What Contemporary Members’ Clubs Tell Us About Modern Membership
Mayfair, 1974. As The Naval & Military Club, colloquially coined The In & Out, housed its usual mischief — fuelled by fine whiskey and the retrospective luxury of indoor smoking — the IRA, in the height of their campaign against mainland Britain, launched a bomb into the Clubhouse.
In the (casualty-free) destruction and subsequent silence came one clear and horrifically British demand: “Another pink gin please, Robbins.”
Members’ clubs have always been places to gather, plot, indulge — mostly bomb-free although we can pinpoint a fair few explosive scandals along the timeline. But the members’ club of 2023 would be unrecognisable to habitués of the Club even half a century ago.
Thanks to financial instability, demographic shifts and rapidly advancing tech, the ways we come together have changed.
There’s an intriguing tension to loyalty these days. Generally speaking, brands experience incredibly low fidelity from their clientele compared to previous generations, but once prospects have committed semi-concretely (either to a subscription model or some form of membership) the dedication is near frenzied.
At first glance, the challenge in this journey lies in the in-between. But with members’ clubs especially — though prospects are a key business model component — existing members are the lifeblood. A high turnaround rate is a debilitating statistic for a concept founded in client retention. Especially one whose origins go back centuries.
A Short History of Members’ Clubs
Before tales of pink gin-sipping naval officers infiltrated popular myth, the goings-on of gentlemen’s clubs firmly sat behind closed doors. Of course rumours vibrated from St James’ Square to Soho and Mayfair — Oscar Wilde was famously victim to broken confidentiality — but for the most part club happenings remained under lock and key.
Now, open to the world, they’re drivers of heritage to these bastions of elite hospitality.
They’re the breeze blocks of myth and symbolism, romantic tales of bygone eras that, for the right clientele, tap into a certain strain of nostalgia and longing — even for times not in living memory.
It’s an opulent and bizarre history in equal measure.
Traced back to late eighteenth and nineteenth-century London, private members’ clubs derived from the coffee houses loved by the upper classes a hundred years earlier.
Impenetrable for anyone who wasn’t an impeccably-dressed wealthy white man, Clubs with a capital C were places of traditional luxury, complete with revered artworks, intricate architecture and the finest champagne money can buy.
The usual blueprints included a porter’s lodge, a pearly gates equivalent guarded by a likely more disgruntled version of Saint Peter; a Main Hall, frequently featuring a grand staircase; a Salon and/or Smoking Room; Dining Room; Coffee Room; Billiard Room and, crucially, the Bar.
They were the private spaces for ironic vulgarity and uber-ostentation among the elite classes, where ‘gentlemen’ could lose the top hat and tails façade well into the early hours. Hedonistic veins certainly track through to today, even having a resurgence in certain parts of the world for a more inclusive clientele.
White’s — London’s oldest gentlemen’s club founded in 1693 — sits in the heart of Clubland, established by the English aristocracy as a place away from the female-dominated domestic sphere. A place of gambling and sexual scandals, other establishments followed their lead. While White’s was for Tories, Brook’s was for Whigs and Boodle’s was for middlemen. During this time London was home to around 400 gentlemen’s clubs.
They were the woke brigade’s most hated phrase: a product of their time. Irrespective of their (colossal) bigotry, the gentlemen’s clubs of yesteryear set the scene for today’s membership model. After all, you can’t deconstruct something that isn’t pre-established.
Reinvention: Not Your Grandpa’s Club
Dotted within the sprawling topography of London today, members’ clubs — new and of age — are seeing somewhat of a renaissance. But tradition rarely fares well in modern revivals.
In the current climate, an admission board’s indifference towards the number of zeros on a prospective member’s salary isn’t exactly revolutionary. What is setting the names on these lengthening lists apart is spirit, values and service.
In the British capital, Black’s — a long-established Supper Club founded as the antithesis to White’s — relaunched in 2019 under new ownership. Taking a leaf from the Matter Of Form playbook, Black’s new co-owners are determined to strike a balance between honouring heritage and finding relevance in new times.
A regular haunt for a roster of famous artists including Sam Smith, Laura Mvula and Dave, the club is one of many arts-focused establishments which have emerged following the universal success of Soho House over the last two decades.
Others are investing significant resource to wellness offerings. South Kensington residents’ club The Other House are blending the belonging of members’ clubs with the service of branded residences, but wellness offerings are their standout touch points.
