Private social clubs, traditional bastions of upper-class decorum, are reinventing themselves as democratic gathering spots for a diverse, younger generation of members.
The old clubs are easing membership rules, dress codes, and even fees, while new clubs like the one being planned by David Beckham and Guy Ritchie in West London’s Notting Hill are catering to the chic sneakers-and-cellphone crowd.
“It is not about removing the previous generations but evolving the concepts so they work for all ages and breathe fresh life into quite often traditional members clubs with quite a traditional clientele,” says Carlo Carello, managing director of Onslow Holdings, which operates the London clubs Mahiki, Albert’s at Beaufort House, and Raffles.
Megan Stromberg, general manager of The Battery in San Francisco, says, “We like to think of ourselves as avant-garde, not old guard.” The club, which opened in 2013 and counts 4,900 members, includes a 120-seat restaurant, a public hotel with 14 rooms and a penthouse, a library that’s used for events instead of reading, several bars, and a wine cellar with 1,200 unique labels.
“It’s a cheeky nod to the past of clubs,” she says.
In addition to world-class programs on music, literature, and culture, The Battery offers what Stromberg calls “thoughtfully curated experiences” such as yoga retreats and women’s wellness hot-tub hang outs. Its subclubs, which include one devoted to adventure and one for LGBT members, are designed for special interests. Its philanthropic arm has donated some $14 million to over 70 nonprofits.
“The goal is to bring together a diverse group of leaders from various fields and professions,” she says. “It’s a place for people to connect and share ideas, but it’s social, not business.”
The Island Yacht Club, which has been on Canada’s Toronto Islands since its founding in 1953, recently revamped its property and programs—moves that increased membership from 40 families to 225.
“We used to have only boating memberships, but we added a social membership whose fees are significantly lower, so it has become a neighborhood boutique club,” says Andrew Birch, director of membership. “People see it as a summer resort. We have families that come to swim in our pool, play tennis, and hike on nature trails.”
He added that not only has the number of boating members doubled, but “some of the social members have been converted to boating members.”
In place of lectures and readings, the club hosts themed nights in its glass-enclosed clubhouse. The Mexican fiesta night, which features food and music and children taking swings at a piñata, is quite popular, he says.
Since its opening two years ago, Albert’s at Beaufort House in London has attracted 2,000 annual and 200 life members from varied professions. Those under 30 are eligible for reduced-rate quarterly memberships.
“The decor reflects a younger aesthetic,” Carello says. “The interiors are still luxurious but with touches designed for the highly visual Instagram generation,” he says.“Our events schedule is designed for our young members, with world-class DJs and fancy-dress parties.”
For the 125-year-old Chelsea Arts Club in London, which has always possessed a bohemian atmosphere, change meant spending 2 million British pounds (US$2.62 million) on its clubhouse just so things didn’t change.
“It was a restoration, not a refurbishing project,” says club secretary Geoffrey Matthews. “We offer a friendly and informal home for artists who are taking time off from the studio; our approach continues to appeal to the creatively minded of all ages. We’ve never had a dress code and we’ve never allowed the use of phones or computers, and our subscriptions remain less than half the average of other London clubs.”
The institutions are likely to keep changing with the times, because as Carello says, “A club cannot rest on its laurels.”