There are few more depressing modern creations than the 'retail park'. They are named 'parks' in consumer doublespeak but, obviously, they are anything but. You're talking about an industrial estate with giant DIY shops. Hundreds seemed to spread mushroom-like overnight across the country a few years ago, but many have now succumbed to a ghostly silence. The last half-price tile has been sold, the final payment on a leather massage chair made. But there's one retail park that isn't into depression or recession. It's called Airside Retail Park in Swords, north Dublin. There, towers the last bastion of the Celtic Tiger: the Wright Venue.
Let's go back to 2009. It's the start of the summer, and there's a hard-hat tour for journalists who want to check out the interior of what will become Ireland's biggest club. Inside, builders are almost at the finishing-touches stage, and the €5m fit-out in what is a €38m development is beginning to take shape. The first floor hosts a reception area with a desk made from a giant curved steel sculpture; half coffee bean, half Nike swoosh. If you shun the lifts that take you to the Penthouse rooftop bar and instead go up the stairs, you'll go past the cloakroom that finds your jacket at the end of the night by scanning your fingerprint, and into the main room. There, you'll find Ireland's largest disco ball and gigantic chandeliers made from the legs of mannequins. If you look up (you'll have to put your head back a good bit, because the ceiling in the main club area is between three and four storeys' high) you'll see four private VIP rooms, their floor-to-ceiling glass ensuring everyone can see those rich enough to pay for them. Then there's the Scarface VIP room; more about that later. You might take a trip out to the smoking terrace, which alone has a capacity for 400, or to the 'backstage bar' which offers a VIP experience without the need to be a VIP. On the way up to the Penthouse bar, you might walk through the Purple Room, a club within a club that plays '70s and '80s music. And when you finally make it to the Penthouse, you can order a drink at the long white bar, relax in a white leather couch, or walk outside through the Penthouse garden, past your friends huddled in a cabana, and inhale on a cigarette while overlooking DID Electrical which reminds you that you need to fix the light in your fridge.
One year on, and it's the Wright Venue's first birthday. The club is packed, near to capacity, which is between 2,700 and 3,000. On the roof, in the Penthouse, the critically acclaimed Hypnotic Brass Ensemble are entertaining models, TV3 staff, PR heads, journalists, Penthouse members, club promoters and whoever else RSVP'd. Complimentary appletinis flow. Fast forward to the end of August. Forty-three-year-old house DJ Roger Sanchez is wrapping up his set. The club, its owner Michael Wright thinks, has arrived. A logo on the website declares that Red Bull has listed it among the 30 best nightclubs in the world and it has won a brace of other national awards.
On the face of it, the Wright Venue seemed like an idiotic idea, a plan hatched during the heady days of million-euro apartments, fast cars and unstoppable spending. It made sense at a time when celebrities were used to sell housing estates and credit was infinite. Michael Wright, the head of the burgeoning Wright empire – smoked salmon seller turned publican turned nightclub owner – travelled around the world to clubs, picking up tips, forging ideas and eventually buying the site in Airside. In many ways, it's a club for that era – the problem being, that era is over. So instead, the Wright Venue has paused time, offering the clubbers of north Dublin and beyond an escape, a suspended reality where champagne still fizzes, urinals have LED light displays and barely clad dancers on the main floor hark back to the heyday of that other Irish superclub, Spirit.
"Obviously the world fell off a cliff in the interim," Wright says, talking about the time between the inception of his idea for a world-class nightclub and the opening of his venue. We're sitting in 'Vegas', one of the four 'cities' in the Wright Venue that make up the four VIP rooms that hang over the main dance floor. Miami, LA and New York are next door. Each has a capacity for 10 to 15 people. In the corner, the Smeg fridge hums. In return for the €1,500-a-night cost to hire each room, the fridge is stocked with €750 worth of booze.
Wright is friendly and likeable. He seems involved, noticing tiny details, such as a stain on the poker-esque table in the Vegas room, which he's still preoccupied with two and a half days later. Before he eventually makes it to the Penthouse bar to order a Red Bull and have a dance (if he likes the music) he will have spent one hour and 10 minutes walking through the nightclub, surveying the various scenes. "We've had to work much harder than I suppose anybody would have thought," he says.
When the club first opened, its main issue was dealing with the numbers that came. It realised some things were wrong, like increasing the number of tills from 25 to 35 just to get the drinks across the bars quicker. Trade was busy up to last Christmas, even though the club opened for less than nine hours a week – 10pm to 2.30am on Friday and Saturday. After a year, it started a night on Wednesdays which is drawing around 1,000 people weekly. On New Year's Eve, disaster struck in the form of eight inches of snow falling in four hours. "We had 3,000 people in the building and there wasn't one taxi outside or a car, or any chance of those people getting home. That was an interesting scenario," Wright says, wryly. Luckily, the Wright Venue runs 20 buses to and from the club on Friday and Saturday nights from all over Dublin, bussing people to what is otherwise an inaccessible location for those outside of the Swords area. "We did our best with our buses to get people to central locations. It took hours – still going at seven, eight o'clock in the morning."
Wright describes the experience as "fun", but it brings up one of the most obvious anomalies of the Wright Venue: its location. "I can't say it isn't different, because obviously it is," he says. TGI Fridays will be open underneath the club before Christmas, alongside a large Asian restaurant, and a pizza franchise is set to open in two weeks. The idea eventually, Wright hopes, is that people will go for a meal, hit the club, and maybe end up at the casino he has planned in the second building in the multi-million development.
