19th March, 2017

We may have hit ‘peak club’ but I’ll keep paying my dues

In the past decade, Wikipedia has rather replaced Who’s Who as a directory of society’s movers and shakers. Generally it is a more up-to-date and informative record.

But in one respect I miss Who’s Who: the last section for each entry lists their club memberships, and these provide a fascinating, old-fashioned insight into a person’s character and interests.

I have always loved clubs, ever since I co-founded one at university as my first business enterprise. Joining a club is a British habit, and London is the mother city of clubs. They sprang up as venues for gentlemen in the 17th and 18th centuries, when coffee shops became magnets for petty criminals.

Both the London Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s of London started out in coffee houses. In general, these establishments were dedicated to the conduct of commerce, politics or learning.

But plenty of aristocrats wanted more exclusive surroundings where they could pursue, in the words of the gentlemen’s club White’s, “gallantry, pleasure and entertainment”.

So the likes of White’s originated as grand gambling dens but were gradually transformed into private institutions with features such as dining rooms, bars and libraries, serving alcohol and providing meals and accommodation. In effect, they were the first restaurants (excluding hotels and taverns) — albeit open only to men who were members.

Why do we join members’ clubs? To network, for status, out of snobbery, to feel that we belong? Perhaps it’s a mixture of all these motives.

Our class system is probably one reason why we have embraced them so heartily in this country. Unlike public houses, another British institution, where anyone is welcome, the clubs are private venues and designed as much to exclude as include.

I joined the Groucho Club the year it was formed, soon after I came down from Oxford. It was invented as an alternative to the stuffy gentlemen’s clubs of St James’s, and was the first of a new generation of such organisations.

Ten years later, Soho House was founded, similarly aimed at those working in the creative industries. Since then it has boomed and become a world leader, offering not just food and drink but cinemas, workspaces, spas and bedrooms.

There are about 20 branches, from Istanbul to West Hollywood. And later this spring it will open a giant club and hotel with eight restaurants and more than 250 bedrooms called The Ned in the old Midland Bank building in the City.

I suspect this enormous edifice might signal “peak club” in London. It has become hard to keep up with all the members’ clubs.

I recently visited the plush Devonshire Club, launched after a £25m refurbishment; it competes with the likes of Home House, Morton’s, the Hospital Club, the Arts Club, the Frontline Club and the traditional clubs such as White’s, the RAC, the Carlton and so forth. There must be at least 75 of these gathering places in central London. Some offer sporting facilities, some are more exclusive than others, some more formal.

The old-school clubs are almost always, in effect, mutuals owned by their members, while the clubs created from the 1980s onwards are businesses with external shareholders. In principle, this business model is an attractive one — members don’t just pay to eat, drink and sleep, they also pay a hefty annual subscription. Often this can be £1,000 a year or more, representing a wonderful 100% gross margin annuity profit stream for the proprietor.

But by being exclusive, clubs cannot admit any old patron who wants to spend money. There must be sufficient member usage to keep the premises lively and the dining rooms and bars busy.

Sadly, a club I chaired for a decade called the Cobden was not a great financial success. I had many fun nights out there, but never made a profit; it was in the wrong location and we hired the wrong managers.

I hope the backers of a new club called the Conduit fare better than we did. Its ambition is to connect “leaders, thinkers, innovators in social change, business and the arts to create impact for the greater good”. It is taking a 40,000 sq ft, six-storey building in Mayfair and has suggested a lifetime membership for £50,000. Already it appears to have raised more than £7m from some prestigious names to fund the project.

However, I think I shall politely decline the invitation to join. In truth, I get poor value from the several clubs where I am already a member — as I prefer new restaurant and bar openings when I go out. A few years ago, while in an expansive mood, I attempted to join the Garrick Club, but was blackballed at the instigation of an old business colleague.

Afterwards I was advised to reapply when I could expect to succeed. But even though I am heavily involved in the theatre world, I don’t like wearing ties and prefer clubs that admit women. So I never bothered.

Yet the urge to be a member of a club is a powerful one — and I shall not be resigning from my clubs just yet.