“We helped remould entertainment in Las Vegas”: Hakkasan’s James Algate on building the biggest brands in nightlife

You might not know James Algate by name, but there’s a good chance you’ve partied in one of the venues he operates.

As Senior Vice President of Entertainment for global nightlife group Hakkasan, Algate is responsible for some of the biggest and most renowned nightclubs in the world — including the five-storey Hakkasan in Las Vegas, OMNIA, Jewel, and Wet Republic.

Over the last five years he has helped build Hakkasan into a brand that’s become synonymous with luxury clubbing — we’re talking VIP table service, pyrotechnics, celebrities, and all the big name DJs you could muster.

To give you an idea of the calibre of the DJs on offer, here are just a few of the residents Hakkasan has locked down in 2018: Calvin Harris, Tiësto, Zedd, Martin Garrix, Kaskade, Steve Aoki, Above & Beyond, Hardwell, Illenium, NGHTMRE, and Armin van Buuren.

Now, Hakkasan Group are setting their sights on Asian expansion. Earlier this year they unveiled the spectacular OMNIA Bali Dayclub, a glittering structure that sits on the edge of an 80-metre cliff in Uluwatu.

Algate has just flown in from Las Vegas to attend the grand opening weekend of the club, which saw Richie Hawtin, Martin Garrix, and Marshmello take over the decks over three days. inthemix caught up with him over lunch to chat OMNIA, and the future of dance music.

You’d been running Global Gathering for a long time before going to Hakkasan. What was it like moving from programming festivals to looking at residencies and clubs? 

Clubs were really where we cut our teeth, and they were, I think, clubs were the start of dance music; simple as that. It was like going back, and starting all over again with Hakkasan.

We always wanna be the best at what we do, we always wanna deliver the best in market, and, certainly when we built Hakkasan, literally the ‘Mission Statement’ was, “It has to be the best.” It was at a time when dance music was becoming the forefront of entertainment in Las Vegas. What we delivered there was nothing short of phenomenal, and it’s been going five years.

A lot of people wrote us off, and a lot people said “You’ll never make it work with the level of financial outlay.”

“We rewrote what was being done for entertainment; not just for nightclubs, but for entertainment in Las Vegas.”

The figures that were quoted of actually bringing Hakkasan to market were unbelievable numbers of what it cost to construct such a venue of that magnitude built over 5 floors on the Vegas Strip. It’s expensive real estate but if you want to enter the market you have to do it with a statement in Las Vegas.

The corner of Tropicana and Las Vegas Boulevard is a pretty good address, so the eyes of the world are on you. You need to make sure that what you do is your business card, your calling card. We rewrote what was being done for entertainment; not just for nightclubs, but for entertainment in Las Vegas.

This was also at a time when gambling revenues were starting to slip. Now entertainment is the bigger driver of tourists to the city over gambling which is a pretty remarkable fact given it has been over such a short period of time.

Part of that came the big name DJ contracts.

You knew Calvin Harris when he was starting out right? 

Mark Gillespie, who’s Calvin’s manager, actually used to work with us at Godskitchen.

He was an 18-year-old kid working for us, and grew, and grew, and grew, and he was a very smart kid at the time; and look what he’s done now with Calvin. I remember him sitting down with me one day and he said: “I found a guy on MySpace. I’ve signed him, I’m gonna be his manager, and I’m leaving the company.” I was like “Wow! Okay.”

“We rewrote what was being done for entertainment; not just for nightclubs, but for entertainment in Las Vegas.”

I’m sure he told the same story to many other people and they probably said “You’re crazy!” But look what’s happened? He’s done an unbelievable job. Obviously, he’s got great raw material and obvious talent to work with, but, but how he’s steered Calvin’s career has been fantastic. To move into the US, change from being a live artist with a band to becoming a stand alone DJ, his music strategy, all the things that go with being a music manager, he’s done a fantastic job.

Calvin, for us, in Vegas, is the number one act. He’s the biggest draw in the city and has been for the last number of years. With his continual music releases I don’t see that changing any time soon.

The press we get is very much based around the DJ numbers. What they get paid, the length of the contracts, this and that and the other; it writes a nice headline, but it’s very much part of a whole recipe for success in our venues.

You can’t just have talent, you’ve got to have a phenomenal venue. You’ve got to have impeccable service, you’ve got to deliver best in class with lighting and production or an iconic centre piece such as Omnia’s chandelier. All of those aspects of creating what is really the best nightlife experience, and that’s always been our mantra.

We’ve been lucky to work with these guys for…some of them 10 years, some of them 20 years. I can remember, we gave Tiësto his very first show in Ibiza.

Calvin Harris at Hakkasan’s flagship club in Las Vegas.

What do you remember about that show?

Ummm…not a lot [laughs]. I don’t remember a lot about that whole season. It was a phenomenal experience. I was probably 23 or 24 at the time. It was a fantastic first season and from there Tiësto just exploded.

I’m not saying it was because of that, but, I’d like to think we played a small part in helping grow his exposure and his career.

So those relationships were born out of spending hours and hours in DJ booths with them over the years. We’re all getting a little older, we’ve been doing this a long time now, but it’s nice that you can talk about what happened 20 years ago.

“There’s a lot of money gets banded around, and I don’t believe that artists are going to turn down a huge amount of money from a competitor.”

I think these artists are grateful for what we did for them and I’m personally grateful for what they’ve done for my career and our business.

You have to have those relationships. Certainly, this day in age, there’s a lot of money gets banded around, and I don’t believe that artists are going to turn down a huge amount more money from a competitor. But if your fees are pretty similar, it comes back to history. They know what we deliver, and that’s stood us in good stead over the last five years of operating in Vegas. We don’t lose artists as such.

