Summary List Placement
Kelsi Kitchener and Celeste Durve know there are typically only two places for women in the nightlife scene: either acting as a “prop” at the table of some club promoter or shuttling drinks to and from the bar.
“It’s a boys’ club,” Durve told Business Insider. “And they get away with a lot.”
One day, the duo decided they’d had enough. They wanted to open their own events-service company, start making their own money, and change the notion that being a top dog in nightlife was only for men. So in 2016, with just $500 apiece, they launched their all-female company, VIP Event Relations, or VIPER.
Today, just four years into operations, VIPER has grown to a pre-money valuation of $4 million, based on an internal evaluation from its legal counsel, financial advisor, and two venture-capital advisors. An internal valuation from a year and a half ago, came to $1.5 million based on assets, liabilities, and financial results, VIPER told Business Insider.
The agency is much more than a promotions company. It now manages guest experiences, gives Kitchener and Durve full control over their own nightlife experiences, and provides opportunities to work with some of the biggest celebrities and global brands, including Kanye West, Drake, Beyoncé, Google, Hulu, and the NFL.
And with any luck, Kitchener and Durve said, they’ll reshape the industry in the process.
Not just another nightlife promotions business
Kitchener and Durve met as interns at Bolthouse Productions, where they assisted with large-scale events and nightlife promotions. Typically, that meant just standing by the front doors at events, a rather low spot on the nightlife totem pole.
For their new company, they wanted to create more of a full-suite operational experience, rather than build yet another nightlife promotions business, which didn’t feel ambitious enough. And with the launch of VIPER, they were also joining the ranks of female entrepreneurs paving their own way.
Business Insider’s Dominick Reuter previously reported that businesses owned by women employ over 6.2 million workers, generating about $1.2 trillion in revenue — though that number accounts for only 8% of the private sector and 4.3% of its total revenue. Overall, about 40% of businesses in the US are owned by women.
The VIPER Girls, as the employees are known, don’t just manage the doors but also bring the technology needed to run all points of guests’ overall experience. They manage the tables and the talent that shows up to the event. They handle gifting. And they compile data for their clients in case they would like more information about the guests who attended the event.
That work is a far cry from the work expected of many women in the nightlife scene.
Ashley Mears, the author of “Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit,” says most women are seen as the “girls” that arrive with the promoters. They are usually very young, rarely past 30, and most often white, according to Mears. And their sole purpose, she told Business Insider, is to serve as “decoration” for men to make other men jealous.
‘I cried a lot’
Kitchener and Durve didn’t want to be just pretty props or decorations. They wanted power, authority, and leverage in the nightlife scene. But they quickly learned that power and authority require developing real business chops. Like any business owner, they have to manage employees and client expectations, all while figuring out the legal and financial aspects of the business. Not all of it came so easily.
For example, every attempt at raising money fell through.
“We couldn’t get any credit cards because we didn’t have good enough credit scores,” Durve said. “And then as we started to make money we’d reinvest it back into the company.”
It was one week before Coachella in 2016 that VIPER officially opened. To spread the word, they ended up reaching out to old contacts they’d made while interning at Bolthouse. It landed them three event jobs at the festival, including one with Nylon magazine. To find the staff to help them work the events, they reached out to just about every young woman in their contact lists and asked if they wanted to help for the weekend.
“I cried a lot,” Kitchener said, describing those first few weeks of operation. “We were very new to starting a business. We were good at running front doors, but starting a business and managing a team of girls was very difficult and there were a lot of things we had to learn.” “Running front doors” refers to managing crowds and doing general guests’ check-ins.
But Coachella was the moment to shine. Quickly, word began to spread about VIPER, and the pair took the opportunity to up their schmoozing game with prospective clients. To this day, they tout that they still haven’t done any traditional marketing for their company and most of their clients have come from word of mouth.
“They would spread our name around, and we would take these people to dinner or send them a box of cookies or something like that,” Durve said. “We just really worked on our personal relationships.”
‘There’s so much politics and so much ego’
As VIPER enters an uncertain future, it hopes one point of certainty will be the continued evolution of the VIPER brand — specifically, the concept of a “VIPER Girl,” which Kitchener and Durve hope will come to represent “something sexy that girls feel like they want to be a part of,” Kitchener said. Today VIPER has 45 independent contractors working for them.
“We were really focused on making sure that women had a place of power,” she added. “Where they felt like they were being heard.”
And if working in the nightlife industry in an image-conscious city like Los Angeles wasn’t difficult enough — “There’s so much politics and so much ego,” Durve said — the COVID-19 pandemic has presented brand-new challenges to VIPER’s ability to scale and adapt.
Like many small-business owners, especially those working in a service industry that seems to have ground to a halt, Kitchener and Durve have had to innovate to survive.
According to Kitchener, VIPER had to lean heavily into the digital aspects of its business. For instance, the iPads they use for check-ins and managing events can be used to operate events anywhere in the world. As a result, they said they were still getting calls to work events like the Super Bowl, the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, and the Latin Grammys — a testament, they said, to humans’ need for connection.
“Kelsi and I are strong believers in the need of social interaction,” Durve said. “People want to be in person. You can’t replicate that experience.”
It’s a (wo)man’s world?
Even though the business is just four years old, they’ve already felt a sense of accomplishment in their mission to empower young women, Durve said.
“If a young woman reads this, I would just hope she keeps in mind that she will receive pushback because they don’t want change,” Durve said, referring to the old guards that still run much of the nightlife scene. “They don’t want a more progressive industry. It’s important to be aware of that.”
Kitchener and Durve say they’ve felt that pushback firsthand but that they aren’t deterred to keep building.
“We got asked not too long ago to name female executives in LA nightlife and we couldn’t name any,” Durve said. Now they can name two.
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