As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Doherty, founder of Corner Bar Management (CBM), brings together compelling art, edgy entertainment, progressive design, imaginative cocktails and innovative cuisine at each of his Las Vegas bars and restaurants. Doherty excels at creating social environments through shaping shared experiences for his concepts. He started with a neighborhood bar, and it’s turned into a neighborhood.
Doherty elevated the nightlife standard in Downtown Las Vegas with the opening of his first bar, Commonwealth, in 2012, and has since shaped much of what is now Downtown Las Vegas’ vibrant Fremont East Entertainment District. A 6,000-square-foot neighborhood bar with rooftop views inspired by Doherty’s Boston roots, Commonwealth is home to The Laundry Room, an internationally acclaimed cocktail haven. Doherty crafted every detail of the bar, from curating the art to shaping a lineup of DJs and live music.
In April 2013, Doherty introduced Park on Fremont, a lush, whimsical patio garden and bar amidst the concrete and neon of downtown Las Vegas. At 5,000 square feet, Park on Fremont is an intimate bar filled with objects d’art and framed on two sides by two garden patios, florals and greenery, and an upgraded sound system and a DJ booth has been added to the back patio.
Doherty went on to consult, design, conceptualize and build businesses, including Itsy Bitsy Ramen And Whisky, BLVD Cocktail Company, Due + Proper and Whist Stove & Spirits in 2015. In 2019, Corner Bar opened Joy of Hot Dog, a neon-lit mobile trailer serving unconventional hot dogs adjacent to Park on Fremont’s front patio.
Commonwealth and Park on Fremont have received multiple accolades and awards, including Commonwealth’s designation as one of “7 New Reasons to Hit Las Vegas” by the New York Post and one of the “Best Rooftop Bars in Las Vegas” by Thrillist. The Laundry Room was named “Best Cocktail Bar of the Year” by Nightclub & Bar and Oddwood and Lucky Day were featured as a “Must-Try Restaurants in Sin City” by Vegas Magazine and “25 Great Las Vegas Dates To Go On Right Now” by Thrillist. In addition, Oddwood was featured as one of the “Most Anticipated Restaurant and Bar Openins in Las Vegas” by Eater, and Museum Fiasco was recognized as a hospitality business “On the Move” by the Las Vegas Business Press.
Doherty’s concepts prioritize communal experiences that are less about taking snapshots and more about social engagement. He has focused on lower populated areas of Las Vegas to breathe life into dilapidated buildings and upgrade neighborhoods along the way. His projects have personalized previously untouched areas of the city with bars and restaurants that feel on-trend and simultaneously timeless. His footprint in Downtown Las Vegas includes multiple properties that are connected by the appeal of art, not displayed on the walls, floors and ceilings, but the art that has become each individual business.
Doherty developed an early interest in the hospitality industry, managing and directing nightclubs throughout his college years. Identifying a need for new businesses to support Las Vegas’ fast-paced growth and appeal to the city’s growing nightlife business, Doherty opened a portfolio of businesses to support the fast-growing industry. He opened Las Vegas Printing Press in 2003, which later became Environmental Ink, and serviced some of Las Vegas’ top companies, including Cirque du Soleil, Zappos, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, The Shops at Crystals and more. Doherty later entered the media industry by bringing popular lifestyle magazine, 944, to Las Vegas. He and his business partner, Justin Weniger, expanded their media portfolio with the creation of WENDOH Media, a premier, full-service media company that founded multiple media outlets, including Vegas SEVEN, Vegas/Rated, DTLV, DailyFiasco.com and SpyOnVegas.com.
From 2015 to 2019, Doherty served as chief experience officer for Life is Beautiful, one of the largest annual music festivals in Las Vegas celebrating music, art, food and ideas in Downtown Las Vegas. Spearheading the Life is Beautiful mural program, Doherty coordinated public works of art throughout Downtown Las Vegas with over 50 artists from around the world. Featuring unforgettable headlining musicians, extraordinary installations from esteemed artists and thought-provoking speakers, the festival brings the community together to inspire creativity, empower individuality and spark meaningful conversations.
