The rise of private members' clubs, reimagined by a virus

  • As people seek out safe, hygienic, and private places to work and socialize amid office closures and citywide shutdowns, private members’ clubs stand to be a rare winner on the current hospitality scene.
  • Chateau Marmont, the André Balazs-owned LA hotspot, is being transformed into a members-only hotel.
  • Zero Bond, founded by hospitality magnate Scott Sartiano, is the latest private members’ club on the New York scene, attracting celebrities and athletes.
  • At members’ clubs, staff know your name, you can leave belongings with peace of mind, and you’re always guaranteed a place to sit, unlike a restaurant or bar.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

 

For centuries, private clubs have been attracting powerful businessmen and dignitaries — often exclusively males — for business and social purposes. Private clubs were extremely popular in London, which, in the late 19th century, had more than 400 clubs. In 20th century America, golf and country clubs, which often required a strict dress code, also gained popularity among upper-class individuals.

Today, many private members' clubs have chosen to abandon this old-fashioned model in favor of attracting young creatives and entrepreneurs. Gone are the hallmarks of old members' clubs, like strict dress codes and no workspaces. Those have given way to new members' clubs, which offer a stylish, contemporary space to work and network.

Nick Jones, founder of Soho House, was one of the first to do this with the opening of the club in London in 1995. As of 2020, Soho House operates more than 27 clubs worldwide, with locations slated to open in Tel Aviv, Rome, Paris, Nashville, Austin, Canouan, and another in London, in 2021 and 2022. 

Henry Wallmeyer, President and CEO of the National Club Association, whose members include 400 clubs like the prestigious Yale Club of New York City, New York Athletic Club and New York Yacht Club, said within the last five years clubs have become a "third place." 

"Everybody's first place is their home, second is work and the third place is their personal refuge," he told Business Insider.

A hospitality magnate makes a pivot into private members' clubs

Scott Sartiano is a hospitality magnate and the founder of some of the world's hottest nightclubs, including New York City's 1Oak, favored by celebrities like Drake and Paris Hilton, and Up & Down. This month, he's slated to open his first-ever private members' club, Zero Bond.

Located at 0 Bond Street in Manhattan's NoHo neighborhood, Zero Bond is a work and social club for individuals in the art, entertainment, media, fashion, and literary industries.

"I wanted to create an elevated environment," Sartiano told Business Insider of the decision to open the members' club. "I thought the 28- to 50 year-old bracket was kind of underrepresented in New York when it came to social options. People want to know who they're associating with, but also want their own space and more control over their experiences."

Membership fees are $3,000 annually, with a $500 initiation fee. And while it's not the most expensive members' club in the city, it's also not easy to get in: Those who apply are required to have a reference by a current member. It has a roster of high-profile celebrities, athletes, and designers on board as founding members, including Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, Liev Schreiber, Tom Brady, Zac Posen, and Caroline Wozniacki.

"There's no one type of person that Zero Bond is looking for," Sartiono said. "I want a mixture and diversity. That's New York City. When you go out in New York and meet someone you wouldn't have ordinarily met, that's the makings of a great night."

"My goal is to create the safest place in New York to work and socialize," Sartiano said of Zero Bond. He's implemented technology to automatically take the temperature of anyone who walks through the door. Staff's temperature will be taken hourly and upon entry. There will also be dividers and separators to ensure social distancing. 

The 20,000-square-foot, high-ceilinged space spans two floors with several lounge areas, two restaurants, five private rooms, and a bar. Design aficionados will love Zero Bond's contemporary aesthetic, designed by William Sofield and Studio Sofield, which designed store interiors for Gucci and Tom Ford. The building, built in 1874, retains much of its original structure, including red-brick archways and large windows. 

The building was formerly the second-ever Brooks Brothers store and factory; in a nod to the building's past, the staff will wear custom-designed Brooks Brothers uniforms. Zero Bond will also hang artwork by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Keith Haring, whose former studio was next door.

"I'm trying to tie things back into the neighborhood," Sartiano said.

The office landscape is shifting, and private clubs serve as remote workspaces

As the pandemic swept the US, companies across the country shut their offices and instructed employees to work from home. But even during the pandemic, it's not uncommon to see a sea of laptops at a given Soho House during the day. In an effort to give members a more dedicated workspace, the company launched its first shared workspace for creatives, Soho Works, in London in 2015.

Its first New York City outpost opened earlier this year, and a Los Angeles location is slated to open later this year. Existing Soho House members and non-member creatives alike can apply for a membership. Members have access to work amenities like printers, phone booths, meeting rooms, and podcast equipment that they might not have at home.

Zero Bond will also be a place to work, complete with quiet areas and phone booths to take calls without disturbing members.

"I want to create a place where people can come to work, have a meeting, have an after-work cocktail or come on a date," Sartiano said, adding that many members' clubs in New York often feel overcrowded. "There's always going to be space for people, and they're always going to know your name and who you are," he said.

Private clubs are also finding new ways to engage with members

With the pandemic limiting in-person meetings, some private clubs are turning to digital programming to keep guests entertained and connected. 

Soho House, which is known — in pre-pandemic times — for programming that includes off-site trips and mixology classes, is finding new ways to engage with members. Since April, Soho House has hosted digital events, including speakers, musical performances, meditations, and virtual screenings via its app.

CORE: Club in New York City is another club implementing digital events for members to access remotely. The club opened its doors in New York City in 2005. It has 1,600 members and doesn't come cheap: Initial members' fees cost $50,000 and annual dues are $17,000.

CORE: Club Founder Jennie Enterprise told Business Insider that membership is "highly curated," and they search for those seeking "intellectual challenges." While privacy is of the utmost importance, members include leaders, entrepreneurs, and CEOs. What differentiates CORE: from other clubs is the wide range of industries from which they select members, including science and academia, hospitality and culinary, and sports and technology, among others.

COVID-19 inspired Enterprise to launch CORE: Connects, a digital platform featuring cultural programming. Sessions are recorded, uploaded to the website, and made available for members only. One speaker series, called Minds & Mavericks, includes sessions by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Abigail Disney, documentary filmmaker, philanthropist and social activist. CORE: is slated to open its second location in Milan in 2021.

A public hotel turned private members'-owned hotel

Hotels, too, are pivoting to a private membership model. Chateau Marmont, the historic Los Angeles hotel,  first opened in 1927 and was bought by André Balazs Properties in 1990. It's known for glamorous parties that attract actors, writers, musicians, and artists. This summer, Balazs announced his plans to rebrand it as a members'-owned hotel, meaning members will own a piece of real estate at the hotel.

This decision stemmed from the fact that 70% of guests were repeat customers and the top 100 guests generated the majority of the room revenue. In addition to the investment, owners will be able to leave personal belongings, stay for extended periods of time, and have access to private dining areas.

Only one restaurant and a few common areas will be available for public access. When owners aren't staying there, the hotel will only accept guests personally recommended by owners.

"What's been amazingly surprising, but good, is how quickly clubs turn[ed] on a dime once COVID-19 hit," Wallmeyer of the National Club Association said. "Historically, clubs have been notoriously slow in changing. A lot of it is because some are 100 years old."

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