At a splashy private party last week, the downtown W hotel introduced Pablo Henderson as the property’s new Manager of Bar Happenings. Henderson’s latest playground encompasses the hotel’s signature cocktail lounge Drink Shop, the lobby level Living Room and the upstairs poolside Wet bar (photos at right courtesy of CatMax Photography and Elizabeth Fraiberg Photography).
For the city’s hospitality veterans, the London-born Henderson is a secret weapon of sorts, blending a deep knowledge of nightlife trends, business acumen and a decade-long experience with downtown revitalization. He even adopted his cheeky nickname “The King of Clubs” as his business LLC. And did we mention the rocking hair and the cool accent?
“This job is a perfect fit for where I am in my life right now,” says Henderson. “I did some consulting work with the downtown W before they opened two years ago but the timing wasn’t right for me then. When I checked back in with the property, I noticed that it hadn’t wavered from its original mission statement. Unlike a lot of properties in this economy, the W brand has stayed true to itself. “
In that still-tricky economy, it doesn’t help that the downtown W is located smack dab in the middle of the now-stagnant Ivan Allen Plaza, the billion dollar, mixed use former pipe dream of Atlanta developer Hal Barry.
But just weeks into his position, the social media-savvy Henderson has already packed out Drink Shop for a Bob Marley birthday DJ remix event and with the warm weather, his cell phone is already blowing up from customers wanting to get into Wet.
Veteran nightcrawlers will recall that Goldfinger was Henderson’s first nightclub venture during the city’s post-1996 Summer Olympics business boom. Fresh from Emory University with a psychology degree, Henderson and his business partners somehow turned a house on Shadowlawn Avenue in Buckhead into a successful James Bond-themed late-night playhouse, brimming with martinis, vintage lounge sounds, a cigar bar and a circular bed.
By the end of the 1990s, Henderson was co-creating Karma, the now-legendary Fairlie-Poplar district downtown nightspot in an era when Action News was running sweeps special reports titled “Scared to Go Downtown!”
The subterranean sanctuary for hipsters was the former location of Emile’s French Cafe, perhaps best known for overserving the ink-stained wretches that worked a few blocks away at the AJC. Karma’s trademark piece of furniture? A bed.
Over lunch at BLT, Henderson laughs and confesses: “The beds followed me from gig to gig! At the time, it was cheesy and fun and a little outrageous.” The downtown space drew high wattage sports stars like Dennis Rodman and regulars like music producer Dallas Austin, who alternately turned up in a Ferrari or riding his mountain bike.
As Henderson turned 30, he and his partners removed the bed and transformed Karma into the more-mature sounding The Mark.
“September 11th sobered a lot of people up,” he recalls. “The Mark was the calmer older brother of Karma.” The more adult space made it easier to sell to conventioneers too. “If you’re Microsoft, you wanted to be hip but you weren’t going to book Karma. But those same people could see themselves at The Mark.”
Along the way, Henderson lost his long-suffering personal assistant Angela and gained a wife. After years of taking phone messages from his nightclub conquests (“This was in the days before cell phones,” Henderson laughs. “I had a pager if you needed to reach me.”), Angela sat Henderson down at the old Cafe Diem and resigned her position after admitting she had developed feelings for her boss. In 2000, the couple married. They now have a nine-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son.
So, in addition to selling the downtown W as a destination these days, Henderson is also selling Girl Scout Cookies. “That old nightclub email list still comes in handy!” he says. His daughter ended up selling more than 150 boxes this year.
Henderson hopes to be as successful as the W’s new happenings guru. “The word ‘happening’ is a brilliant ’60s term that conjures up an event intellectual in nature that successfully and spontaneously captures a moment in time,” he says. “That’s our goal here at the W.”