We keep the guys that we want to keep, or that we believe are financially viable for us to continue with or that believe still have growth in their careers. In return we have the best venues for them to ply their trade each weekend.

Can you speak a bit about the way how dance has changed from primarily dingy and dark clubs to venues like Hakkasan and OMNIA. You were a pretty massive part of that change towards the luxury lifestyle of the dance. 

I think it’s like anything. Look at a football team: some of them play at the [stadium] Bernabéu to 90,000 people, and some of them play at the local park on a Saturday. It’s a different experience.

As a customer do you want that experience of being on the dance floor at 11am, in Berghain in Berlin, or do you want a very exclusive, VIP experience, where champagne is a big part of that? We try and cater through different events and different nightclub designs and experiences, certainly throughout my time doing it, I’ve catered to all; and Vegas is very much based around the best entertainment you can deliver.

There’s an expectation for the extravagant — that’s what we try and deliver, and that’s what we do for our table customers; but even then, there’s still always that raw energy on the dance floor. You can’t just have a bottle service club because there’s no energy. In Vegas, you can’t have just a dance floor club because there’s no way that you could actually afford to build these places and operate them profitably.

You look at somewhere like Pacha that has been around 50 years, they’ve been doing that high-end exclusive table packages for years, and years, and years. It’s been a New York thing in nightclubs for 30 years, and it’s always had that sort of symbiotic relationship between the dance floor and the table customers.

Steve Aoki at Hakkasan. Photo via Hakkasan Facebook.

What do you think is the biggest change you’ve seen in the dance industry over the last 15 years?

Back in the 2000s, the scene was very much more of a cult or culture and dance music was all about the clubs and festivals as that was really the only time you were able to hear new music.

Nowadays electronic music has become far more commercially supported on mainstream radio and this has seen the meteoric rise of artists to become pop stars in their own rights. The ever increasing accessibility of music in the last number of years has ultimately led to this exponential expansion of people listening to and ultimately enjoying electronic music.

“I can remember a time when live acts would refuse to even be on the same bill as a DJ.”

The growth over this period of time has been incredibly beneficial for the entire business. We have seen numerous large scale festival launches championing the music we all started listening to in dingy clubs in the last nineties and early 2000’s; now we are building entire clubs in Las Vegas based on how a DJ performs.

We have rightly seen dance music artists as headliners of iconic festival such as Coachella which launched originally as a rock festival. I can remember live acts refusing to even be on the same bill as a DJ when I started in this business so the change of heart has been enlightening.

What was the vision behind the new OMNIA Dayclub, why did you guys choose Bali?

That’s a really good question. We get offered a huge amount of deals worldwide, and we turn down, I would say, probably, 90% of them — just not the right demographics, not the right partners, not financially viable, whatever it might be. With Bali, the offer came to us and the partners here were very, very excited in what they had — as in the piece of real estate. We’ve partnered with them on Jakarta as well, so, we’re opening an OMNIA nightclub in Jakarta in the next 18 months.

Bali was just an amazing place to be able to do our first day club. The destination itself and the actual real estate, being 80 metres perched on a clifftop, is unbelievable, and I think it will very much be our calling card; not only for Indonesia, but certainly for Southeast Asia, or all of Asia as a whole.

“The destination itself is unbelievable…it will become synonymous with the scene in Asia.”

Obviously Bali’s very popular here with Australians, Singaporeans, Chinese, Koreans and obviously the native Indonesians — it’s a real melting pot of cultures here.

There’s an amazing split of demographics. From very wealthy individuals that are having table packages and enjoying cabanas, to people that are on the dance floor. We always try and cater for as many audiences as possible, and I think Bali is the perfect place to do that. The eyes of the world are on you, not as much, as I would say as happen in Las Vegas, obviously, but, with the amount of international travellers here, it’s great for us that a huge number of people, annually, will enjoy our venue.

I think the venue will become synonymous with the scene in Asia.

OMNIA Bali. Photo credit: Louis van Baar.

You mentioned the Asian market. For the last few years it has been pretty much the biggest in the dance world, a lot of festivals and brands are moving into that space. Is Asia a big focus for you? 

We see Asia as a huge growth market, absolutely. That’s why we wanted to make the first club the most special that we can possibly make it — and that’s what we’ve done.

Nobody’s building anything to this standard in the near future. We believe any venue that we always build needs to be the best in market. You look at the finishes, the design, the layout, the flow of the venue, the experience that when you’re in the venue that it gives you. I don’t think that’s going be bettered in this market and the actual location is not going to be beaten.

It’s unbelievable. We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved here, that’s for sure.

Do you think Bali has the potential to become an Ibiza-like destination?

I feel that all over the world each country or city offers unique experiences for people wanting to enjoy music and no two places are ever the same.

Bali boasts a rich cultural background, beautiful scenery and a very alternative way of life; I would not want to change this one bit but what I hope is that OMNIA is able to cater to the audience that want to experience something a level above anything else on the island.

We have developed an amazing venue in one of the most naturally stunning destinations in the world and want to share this with both travellers from all over Asia, Australia and visitors from farther afield.

I am sure over time there will be other businesses that continue to invest into Bali trying to duplicate what we have set out to achieve in Uluwatu, which is going to be helpful for tourism and the local economy.

OMNIA Bali is open now. For more info, head to the website.

Jules LeFevre is Junkee’s Music Writer. She was a guest of Hakkasan at OMNIA Bali. She is on Twitter.