An avid believer that art amplifies culture, enhances the quality of life and builds a sense of community, Doherty is notorious for his unmatched eye for design and art in each of his endeavors. He has been involved in countless art installations, concepts and pieces in Las Vegas, including his coordination of a large-scale mural project at the Plaza Hotel & Casino, which won the Mayor’s Urban Design Award in 2017. He has sold large-scale installations to Wynn Las Vegas, The Venetian Hotel, the Fashion Show Mall Plaza and other notable Las Vegas destinations. Doherty has worked with renowned artists including Okuda, Shepherd Fairy, D*Face, Faile and many more.
Doherty continues his commitment to enriching Las Vegas’ art scene with a public mural program in collaboration between We All Scream and Zappos. A nightlife and ice cream experience on Fremont Street, We All Scream will give patrons the power to fund local murals and public art programs in Downtown Las Vegas through every purchase of ice cream or merchandise at the venue. Already a showcase of great public art and murals, We All Scream will seek to further advance the city’s reputation as a public art destination and the largest outdoor gallery in the world.
Doherty is devoted to restoring neon signs from Downtown Las Vegas’ glory days and adding as much neon to the area as possible, most recently donating a 30-foot neon sign to the Neon Museum Las Vegas. He has an ongoing and collaborative partnership with the City of Las Vegas to fund and design new signs Downtown. Doherty holds a Bachelor of Arts in hotel management from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He also attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is an avid outdoorsman and enjoys jogging with his dog, Disco.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When I was still in college I started working in nightlife, and after I graduated, I led the opening of one of Vegas’ first high-profile clubs, Baby’s at the Hard Rock. The nightlife industry was growing fast and there was a huge opportunity in opening businesses to support that growth. In 2003, I opened a full-service printing company with my friend, Justin Weniger. In addition to handling printing for all the clubs, we quickly grew to support industries outside of nightlife. To meet the demand of casino operators who sought to work with more environmentally responsible companies, we purchased a press that had a much smaller carbon footprint and renamed the company Environmental Ink. We went on to service some of Las Vegas’ top companies, including Cirque du Soleil, Zappos, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, The Shops at Crystals and more. Around that same time, I entered the media industry by bringing popular lifestyle magazine, 944, to Las Vegas. Justin and I expanded our media portfolio with the creation of WENDOH Media, a premier, full-service media company that founded multiple media outlets, including Vegas SEVEN, Vegas/Rated, DTLV, DailyFiasco.com and SpyOnVegas.com.
Through it all I dreamed of opening my own community driven venues. In my personal life I had started to study and collect art, plus I was constantly learning more about interior design and architecture. I’m from Boston and every time I’d go home for a visit, I would go to these great Boston bars, proper institutions that had been around for decades. At that time, we just didn’t have advanced mixology in Vegas. There was no local, cocktail bar scene. I even started collecting glassware and other pieces I imagined would be in my own cocktail bar someday. When Tony Hsieh came to downtown Las Vegas it created an opportunity for me to finally see that goal come to fruition. I created Commonwealth to bring together that feeling of a bar that’s been on that same corner for decades with eye-catching architecture, design and captivating art; a collision of the old and the new. That’s something that has carried through to my other concepts, which are places that reflect the moment, but their appeal is timeless. Commonwealth, along with its hidden cocktail haven, “The Laundry Room,” opened in 2012, followed by Park on Fremont down the street later that year. Both are on the same block of Fremont East between North Las Vegas Boulevard and South Sixth Street. With those concepts Corner Bar Management was born and I went on to conceptualize and build other bars and restaurants. In recent years, opportunities arose to take over more spots on that same block of Fremont East. Two of those spots came together this summer with the openings of Lucky Day and DISCOPUSSY. We have two more concepts, We All Scream and Cheapshot, opening on that same block in 2021. Soon, we will be able to throw our own street parties and bar crawls that combine all of these places. I’ve been able to design them each to be distinctive, while complementing our other bars on that block. Alsoin 2020, which is truly just crazy timing for us, we debuted two concepts at AREA15, the world’s first purpose-built experiential art and entertainment complex. They include a small bar, Oddwood, where the centerpiece is a life-size fabricated tree with leaves made from LED lights, and Museum Fiasco.
