When she's selecting a nightclub to host her signature night, Club Bounce, nightlife promoter Lisa Marie Garbo always checks the chairs first.
Then it's the bathrooms and barstools.
When running a night that targets plus-size patrons, size matters.
Today, she'll see if her diligence pays off as she brings Club Bounce to central Phoenix for a weekly dance night for the overweight.
“The whole concept of walking into a nightclub and not being judged for your size is novel,” said Garbo, 40, who hosts the popular Club Bounce nights in Long Beach, Calif. “(Here) you're accepted, you're desired and you're wanted because of your size.”
One other plus-size promotional night has found success in the Valley previously. Since 2004, Mesa-based nightlife promoter ChristyLee has run the “thick and sexy'' Club FullFilled monthly at Valley bars. She averages 150 guests each time.
No group tracks the number of plus-size events, but experts say this demographic is underserved in every way from fashion to social opportunities.
“This is an audience that is starved for quality and recognition. And they vote with their wallet,” said Kat Fay, a senior analyst from Chicago-based market research group Mintel International. “This is a group incredibly discriminated against in terms of choice.”
The nights bring new business and offer guests something they feel they can't get anywhere else—an accepting environment.
“You don't want people looking at you strangely when you go out,” said Club FullFilled regular Katielynn Chaurette, 35, of Surprise. “And when you go out, you want the men there to be interested in you, not just the 110-pound girl sitting next to you.”
The opportunity: About 66 percent of American adults are overweight or obese according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but only a handful of nights across the country, are promoted as “size-positive.”
Garbo targeted the Valley because it's a nightclub destination and because she says the overweight population here feels even more ostracized than other places because of the area's reputation for fitness.
It works the same way in Long Beach, where for five years, Club Bounce has drawn capacity crowds of 400, with lines out the door by 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. That is in an area where about 61 percent of the population is overweight.
In Mesa, Phoenix and Scottsdale, that percentage is 63, according to the CDC.
Analyst Fay said that because so few target the plus-size community, doing so is smart marketing.
“There is money to be made hand-over-fist with this market. Based on … this country's eating habits, if (marketers) don't get on the stick, they're going to be missing out.”
There are signs that show a growing acceptance of overweight people.
Fox network is casting for a new reality dating show, "More to Love," with overweight contestants.
In 1985, 55 percent of those surveyed "completely agreed" with the statement, "People who are not overweight look a lot more attractive," today that number is 25 percent, according to a 2008 study. The Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America was done by the NPD Group, a market research firm in New York.
The challenge: But for all the marketing and the handful of positive signs, experts say reaching the overweight is still difficult.
“It's never going to be OK to be fat,” said Linda Arroz, 54, a former plus-size model. “We all have someone in our family now who is more than 20 pounds overweight, and we love this person. But we are a large nation, and we are all in denial.”
She said that even with a plus-size-positive space, getting the overweight to feel comfortable enough to show up is a challenge.
“So many people in the demographic just lack basic self-esteem,” said Arroz, now a principal at a Los Angeles think tank.
That's compounded by the fact that so many overweight people say they've had negative experiences at mainstream clubs, said ChristyLee.
However experts note that the overweight are often more accepted at neighborhood bars, as well as at clubs targeting Hispanics and Blacks.
Peggy Howell is the public relations director for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, based in Oakland. She said that while size discrimination is prevalent, the overweight will support any venue where they feel welcome.
“Just because we're fat doesn't mean we don't like to dance and have fun,” she said in an e-mail.
The nights: Club Vibe, usually a lesbian bar, will host Club Bounce on Thursdays. As promoter, Garbo will charge a cover of between $10 and $15. She will not, however, ask anyone's weight, as she welcomes all sizes.
She considered six Valley bars, but chose Club Vibe because of the free parking, location and because she says the space has comfortable chairs, ample restroom size and a big dance floor.
California's Club Bounce and Club FullFilled both draw more plus-size women than plus-size men and attract an ethnically diverse crowd.
“Women know that the men coming are interested in their body type, so that makes it easier,” said ChristyLee.
However, Chaurette says these nights can draw a crowd that fetishizes overweight women, calling them BBWs, short for Big Beautiful Women.
“We have a higher ratio of the people who are just looking for the BBWs. The guys that want to feed you, you don't want to hang out with those guys,” Chaurette said with a laugh.
Mike Cooper, 32, of Long Beach, goes to Club Bounce there and posts about it on the club's group message board. As a regular for a year, he met his girlfriend there and hosted his birthday party there (“I even invited my mom.”).
“I would not be considered one of the big guys there, but I do have a liking for women who have a little meat on their bones,” he said.
When he initially tried to get his friends to come, they mocked him for going to a “big-girl club.”
“Now I convert everybody that I know,” he said. “I think, eventually, every city is going to have clubs like this.”