Business

LA’s Rich Are Rushing To Join A New Class Of Members-Only Clubs — If They Can Get In

Andrea Chang
Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Andrea Chang reports, “The secretive hideaways, already on the rise, became even more sought after during the pandemic with their promise of a full-lifestyle day-to-night experience combining co-working and socializing under one stylish roof (or on top of it). That they’re meant for only a handpicked few has, for some, added to the allure.”

Los Angeles

To get accepted into the exclusive private members clubs proliferating around Los Angeles, having a lot of money is just the start.

Bonus points if you’re young, successful and demonstrate a winning personality; these days, not being white also helps. Knowing someone who already made it behind the velvet rope and can vouch for you is a plus. You’ll need to fill out an online application, sit for an interview with the vetting committee and exercise patience: The most elite clubs have waitlists that stretch months if not years, with tens of thousands of names.

Once you get in — if you do — there are membership fees to pay (budget about $2,500 to $6,000 annually, though one upcoming San Francisco club is charging as much as $300,000 to join) and rules to follow: restricted cellphone use, no photos or videos, dress codes, guest allowance limits, laptops in designated spaces only. Come to see and be seen, but don’t tell anyone about it — identifying another member on social media or to the paparazzi is an almost guaranteed way to get kicked out for good.

None of that has deterred the droves of hopefuls vying for spots in the new class of members-only clubs. Nor, so far, has a slumping stock market and an economy flirting with recession. The secretive hideaways, already on the rise, became even more sought after during the pandemic with their promise of a full-lifestyle day-to-night experience combining co-working and socializing under one stylish roof (or on top of it). That they’re meant for only a handpicked few has, for some, added to the allure.

“You only want to go to the nightclub that everybody can’t get into, or the hottest restaurant where you can’t get a reservation,” said Colin Coggins, 38, an author from Los Feliz who joined social club the Britely last summer soon after it opened. “The people I know who have the memberships, they have it for cachet.”

The Sunset Strip establishment charges $2,900 a year for access to its two members-only Wolfgang Puck restaurants, rooftop pool, spa, 24-hour gym and bowling lanes as well as a full slate of programming (yoga classes, DJ residencies, movie screenings, off-site retreats and an upcoming “heart-expanding poolside sound bath”).

After a lull in 2020, when many private clubs temporarily or permanently shut down and plans to launch new ones were postponed, club owners are pushing ahead to take advantage of remote-work policies and pent-up demand to hang out and spend money doing it. Now there’s an influx of newcomers rolling out in the trendiest corners of town, with grand openings every few weeks.

The Aster, a hybrid private club and public hotel, debuted in August in the Hollywood space previously occupied by members-only H Club. Heimat, with its niche focus on fitness and wellness (its rooftop Michael Mina restaurant, open to the public, features a keto- and vegan-friendly menu with “mind/cognition” dishes), opened in June in the burgeoning Media District. The month before, Holloway House, the fourth L.A.-area outpost of global juggernaut Soho House, launched a mile away from the company’s longtime West Hollywood home.

Next up: NeueHouse, known for its fully loaded communal workspaces and cultural events, will expand this month to Venice Beach, its third Los Angeles location after Hollywood and downtown L.A. A Palm Springs Soho House is in the works.

“Exclusivity and privacy have taken precedence in the last few years, especially since the pandemic,” said Drew Meyers, a Soho House member and luxury real estate agent who lives in West Hollywood. “People really wanted to make

Meyers uses his membership three times a week, inviting nearly all of his clients as a way to ensure discretion and make them “feel special,” he said.

“When I do business at a place that’s exclusive, it almost gives me a notch up,” Meyers said. “I took a sheik there a couple of months ago. I’ve taken celebrities. They just know nobody’s going to bother them there. A celebrity client of mine last year — he only wanted to eat where nobody could see him, so we ate at Soho House for like every lunch for literally two straight weeks.”

These walled-off playgrounds for the rich and sometimes famous have evolved far beyond suburban country clubs and their serene golf courses, triple-decker turkey sandwiches and stodgy clientele, or the staid 127-year-old Jonathan Club downtown, whose website says: “We know when to bring out the good china.”

Demand has never been higher for Soho House, which opened its first location in London in 1995 and has grown to more than three dozen houses around the world — 20 of them since the beginning of 2018 — as well as co-working-only hubs and an interior decor retail brand.

Parent company Membership Collective Group went public last year and continues to accelerate Soho House’s pace of expansion. Houses in Mexico City, Bangkok and Stockholm are slated to open this winter and as many as 10 are planned for 2023.

The company reported last month that Soho House grew to 142,250 members in the second quarter, an 8.7% increase from the first quarter and a 27% increase year over year. Its waitlist across all brands now stands at more than 81,500 people, an all-time high.

“We’ve been doing it for such a long time, I think maybe people look at us and think they can do it,” President Andrew Carnie said of the fast-expanding social club scene in L.A. during a recent interview in the plush, steel-blue library at the new Holloway House. “There’s nobody doing it on our scale.”

That said, Soho House has yet to turn a profit after 27 years, reporting a loss of $82 million in the second quarter. Its shares, which began trading at $12 a year ago, closed at $5.99 Friday; the company is currently valued at $1.17 billion.

