For a few seconds the club goes dark and the techno swells. Foam flakes spill from the ceiling and the strobes explode, lightning in a blizzard, illuminating 500 gyrating bodies on the dance floor, balconies and tops of banquettes. Amid the bedlam a busboy ferries a dozen Champagne flutes and a 10-pound crystal ice bowl through the scrum, threading the gap like Barry Sanders in his heyday. Seconds later he plants the stemware on a table in straight rows and slides a candle a smidgen to the left, in line with the flower vase and juice carafes, as it must be at all 47 tables. Satisfied, he whips back to the bar — but not before swabbing a few stray drops of Grey Goose from another tabletop while lighting a brunette's cigarette with a flick of the wrist.
Micromanaged chaos: That's the secret behind The Bank, the sizzling 8,000-square-foot nightclub in Las Vegas' Bellagio resort and a star attraction within Andrew Sasson's Light Group nightlife empire. Busboys are the lowest organism in the hospitality ecosystem. To Sasson they're a crucial element of an overall service and marketing strategy — one that relies on fanatical attention to detail and consistency.
When Forbes interviewed him in 2004, Sasson was 34 and The Light Group had three clubs and $14 million in revenue. Seven years and a nasty recession later he operates 16 venues — including restaurants, lounges and clubs where $20 bottles of Skyy sell for $475 — that rake in $160 million. In the works: a second club in the Mirage, a lounge in the Bellagio and, with the help of Cirque du Soleil billionaire Guy Laliberte, a Cirque-themed nightclub in the Mandalay Bay Casino. "The show's going to happen in the ceiling, in the walls and on the floor," crows Sasson.
Sequined waitresses spice up the show, but bussers keep it cruising along. To make the squad, each candidate must survive a grueling eight-day boot camp, including role-playing, sales seminars and written tests. The job is so vital to his business that Sasson makes all club managers bus, among other tasks, before assuming their roles.
Over drinks in New York last fall Sasson offered to put me through part of his training program. (Only the floor managers and one of the 20 on-duty bussers knew I was a reporter.) Thus began a grueling four-night voyage into the bowels of the Vegas club machine.
I started my busboy training at 10 p.m. on a Thursday in January, shadowing a tall, blonde waitress in a sprayed-on silver dress. My uniform: gray striped shirt, tie in a double Windsor knot, pressed black slacks and shined black shoes. An hour later I was scrambling through the crowd with a stack of dirty cocktail glasses brushing my jugular and club manager Jason Ellis at my back barking: "Go! Keep it moving! This is pathetic!" I spent the remainder of my shift, which ended at 6 a.m., clearing thousands of glasses and unloading 100-pound trash cans into Dumpsters — hard work but not exactly out of the ordinary for bussers at other large clubs.
Ordinary ended the next day as busser David Cagna stepped me through Sasson's 50-page service manual. There were 34 tasks I had to complete before guests took their first sips — from polishing the glasses and loading the drawers beneath the tables with five bottles each of five different sodas, to fluffing the banquette pillows and trimming the yellow rose to exactly 6.5 inches in length. All the required tools had to be stashed in my pockets: flashlight, wine key, cigar cutter, lighter, spare ash tray, earplugs and two rags (one for the tables, one for the floor). After inspecting my tables, management assessed my appearance and sent me home to shave.
The Bank's best bussers move with ninja stealth: Champagne pedestals suddenly appear, cigarettes spontaneously ignite and slushy ice magically firms into fresh cubes. At a clumsy 6 foot 4 I stood out. During my second night on duty I knocked over Champagne flutes like dominos and spilled $20 cocktails down $1,000 cocktail dresses.
Trainees get slack — full-timers don't. Floor managers stalk the club like casino pit bosses, looking for the slightest slip-ups. A napkin on the floor or a rag hastily tucked into your pocket earns one write-up. Four writeups a year and you're gone.
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Perform well, though, and you can do pretty well. Bussers snag 20 percent of waitress tips and whatever customers add to their tabs; high rollers have been known to slip a $100 bill here and there. (Sasson and company were tight-lipped about compensation.) I didn't accept tips, but a few tables did write me in for an extra $70 to $80, which went into the overall pool. Those who keep up the good work over time can rise through the ranks. One of The Light Group's directors of operations, John Pettei, started as a busser; President Jodi Myers was a cocktail waitress.
On the third afternoon, as the dents under my eyes deepened, I joined 40 Light Group employees to learn the other half of my job. Sasson demands that all employees do their part to bring in new business. Bussers have to lure at least 10 (attractive) women a week. Sasson even created new union job categories for waitresses, bussers and bartenders that make marketing part of their gigs.
Sasson calls his approach "The Sell." It has four stages: get the marks talking about themselves, discover their needs, pitch a Light Group venue that might fill them, and close the deal. After a stale PowerPoint presentation each of us role-played with the person to our left. "In town for a bachelorette party? I can get you a table at our new club, Haze. Hate clubs? We have the Caramel Lounge at the Bellagio. Don't drink? Chef Akira Back's Yellowtail has the best sushi in town." And on it goes until a pitch clicks — or someone tells you to get lost.
Before my final night of boot camp (and working on four hours' sleep), I walked the floor of Caesars Palace to try to fill my sales quota. After plenty of false starts the pressure was on and I was running out of time. I sidled up to three pretty women walking ahead of me, skipped the intro and jumped right to the close. "What club are you ladies going to tonight?" I asked. The eldest of the three shot me a cold stare and said dryly: "We aren't going to a club tonight because these two are underage and I'm their mother."
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The embarrassment continued back at The Bank, where I had to pass a mock service test. Three managers sat at my table and sent me to the dish room to load up: ice bowl, strawberry tray, eight Champagne flutes and a wine stand all in one trip. I set the stand down, noisily placed the glasses in wavy rows and spilled some strawberries. The trio glared. Then they asked where they could get drugs; I told them, as trained, that drugs weren't tolerated at The Bank. They asked where they could get good sushi; I said Yellowfin, instead of Yellowtail. They asked about steak; I confidently told them to go to Prime, not Brand, The Light Group's steak house. Other infractions included ignoring the unlit cigarettes hanging from their lips and smudging their glass rims with my thumbs. "I just paid $1,500 for a bottle of Dom, and you expect me to drink from a glass with fingerprints on it?" grumbled Operations Director Johnny McMahon. I reset the table and started again.
By the time I bombed my second mock service test (for failing to place folded napkins in unused glasses), it was time to open the club. Within the first five minutes I sent one of those $475 bottles of Skyy crashing to the ground. I raced up and down two flights of stairs every two minutes foraging for fresh supplies. I glided napkins under naked drinks, lit cigarettes, tweaked table settings and mopped spills. At one point the dancing mob swelled into my section, knocking a line of drinks to the floor. My hands full of empty carafes, I tossed a rag over the mess and yelled to the throng of barefooted girls to mind broken glass as I fetched a broom. Later I sliced my thumb on the chipped rim of an ice bowl (too bad I signed a liability waiver). After bandaging it up I jetted back to my section where a security guard told me someone had vomited and environmental services were on the way to sanitize the area.
Just then McMahon tapped me on the shoulder and said: "I'm pulling you off duty." It was 3 a.m.
Back in street clothes on the club floor my former drill sergeants handed me a glass of Champagne to toast the end of training. I followed it with a shot of Patron. I placed the empty glass on the table. A moment later it was gone.
© 2012 Forbes.com