I’m passionate about art, especially its role in reshaping Downtown Las Vegas. From 2015 to 2019, I worked as chief experience officer for Life is Beautiful, a festival celebrating music, art, food and ideas in Downtown Las Vegas. Spearheading the festival’s art program, I coordinated public works of art throughout Downtown Las Vegas with over 50 artists from around the world. Featuring unforgettable headlining musicians, extraordinary installations from esteemed artists and thought-provoking speakers, the festival brings the community together to inspire creativity, empower individuality and spark meaningful conversations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When we opened Commonwealth, I would constantly check all the online review sites, like Yelp and Trip Advisor. I would synthesize all the complaints down and painstakingly categorize them. I called weekly meetings about poor reviews and wasted so much time worrying about insignificant customer complaints. I wanted so badly to maintain 5-stars and dedicated way too much energy to it. I eventually learned to stop worrying about what was online and focus more on the customers inside the venue. I couldn’t control reviews, but I could control the way we treated customers daily. My advice would be to focus your energy on building better relationships with your customers and forget about the Yelper who hated your tater tots.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I was hired right out of college by an accomplished New York City hotelier to help open his nightclub, Baby’s. He was the earliest professional mentor I had in my life and I can credit him for changing the way I look at hospitality and venue design. He was a keen designer that valued small details over everything and would pay attention to design elements that would go seemingly unnoticed by most patrons. He taught me that strong commitment to subtle details were a worthy endeavor. He was a great cultural engineer and taught me how to bring “feeling” into a venue. In addition, he taught me that creating a warm social environment is the ultimate goal in a venue and understanding how people use a room is the key to great design.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
In early 2011, I began working with Tony Hsieh to help see through his vision to revitalize downtown Las Vegas. We had several blocks of dilapidated buildings and run-down businesses that made up most of the east side of Fremont Street. The original purpose was to build a connected neighborhood and lure like-minded individuals to join in on the efforts. I started building spaces for social connections, which comprised of bars, lounges and restaurants. I knew night culture was essential to the identity of a city, so I went in that direction with Corner Bar Management’s venues, while Tony concentrated on residential and tech start-ups.
What started as one neighborhood bar has grown into a neighborhood. I now have seven places on the first block of Fremont East that are all built to promote meaningful congregation. Nightlife has a special place in Las Vegas culture, and we wanted downtown locals to have venues to call their own. The only way to build a neighborhood bar is to ensure the neighbors want to make it their own, and we did just that. Corner Bar properties are designed with a focus on neighborhood charm and style. Each venue has an individual concept, catering to a diverse spectrum of nightlife tastes.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
We closed our places in March and jumped into the uncertainty of COVID-19. Las Vegas was hit especially hard in the hospitality sector and we had to let go of all our hourly employees. I met with the management team and we decided to make the most of our downtime by diving into special projects and venue improvements. The decision was made to overhaul all our systems and protocols and create a better business model for the staff to return to. We felt like we owed it to them and wanted every staff member to come back to a more efficient venue and improved management.