"There's great benefits," Wright says of running a superclub in an industrial estate. "We don't have any neighbours, so we don't have issues in relation to neighbours." He lists off other plusses. "Obviously I thought about it long and hard before I bought the site. It's well located in that it's accessible from the M50 and the M1, 15 minutes from city centre, five minutes from the airport. At night we're probably about eight minutes from city centre if you go through the tunnel. If you went to another city in the world and you were told you're going to a big club and it's 10 minutes away, it wouldn't mean anything to you." Buses bring people from Malahide, Foxrock, Blackrock, Lucan, Blanchardstown, the city centre, Raheny, Skerries and beyond. "Once people make the journey they realise it's not a million miles away... Obviously it's not working against us because we're doing the numbers."
The start of 2010 was tough. "Come February, March, then we had to work hard at maintaining what we had. The realities of the economy, that would have become very apparent at that time. So we dealt with that by getting more innovative, more creative about what we do, bringing more entertainment into what we do, and talking to people, talking to our customers, seeing what they wanted."
And now? The club had its busiest month last month. Maintaining those numbers is key. Nobody makes a snap decision to go to the Wright Venue. It's a night out that is planned. Every Friday and Saturday, Wright's punters fill three local hotels; the Premiere Inn next door, the Hilton in Clarehall and the Carlton in Santry. Wright refers again and again to the team that gets the punters in. The venue has 30,000 friends and fans on Facebook. It has 120 staff working in the club, and a team of six in marketing. Publicity and press relations for the club is handled by Lindsey Holmes Publicity, whose clients include Electric Picnic and Boyzone. Alan McGuirk, the former manager of Time in Naas, is on the team. As is Joe Clarke, whose other gigs include looking after the rising comedy hip-hop duo the Rubberbandits, and if that wasn't bizarre enough a sideline, he's also Crystal Swing's manager.
It's Friday night, last week. In the Penthouse bar, Michelle Heaton has been hosting her wedding reception since 7pm. OK! magazine has the rights to the photos. Katie Price and her husband/boyfriend/hanger-on Alex Reid were in attendance, but left relatively early after having an argument. Wright himself is back in 'Vegas', looking down at the dancefloor, which is thronged. "That's not really busy," he mutters. The sound system is so sharp everywhere that it almost feels like we're in an ad for nightclub sound systems. "That's just at 40%," Wright says of the impeccable sound levels.
Down at the smoking terrace, it's hard to move for the newly upholstered acrylic nails, expertly applied fake tan, false eyelashes, and strong scent of cologne. It's after 1am and most people are pretty far on, clutching at glasses of vodka and Red Bull, bottles of WKD or pints of beer. Girls shout their approval over the music.
Leanne and Helen, from Knocklyon in Dublin 16, are at the club for the first time. They're here for a friend's birthday. "It's amazing," Helen screams, "it's so big you can really get lost." They discuss the price of a vodka and blackcurrant (€6.50) with the insinuation that that's far too expensive, although it seems reasonable.
This is perhaps the chink in the Wright Venue's highly buffed armour: the price. It's €15 at the door, and there's little to no discount alcohol. Pub sales of alcohol have dropped 14% in the first seven months of this year, but overall have gone up over 6%, showing how much is being bought in off-licences. Clubs around the capital are undercutting each other on almost a weekly basis in order to get punters in. Krystle, which models itself as a VIP club, offers €3 entrance, pints, bottles and cocktails on a Friday – a price plan that a few years ago a regional college bar would have sniffed at. So much for VIP.
It's hectic in the Wright 'cities'. Phil 'Pretty Boy' McRory from Portmarnock comes here twice a week. He's a cage fighter and is enjoying the view from his VIP suite ('Miami', this time). "I'm having a good time. We're regulars so we usually have a table. There's a good variety of people here, and a good atmosphere." He's accompanied by a couple of friends: another cage fighter and a professional poker player. Jimbo from Swords interrupts. He's a budding club promoter and runs 'Wet and Wild Wednesdays', a new student night at the venue. Jimbo is accompanied by Lisa Marie Maher, a former dancer from Spirit who now works with the dancer and performer company Stiletto Creative. "I hold this place in high regard," Maher says. "So much so that I'm about to host my 28th birthday here. It's the place to be. If you're not here, you're nobody," she adds, with a wink.
It's not that hard to make a club this impressive work for a year. It's year three, year four, year five that Wright needs to be worrying about. Bank of Zurich banked the development, AIB banked an element of the interiors. That €5m kit-out will take five years to pay for itself before the club even starts to make money. "Do I look worried?" Wright says with arched eyebrows and a laugh. "It stands up, figures wise. It's a good business model... I've no problems sleeping at night." Not even with six kids?
Michelle Heaton's posse are using the Scarface room. It's a larger VIP room than the four 'cities', with a giant mural of Al Pacino as Tony Montana, plush carpets and cool furniture. It hangs over one end of the dancefloor and will set you back €2,500 a night. The price hasn't put off Rihanna or 50 Cent, who both hosted parties there. It's so expensive, plush and, well, Scarface-y that it's almost funny. Lots of things about the Wright Venue are ridiculous. The over-egged logo that features a winged heart, a brace of angels, a bird, and a hodge podge of artistic flourishes around it point to the unironic opulence that awaits.
After 2am on Saturday morning, Wright is walking down to the underground car park, pointing out where his new member's club casino is going to take up the top two floors on the adjacent building. "You should put in a walkway from the club to the casino in the sky overhead," the Sunday Tribune photographer jokes. "Yeah. We are," Wright deadpans. And why not? This isn't the real world, this is the Wright Venue, baby.