After a two-year price freeze during the COVID-19 pandemic, Soho House raised its “Every House” annual membership to $4,000 in February, a double-digit percentage increase to help it manage inflation. (Members younger than 27 — about a fifth of its base — get half off all three membership categories, a common practice among social clubs looking to cultivate a more youthful vibe.) Annual retention has nonetheless held steady at about 95%, the company said.

Many private club members said they found the cost worthwhile, equating it to the price of joining a premium gym — but with additional amenities and a stronger community in a more beautiful space.
Coggins, the Los Feliz author, initially joined the Britely when he needed a quiet and reliable place to write a book during the pandemic. But it soon became an integral part of his social life; he even spent his most recent birthday there.

“We wanted to go someplace that was sexy and cool,” he said. “I call up my club and in an hour, I’m on the rooftop of the sexiest building having a martini with people my age — and not too many of them. And I was like, I get it.”

There are also substantial bragging rights.

“If you bring someone who’s not a member, people are like ‘Oh, wow! We’re having drinks next to someone famous,’” said Robert Santini, 40, a vice president at Warner Records who joined Soho House four years ago. “I one day had a client in L.A., and Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan were, I think, meeting about ‘Creed II,’ and they were there. It was one of those you-had-to-be-there moments, and you have those moments a lot.”

With their high fees and little visibility into who gets in and who languishes in waitlist purgatory, private social clubs have long faced complaints that they’re pretentious enclaves built on a you-can’t-sit-with-us mindset. Some would-be operators have scrapped plans altogether, including the storied Chateau Marmont hotel, which announced early in the pandemic that it would convert to members only but reversed course last month.

Mindful of the criticism, especially in today’s environment, private clubs are opening up about their efforts to increase accessibility.

In 2020 Soho House, along with corporations of all kinds, published a diversity pledge to create “a more inclusive and representative space for people from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds.” The London company said at least 20% of its top 70 senior-level positions would be held by Black, Indigenous and other executives of color by the end of 2022, a goal it exceeded last year, and it committed to revamping its recruitment process to remove bias.

“We’re just looking for creative souls and ultimately like-minded people that we believe will fit,” Carnie said. “We’re definitely not exclusive.”

But exclusivity is “inherent right in the model” of members-only clubs, said Kevin O’Shea, co-founder of the month-old Aster on Vine Street. He argued that the way to balance that out was through lower barriers to entry and more relaxed house rules.

When the Aster debuted, it did so with what appeared to be a pointed dig at Soho House: “The Aster keeps kindness at its core, where anyone who wishes to join is welcome,” it said in its opening announcement. “Membership is distinctly not exclusive to creatives or like-minded individuals.”

“We’re the exclusive inclusive club,” O’Shea said during a tour of the sprawling, six-story property, which offers the usual social club standbys — pool, celebrity-chef-backed rooftop restaurant, gym, workspaces, events, valet parking — plus 35 all-suite guest rooms, a recording studio and cabaret room for $3,600 a year. Essentially, if you can afford it, you’re in.

“We got rid of a lot of those requirements that we felt were hindering people. We don’t want to dig too deep into your life,” he said. “We feel like a lot of the members clubs are so many rules. You’ve got to give a kidney to get in and then once you’re there: ‘Let me tape your phone up, put your laptop away, you’re not allowed to call anyone.’ It’s just not guest-centric at all.”

One members-only club that is fully owning that it isn’t for everyone: Nonfungible token-based SHO Club, scheduled to open in San Francisco next year.

“If you want a membership to be an asset and represent something that has value in and of itself, you have to have a level of scarcity,” Josh Sigel, founder and chief executive of SHO Group, said in an interview.

The club will begin selling lifetime memberships — there are three tiers, named Earth, Water and Fire — to the public by the end of the month. The most expensive, Fire, will be capped at 20 people who will pay a one-time fee of $300,000 via fiat currency or Ethereum and “receive ownership-like benefits,” including revenue sharing and a seat on the board. They’ll also get an in-home “private omakase experience” and a “once-in-a-lifetime Japan travel experience.”

Founding members of Water (377 people) will pay $15,000 to join, and founding members of Earth (2,878 people) will pay $7,500. They’ll get 24/7 concierge services, access to online and in-person events, and members-only perks at the club’s forthcoming SHO Restaurant, among them priority reservations and a separate menu.

“We’re not suggesting that an exclusive membership can’t coexist with humility. We’re not about the flash,” Sigel said. “In order to deliver a certain level of service and a certain level of experience, and to create a tight-knit group, there is a function of scale and numbers that you do need to be mindful of.
“I recognize that someone can call BS on that.”

A launch party for SHO Club last month began with a hard-hat walk-through of the construction zone, with a stop inside the cavernous space that will house SHO Restaurant.

“It’s actually a Japanese farmhouse cooking methodology,” Sigel told a group of journalists, gesturing to a series of renderings. “This is really inspired by what you would call the commoner.”

Half an hour later, on the chilly rooftop garden of Salesforce Park, guests loaded up on sushi, sashimi and caviar at an all-you-can-eat buffet as servers made their way through the crowd with trays of uni-topped crostini and Wagyu skewers.

The cows had once belonged in their own rarefied league, raised on a farm in Japan where they “only eat olives and sake,” one sushi chef said. “They get massages and listen to jazz.”

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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