that nightclubs like Exit are members. "When people think of New York, they think of the Met, but they also think of the Limelight," the spokesperson says. "You'd be surprised at how many people from places far, far outside New York know about our nightclubs."
One of those people is Martin Stedman, a 32-year-old Londoner who runs a small pub. After reading an article about "Body & Soul" in the UK publication DJ, he booked a ticket to New York. "It was a major experience in my life," he says. "I'll never forget that when the music was turned off at the end of the night, clubbers were banging their hands on the walls to keep the rhythm going. We left Vinyl with these huge grins on our faces, almost not believing what we'd seen."
Stedman now has a wife and a nine-month-old baby, and he's already planning a return trip for the family. When his son is 2, Stedman hopes to bring him to the "Body & Soul" SummerStage event. "I saw pictures of it up on the Web, and lots of people had kids with them," he says. "It's the kind of music I'd love to expose my son to at such a young age."
For London Internet consultant Bradley Wood, 25, the epochal party was "Juniorverse" at Twilo. "Twilo is incredible," he says. "The crowd is both gay and straight, something you never get in England, and you can literally feel the bass coming up from the floor and vibrating through your body."
Of course, Mello isn't the only entrepreneur who's trying to make it easier for tourists like Stedman and Wood. Serge Aoussou, who also promotes at Tunnel, will soon launch a weekly bus tour of New York nightlife called "MidnightSafari," which, for $100, will shuttle clubgoers around town in a bus that comes with a wet bar and free, no-hassle admission to nightspots like Limelight, Cheetah, and Centro-Fly.
"We've been road-testing the idea with New Yorkers, and it's worked spectacularly," Aoussou says, relaxing inside the plush bus, parked by the Tunnel during a recent test. "I'm expecting business to go through the roof when we start catering to the Europeans." Over several screwdrivers he's lined up on a table near the back of the bus, an Israeli named Rami talks about the city's nightlife. "I have been here a few times before, and things were just okay," he says. "But now the city is cleaner and the nightclubs are happening." He pauses and smiles. "Even if the mayor doesn't want them to."
Back at Cheetah, Mello is contemplating his business plan. "This is the life, innit?" he offers, putting his arm around Claire. "This is only the beginning for me: I want to start a Website where I'd arrange for hotel accommodations and nightlife connections for travelers. But my real dream is to open my own hostel, with a club right under it. And all you'd have to do is roll out of bed and go downstairs. That would be wicked!" Suddenly, two bottles of Moët champagne arrive at the table. "A toast!" Mello shouts. "To a mental night out!"
As D.J. Tony Humphries spins one exuberant house track after another, things do get a bit mental: Claire hops up and down on the banquette, champagne flute in hand, while several ecstasy pills are passed discreetly under the table. "Sometimes they'll ask me to sort them out," Mello says. "But I'm not a drug dealer. Getting that stuff is up to them."
Other tourists Mello has gotten into the club stop by his banquette, including Jade, a 23-year-old architect from London who came to New York for three days and liked the nightclubs so much she's stayed three weeks; Rob, a 22-year-old marketing manager from Glasgow who ticks off a list of his favorite New York parties; and Caitlin, a London student who enthuses about Centro-Fly D.J. Erick Morillo and angrily denounces the mayor's quality-of-life crackdown. "Giuliani should get his arse in here one night!" she yells over the music. "He'll see that it's a safer place to be than many other parts of the city." By 5 a.m., there's space at the bar and room on the dance floor. The couple from Germany headed out hours ago, presumably so they could squeeze in some sightseeing the next day, but "they won't make it too far tomorrow," Mello says with a cackle -- maybe to the Statue of Liberty. He pauses and smiles. "But if you come out to the Roxy tomorrow night, I'll bet you'll see us there."