The private members club concept is not at all new, but the hospitality model is certainly undergoing a transformation of sorts.
Much of that evolution first began in 1995, when Nick Jones founded Soho House for bohemian, well-to-do creatives, shunning the more typical banker types whom you’d find in more traditional clubs.
Now, 23 years later, there are 18 Soho House clubs around the world, as well as talk of Soho House going public.
But now the pioneer Soho House is facing a number of new entrants into the members-only club space. They include co-working brands like WeWork and NeueHouse, and new hotel-member club hybrids that follow the Soho House model in some ways, but are positioning themselves to appeal to a broader, more inclusive type of customer base.
Raising the Curtain for Creatives
One such example of that is The Curtain, which opened in London last year. The 120-room hotel and private members club, with nightly rate averages at about $340, is the passion project of Michael Achenbaum, co-owner and president of Gansevoort Hotel Group — the same organization behind the Gansevoort hotels you’ll find in New York City, Turks and Caicos, and the Dominican Republic.
While the Gansevoort hotel brand made its name as a nightlife fixture in New York’s Meatpacking District, Achenbaum set out to do something different with The Curtain.
What Achenbaum said he learned from his experiences with Gansevoort — especially with how quickly the hotels became known for their rooftop bars and nightclubs — is that a hotel needs “varying levels of exclusivity versus very open kinds of spaces … you need a little bit of both. You need to have offerings that are very general public, that are very open-minded in feel. Then you have to have some spaces where there’s a sense that there are relationships involved. It’s a balance.”
When asked what makes The Curtain different from, say, a Soho House, Achenbaum said the biggest difference was in its membership criteria.
Soho House and other member clubs, he said, have a “seemingly, very hard type of view of their membership. It’s about being a creative with a bit more of a narrow definition than we ever wanted to take on. … ‘Creative’ is really a broadly defined thing in our eyes, and so we’re much more open-minded and much more willing to view someone’s aspirations for their weekends as what they are as a person rather than what their CV says. I think that’s a huge difference. We don’t disqualify someone because their resume says something specific. We actually want to understand, and find it more important, to ask you what is it that you like to do.”
The 1,600-strong membership for The Curtain is also more than 50 percent female, Achenbaum noted, and includes a broad mix of members who are actors, musicians, accountants, lawyers, consultants, producers, event managers, and more.
“It’s grown very quickly, and we like the mix of people that are coming in and people seem to enjoy their experience,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re in the experience and detail business.”
The programming that The Curtain has includes a cabaret, speakers, whisky tastings, wine-pairing dinners hosted by local wine dealers, live musical performances, movie premieres, and more. And Achenbaum said he pays close attention to the access that guests and members have throughout the hotel, whether it’s to programming, the hotel’s dedicated co-working space or the outpost of Red Rooster restaurant, by acclaimed chef Marcus Samuelsson.
“There are plenty of things for guests of the hotel to do — but they don’t have to have access to everything,” he explained. “That was a long-term decision that we felt was important to create an environment that is solely for our membership, because they’re an important constituency that we’re dealing with, too. It’s a balance.”
At The Curtain, there’s also an emphasis on making sure the majority of its members are local, even though Achenbaum is in negotiations to bring the concept to New York and Miami as well.
“We want people who are going to be popping in consistently, want to drive our food and beverage, and add more to the community by being there,” he said. “Having someone who pops in twice a year is not really part of the community.”
And as Achenbaum expands The Curtain to other cities, he wants to make sure that each one is different and he wants to grow the brand “slowly.”
“When I do the next city, I don’t want to do the same thing. I really don’t want to be consistent in décor. In concept, yes,” he explained.
And he also wants to ensure that no two Curtains are alike. “We’re taking a very different approach from Soho House, which has a very clear, defined aesthetic that’s beautiful,” Achenbaum said. “I like their aesthetic. But, in my opinion, with what I want to work on, I want my aesthetic to always be constantly changing. They’re growing at a pace that maybe makes it very difficult to always be changing, and that’s fine — it’s a comfortable aesthetic and I enjoy it. But I want to try to be more unexpected.”
Designing a New Global Club Brand with Plenty of Name Recognition
With the upcoming debut of Karl Lagerfeld Hotels, which is named after the famous designer behind the house of Chanel, Brandmark Collective CEO Tony Kurrz sees “enormous opportunity to create private membership components around the Karl Lagerfeld brand in multiple cities around the world.”
Brandmark Collective is taking the iconic designer’s name recognition and distinct design aesthetic and creating a global hospitality brand in the process, with its first hotel scheduled to open in Macau in 2019, albeit without a private club component.
With the club-hotel model, Kurz hopes that he can deliver a luxury experience that “welcoming to a larger segment of people” and in destinations where there are many aspirational customers seeking experiences like these, as well as hungry developers who want to capitalize on the opportunity.
Kurz said that by using the private club-hotel model, it’s “taking ourselves out of the traditional hotel game where we’re competing with the traditional hotel brands.”
And unlike other private club businesses, such as Soho House, Karl Lagerfeld Hotels, like The Curtain, is taking a different approach to what constitutes membership.