The House’s dedicated wellness concierge oversees and curates therapies tailored to members and guests, from reiki and hypnotherapy to sound baths featuring Europe’s largest gongs.
To the other side of Hyde Park, Mortimer House in Fitzrovia is a club in hot pursuit of holistic wellness for its members. “Engendering the ideal balance of body, mind and spirit”, the amenities include a high-tech gym with private sessions and communal classes, a plant-laden meditation room and dedicated workshop spaces for a wellness series with experts and gurus.
Inclusively Hedonistic Dens
Elsewhere non-private clubs are getting inspired by the everyday hedonism associated with members’ clubs in popular imagination.
Bedroom 6, a nightlife experience in NYC whose only entry requirement is an Instagram follow request, centres on a ‘transcendent’ absinthe ritual which harks back to the drinking habits of Picasso, Dali and Hemingway.
Back in London, Marylebone nightlife monument BEAT was a speakeasy in the sixties that attracted icons from Hendrix and The Beatles to Bowie and Sir Elton. Now a private members’ club, BEAT takes patrons on “weekly musical and artistic rituals”, continuously cultivating “a community of the tasteful few.” It’s elitism not so much founded in class but cultural categorisation.
Going one step further to fuse every aspect of our lives, Jolie’s cohesion-focused community model pedestals curiosity and creativity. The club consists of nine separate spaces for working, drinking, dining, entertaining and creating.
Upended by the pandemic, their 2021 launch highlighted members’ clubs as safe spaces to gather in frightening times as well as catering to India’s expanding luxury cohort.
The Reading Club in San Diego follows a similar ‘third space’ approach, branded as a place that transcends the boundaries that separate aspects of rest, work and play.
In Camden, The House of KOKO has made waves among the city’s club scene. Set in a 123-year-old building, the site has a long social and cultural history, debuting as The Camden Theatre then becoming a music venue later in life. Rivalling Soho House in aesthetics at least thanks to a £70m overhaul, the revamped club opened in the spring of 2022 to a near boiling over of anticipation.
Set ‘backstage’ of the original theatre, the members’ club spans four floors and is arguably one of London’s most immersive iterations due to their slick incorporation of tech. To solidify KOKO as the epicentre of the capital’s music scene, livestreaming tech is embedded in seven rooms, including the penthouse studio.
Taking tech a step further, Singapore’s Mandala Club released 250 NFT-based memberships named the Genesis Pass in January of this year. Aiming to create an even smaller, hyper-engaged community from their current 2000-strong membership.
Though this may seem like an exhaustive overview of current club offerings, we’ve barely scratched the surface. But you get the gist. Though private members’ clubs hold onto their high design and community-centric roots, new names and those who rightly believe in the necessity of relevance, have left behind stale traditions in pursuit of being extraordinary.
Architecting Modern Membership
Membership models aren’t what they used to be. It’s undoubtedly far easier to pander to an upper-class audience of exclusively white men in the nineteenth century than to appeal to a wildly diverse, discerning audience of the twenty-first. And as members and prospects are only going to become more enlightened, what do club decision-makers need to keep front of mind going forward?
With so much to stimulate us, we’ve all become cultural vagabonds. No longer to content to neatly slot into a pre-set category, we want to invent the category. And members’ clubs can help. The implied status that came with private membership historically has shifted from class signalling to cultural signalling — a show of values. Whether it’s a commitment to subversive art or social activism, members’ clubs must now be places for those who dare to deviate from the mainstream.
Just as there are limits to fostering authentic human connection between club and member, there are caps on how much organisations can do to elevate service. Where House of KOKO are investing in digital enhancement, Jolie’s are honed in on culture-rich experiences. Since their inception, private clubs have operated their own dining culture and plenty of houses are reinventing themselves at those touch points.
As we’re all about what’s next, leaving out the impact of web3 on members’ clubs would be a disservice. For the crypto elite (it’s a larger cohort than you may think), members’ clubs will be built on the blockchain. And it’s not a far-off reality. NFTs or a DAO’s digital token will be the black card and clubs will be funded by communities — it’s a wise move for brands to begin pinpointing touch points where web3 can elevate the experience, sooner rather than later.
Cracking the membership equation isn’t really formulaic at all. It’s about understanding people. That’s what we do for our clients. We tap into mindsets and behaviours, mining insights to form a strategy that works — so everyone can get behind it. Get in touch with one of our consultants via firstname.lastname@example.org.