Running a successful club in 2018 is a tall order, forcing a venue to answer a handful of key questions. Can you bring in enough headliner-quality artists to regularly draw a crowd? Can you balance the price of first-rate talent with the cost of running and attending the club? Do people even see your spot as a place they’d want to be at every weekend, regardless of who’s playing? Can you innovate?
All these questions amount to a juggling act that has sunk many venues throughout the years, and in a small, competitive market like Portland’s, it rings especially true. Enter No Vacancy Lounge, a club rising above those questions by providing the one thing that everyone wants, but seldom gets from a nightlife venue: A memorable experience that’s elite, but approachable.
“We want people feel like they can show up to No Vacancy on any Friday or Saturday without even knowing who is playing, knowing only that they are going to have a great night out with friends, because that’s how they view the space.”
Nestled on 1st Ave, No Vacancy provides a unique nightlife experience that deftly balances innovative VIP features with bold accessibility. “Our hope to create an elevated experience that in as many ways as possible, is different than people are used to in Portland,” says co-owner Rick Sheinin, citing a need to “attract people to the space for more than just the music.” Short-term, that approach can be a tough mountain to climb, but it’s one that pays long-term dividends.
Even when No Vacancy opened, “shows were packed and people didn’t just come in once. We were seeing familiar faces every weekend.” Today that’s put them in a position to compete not just in Portland, but in the greater Pacific Northwest club scene. “You can never just sit back and be comfortable in this business,” Sheinin points out, and that philosophy demonstrates in the greater experience you get from spending a night at No Vacancy.
So what’s it like inside the doors on a regular night of music? We went and found out for ourselves on a recent jaunt to Portland, seeing Exmag at No Vacancy’s 4/20 celebration. The building that houses the venue was built all the way back in 1886, and the aesthetics reflect that old world appeal. The interior design screams “classy 1920s speakeasy,” blended effortlessly with a modern DJ booth built into a balcony space above the main floor.
Make your way upstairs and you’ll find yourself in No Vacancy’s “Member’s Only” area, a space replete with dark leather couches, tables, and a crow’s nest view of the whole club. Rather than encouraging patrons to simply buy a table with a pricey bottle and a space to gather, the Member’s Only lounge provides a true VIP experience, where you can enjoy the benefits of a liquor locker, stocked with your own bottles, that you can pay into for a monthly fee.
Anyone who’s an official member is provided with the aforementioned liquor locker, free rein in the upstairs lounge, and access to every No Vacancy show (and additional monthly “Member’s Only” nights).
“It was really about tying the bar to the lounge in a unique way, so to speak. We wanted to give an opportunity for young professionals to have a go to spot where they could keep a liquor locker and have access to a more private area, whether that was for happy hour drinks or a night out dancing with friends, they could feel comfortable.”
The road to No Vacancy’s current status within the Portland scene has been an interesting one. The concept of the venue “started as an after hours refuge for local DJs and creatives in one of our small startup offices in NW Portland,” with “a private RSVP with no cover, an “open bar” that consisted of a few handles of HRD, and a donation bucket if you were feeling so inclined.”
Three events in, the small office was already packed to double capacity, and it was clear that a larger space was a necessity. “We moved to a bigger office space that was set up warehouse style,” but even that became too crowded, with artists like Christian Martin swinging through for after-hours sets after playing at other Portland venues earlier on in the night. In all, they estimate that they threw around 20 shows in 10 separate locations in 2015.
All that is what brought the crew to their current home, and they’ve seen a massive outpouring of continued support from their patrons that followed them there all the way from the office and warehouses. Even throwing shows in small, sweaty venues to packed crowds, their philosophy remained the same throughout: “Unite. Portland. Dance.”
From our experiences at the club that’s exactly what you get walking in the doors at No Vacancy, and we can’t wait to see what they have cooked up for Portland next. “Our hope is to create an elevated experience that in as many ways as possible, is different than people are used to in Portland,” says Rick.
Don’t let Rick’s modesty fool you, it’s already happening, fast. The rest of the Northwest would do well to take notice.