Charlie Gilkes: A double booking got our party started

Charlie Gilkes and business partner Duncan Stirling found that working together could translate into big bucks on London's up-market nightclub scene.

Charlie Gilkes, now 28, and his business partner, Duncan Stirling, 31, started out as teenage rivals. In 2000 they promoted different nights in the same London club. "I organised a night on a Tuesday and he had one on the Thursday. It was a battle to see who could get the most people," says Gilkes. But in 2002 a mix-up forced the pair to work together.

"It was the run-up to Christmas when there are a lot of extra parties and they had double-booked the Wednesday night for both of us." The club told them to promote the night together. "The night went really well and we both realised that working with someone else has its advantages." The pair decided to set up their own promotion company, Jet Set Parties.

Between 2002 and 2005 they juggled club promotion with their university studies. "I was at Edinburgh University and would fly down to promote nights in London from Thursday to Sunday," says Gilkes. Soon they were arranging parties in top London clubs, such as Ministry of Sound. But after a few years the pair grew disillusioned the "real money" was going to the owners of the party venues. It was time to change tack.

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The pair began looking for a way into club management and in 2006 they got their opportunity. "Duncan found a hotel in Sloane Square that was being refurbished. He called the owners and asked if they would let us turn their basement into a nightclub." Eventually, the pair's insistence, and a solid business plan, convinced the owners to give it a go.

"It was a great opportunity. They paid to convert the basement into a club and gave us a management contract." The upmarket club, Kitts, was profitable from the first month. The pair managed the club for three years and saved up cash. But by 2009 they were restless. "Kitts was a great experience, it taught us a lot. But we were also constrained. We wanted somewhere that was completely ours."

With £40,000 saved up they formed Inception Group and opened their own bar. In trips to New York they had seen that a retro speakeasy' style was becoming popular, so they planned a 1920s themed bar in London. "Location was vital", so they rented premises in London's upmarket Chelsea. Then they "scoured antiques fairs, car boot sales and eBay to get the right stuff".

By February 2009 Barts was ready. The cosy 80-person venue was a hit, thanks in part to quirky touches, such as serving cocktails out of teapots. "Now there are more bars trying to copy that style, but back then we were the first in London."

The success of Barts convinced them to open a 1980s bar called Maggie's one year later. "There were lots of cheesy 1980s bars around but we wanted to create something more stylish." By now they had £200,000 to invest. That paid for a bigger 200-person venue and plenty of 1980s memorabilia. They also introduced a membership scheme six months later Maggie's had 700 members.

In August 2011, "convinced there was a market for a place with good food and a party atmosphere", they decided to take their biggest gamble: a 400-person bar, pizzeria and karaoke venue called Bunga Bunga.

Combined sales came in at £5.2m last year. With Bunga Bunga going well, the pair plan to launch another venue soon.

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.