Once we got the green light to open our venues again, we implemented safety protocols and physically altered all our spaces to accommodate social distancing. The staff was diligent with hand washing and sanitizing, and we converted all of our paper menus to QR codes to implement contactless ordering. We never had a problem with patrons feeling crowded or compromised, and the staff adapted quickly to the new procedures.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
It’s tough to break the spirit of an entrepreneur, and my team wasn’t going to let a pandemic get in the way of our mission. We motivated each other and found ways to keep spirits high. Along with improving the management systems, we also upgraded the venues. Kitchen equipment was upgraded, and furniture was reupholstered. We had repairs that were put off for years finally coming to completion. It was easy to get excited as we witnessed the venues changing for the better. We saved money by tackling some of the bigger repair jobs on our own and the DIY mentality brought a lot of the team together in a way that we never gelled before.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
As a leader, you have to be the anchor in the midst of the storm. Keeping the ship grounded when things get turbulent is the most critical role you can play. Stay laser focused on the company’s mission and rally the team to work on the projects we can control at the moment. It is important that all employees understand the company values and feel empowered to live them out. Fostering a “can do” environment goes a long way these days. I’ve learned from experience that no matter how great a plan you may have, it will change. It is important to always stay agile regardless how favorable the conditions.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I like to focus on one-on-one mentoring during these times. We have 200 employees, which means we have 200 individuals performing individual roles in our organization. Everyone has their own struggles and circumstances during uncertain times and being able to jump in with relevant advice and coaching goes a long way with building trust and morale. The greatest gift you can give another person is reassuring them that they are valued, even in the most difficult conversations. Compassion in leadership always remains essential. Learn how to motivate your team but also pay attention to the singular needs of your employees. It’s rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to creating a state of excitement and motivation for everyone.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Immediately and with full transparency. When employees are nervous, upset and unsure about their future they want to hear from their leader. Never go into hiding and never put off bad news. It is imperative to remain visible and establish a high level of communication with your team. A leader’s job is to add perspective to what’s going on inside the organization. Visibility and simply showing up go a long way toward building trust and fostering relationships across your team.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We have all been living in a world that only allows for short term plans. Staying nimble is key for our team. Now is also the time for bars and restaurants to embrace technology and new platforms if they haven’t already. While it is difficult to predict what is coming our way these days, it is prudent that restaurant and bar leaders make data-driven decisions rather than going with their gut to best ensure the viability of the business going forward. Ultimately, technology can help improve operations, save time and remove errors to help a restaurant manage their business more efficiently.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My “number one principle” would be to communicate openly and with honesty. Strong leadership and constant communication are always important, but they are critical during turbulent times to maintain employee engagement. Leaders don’t always have the answers, but they are always expected to provide guidance and direction for the company. In times of crisis, the best leaders make themselves highly visible and always accessible.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I have watched countless companies furlough employees and then go radio silent for months, which makes it difficult to maintain trust within their staff and hold onto top talent. Another major mistake is thinking your “old model” for your company is going to work in this current environment. Businesses that are not embracing new technology, focusing on social media, optimizing their menu offerings or elevating their online/takeout model are living in the past and might not make it through these times. It can seem daunting to find new ways to make your business work, but it will make a stronger and more resilient company in afterwards.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We switched our model early on to accommodate a food menu that travels well. Maximizing the menu and elevating the takeout experience was a priority. It is simply not enough to use the same, ingredients or tactics that worked for dine-in and expect it to perform well in a takeout and delivery world.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Be the anchor in the midst of a storm. As I said before, being a leader in this time doesn’t mean you have to have all of the answers, but it does entail keeping your team grounded and focused on the next challenge ahead.
Be open and honest with your team. During times of uncertainty, all we need is honestly and clarity. This pandemic has brought on a lot of tough decision making, and once a decision has been made, its best to loop in the team as soon as possible to keep the strong trust you have built within the company.
Don’t be afraid to get out of you comfort zone and try new things for your company. Before COVID-19 hit, we had a specific way of running each venue which has always worked well for us. However, during the pandemic, we have had to find new ways to connect with our customers even if we can’t be face-to-face, by implementing new technology and procedures throughout the company to adapt to these changing times but keep ensure we are showing out customers we care.
Give connection generously and receive it openly. As I stated, I like to focus on one-on-one mentoring with my employees which means establishing a relationship filled with trust and being open to receiving their thoughts and concerns.
Reassure your gratitude in your employees. In difficult times, all someone may need is a simple recognition of gratitude. For a lot of industries, employees have lost their jumps or worked varying hours; and in this time, I think it is important to express how grateful you are for their hard work and trust during unstable times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t make other people point out what’s good in your life. Gratitude has been exceptionally relevant since the start of this pandemic. Be thankful for what you have even in the worst of times and remember that no one gets rewarded for experiencing hardship, just for overcoming it.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Commonwealth Instagram: @commonwealthlv
Park on Fremont Instagram: @parkonfremont
The Laundry Room Instagram: @laundryroomlv
Joy of Hot Dog Instagram: @joyofhotdog
Lucky Day Instagram: @luckydaydtlv
Museum Fiasco Instagram: @museumfiascoa15
Oddwood Instagram: @oddwoodbar
Discopussy Instagram: @discopussdtlv