“While Soho House has been extraordinarily successful from a membership standpoint, they are vertical in their membership, like most clubs are, whether economically vertical or career-wise vertical,” Kurz said. “We think there’s an unmet need here. Yes, there are great creatives out there but also great lawyers, great insurance people, great bankers, etc., and so on and so forth. If you can curate a dynamic and vibrant membership base across, really, all verticals, you can still build that dynamic and vibrant environment within the club.”
With Karl Largerfeld Hotels, Kurz wants to have a more “horizontal membership base” that’s backed by a globally recognized brand name, and gives him and his property owners the “opportunity to build a base in more aspirational markets.”
And not only that, but the model also adds value to hotel owners because the clubs become an additional revenue source, as well as bringing his or her number of hotel rooms to build/manage down as well. Kurz explained that with this type of business model, a hotel no longer has to be so heavily dependent on occupancy and average daily rate. “You have supercharged food and beverage and spa revenue because you have likeminded members and their guests who like to be there,” he explained. “We think we’re uniquely positioned to do it and we’ll be the first to have this globally branded membership component. Everybody is trying to find ways to capture locals.”
He added that Karl Lagerfeld Hotels members will be “surprisingly inexpensive for what you are getting” and “it’s a private club component built for local, regional communities but accessible to the international community of both members and non-members.”
Target markets for the brand include Bangkok, Tokyo, and Singapore, and Kurz described the hotels as being “between lean luxury and opulent luxury, specifically targeted toward an aspirational consumer.” He sees the hotels as being places where they can “showcase the individuality of Karl Lagerfeld’s designs in a space that will have not only the quality level that we so desire, but the space to be creative. There’s immense space to be creative.”
Even co-working space like WeWork is dabbling. The brand is experimenting with how to pair co-working with hospitality, as demonstrated in its WeLive residences. Additionally, new hotel-member club hybrids are also emerging that follow the Soho House model in some ways, but are also positioning themselves to appeal to a creative class that’s broader and more inclusive than before.
What This Means for Hospitality Overall
Are private club-hotel models like Soho House, The Curtain, and Karl Lagerfeld Hotels, or even the new Publica brand from Isrotel, emblematic of where hospitality is headed? Could this same model be applied to existing hotel chains?
That’s the question the industry should be asking itself today, especially at a time when the hospitality industry is searching for ways to develop a stronger sense of community within their hotels, and to deliver exceptional guest experiences.
For many hoteliers, focusing on the overall guest experience is increasingly crucial, or even more important than the guest room itself. In Skift Research’s most recent Experiential Traveler Survey, 72 percent of the 2,300 respondents said they value experience over room quality, and 65 percent said they are seeking new experiences.
One such source of inspiration in terms of delivering experiences, which Gansevoort’s Achenbaum and his team are watching closely, involves the popularity of boutique fitness clubs and membership programs such as Soulcycle and Peloton, for example, which he sees as demonstrative of where hospitality is headed.
“The price point, to me, seems really expensive for the average person, but it’s a massively growing thing. To me, it shows that people are prioritizing that experience over other things … they would rather have that private boutique gym experience over a mass gym, and now mass gyms are trying to do their own versions of these spin classes or boot camps to be more competitive and grab back the market share they’re losing. That’s what happens in hospitality.”
The detailed specialization of experience that boutique gyms are offering is something hotels can learn from, and that’s especially something that applies to the private hotel/member club model as well.
And as we’ve seen with the growth of global loyalty membership programs for the major hotel brands — from Marriott and Hilton to IHG and Wyndham and so many more — it’s clear that the idea of membership is already a sort of built-in concept for hotel guests. So, why wouldn’t a hotel brand like Sheraton, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Wyndham, or Hyatt consider harnessing its respective loyalty membership base to develop even more private club-like experiences in their existing hotels?
While many hotels do have special clubs within their properties for their most loyal guests, perhaps going forward, they’ll begin to invest even more so in those clubs and add even more additional services and amenities, or even open those clubs up to locals with paid subscriptions.
And given the growth and popularity of dedicated co-working spaces — WeWork has a valuation of $20 billion —and the fact that a number of hotel brands are also considering adding their own co-working spaces to their hotels, including Hoxton Hotels and the upcoming Eaton Workshop, it’s clear that private membership models are finding their way, increasingly, into the hotel space.
The even bigger question going forward, however, will be how much brands will want to focus on this idea of membership. How much do they want to balance exclusivity with access, with being more public versus private, in terms of what they offer to the general traveling public and what they offer to their most valued members? Or should they consider paid subscriptions that give people access to certain amenities or access?
But if these newer iterations of the private member club — The Curtain, Karl Lagerfeld Hotels, Publica, and Soho House — have shown us anything, it’s that there’s certainly room for growth in this space. And there’s a desire among consumers to have exclusive access to these types of experiences, whether they happen to be traveling or simply at home.
The more brands open these types of experiences up to more people — at least up to a certain point, without sacrificing the air of exclusivity that make these clubs so desirable — perhaps Soho House may no longer be the only private club brand seeking an IPO in the near future. And perhaps the hotel gets that much closer to being more and more like the hotel of the future, which strives to be everything to everyone.