Social Clubs Wooing Young Members Make Updates And Even — Gasp — Allow Denim

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As tastes evolve, offices go casual and socializing opportunities abound, some historic social clubs hoping to remain viable in the future are letting go of some of their buttoned-up traditions and tailoring their spaces and programs to the younger set.

Chicago Tribune

Those who have made the mistake of wearing jeans to the Union League Club of Chicago know the indignity of being forced to don a pair of ill-fitting, club-issued knit slacks.

Now the 138-year-old private business club is loosening its collar a bit as it and other old-line clubs make efforts to be relevant to younger generations.

Denim now is permitted to mingle at all times with the suits and khakis hobnobbing amid the tufted leather and wood-paneled walls of the club’s popular Rendezvous bar and adjacent lounges.

Jeans — well, “dress denim” — for some time now have been permitted almost anywhere in the club on weekends, though some areas, like the Wigwam restaurant, still maintain higher sartorial standards, and some attire, like T-shirts, remains strictly prohibited outside of the gym.

The denim concession in the Rendezvous bar comes as the Loop club plans a renovation of a corner of its marble lobby to create an informal cafe and co-working space where members and their guests are encouraged to bring their laptops and hang out for hours — in jeans if they wish.

“We are making a real effort to be part of today,” said Bill Nissen, a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin and the new president of the Union League Club. “We don’t want to be antiquated.”

As tastes evolve, offices go casual and socializing opportunities abound, some historic social clubs hoping to remain viable in the future are letting go of some of their buttoned-up traditions and tailoring their spaces and programs to the younger set.

The 130-year-old University Club of Chicago is in the midst of constructing a $13.5 million, 15,000-square-foot addition to its Loop facility that will house a vast living room with TVs, couches and food until midnight, plus a deck that is triple the size of its current outdoor space. Scheduled to open in September, the area will allow “smart casual” dress all the time, which includes jeans and Bermuda-length shorts.

“Young people want to watch their alumni football games together, they want to watch ‘Downton Abbey’ together, they want to combine their social and work lives,” said John Spidalette, general manager of the University Club, which currently allows casual dress on the weekends. The organization’s membership, which skews younger (average age 42 to 46) because of its collegiate ties, took a big hit during the Great Recession but has been growing, and at 3,400 members is approaching its pre-recession peak, he said.

The Arts Club of Chicago, which last year celebrated its centennial, has expanded its evening programming, focused more on local artists and in October opened a bar called the Drawing Room where members can casually drop by to socialize after work.

The goal isn’t only to attract young people but a diverse cross-section of art lovers, said Janine Mileaf, executive director of the organization, which holds exhibits and fosters conversations between artists and art patrons. The efforts have been paying off, with membership rising to nearly 1,200 from just over 1,000 five years ago, she said.

An eagerness among young people for communal experiences — as evidenced by the rise of co-working spaces, for example — suggests there is great opportunity for old clubs if they are willing to adapt to how people live and work today.

“Millennials want to join clubs, but they don’t want to join clubs with lots of rules,” said Jon McCabe, a former general manager at the Union League Club who now runs his own consulting business to help private clubs grow membership.

“Woe be to the club that lets tradition get in the way,” he said.

Tradition, of course, can be a selling point for those seeking a special experience, and some clubs still draw the line at tailored trousers and turtlenecks. The 148-year-old Chicago Club, which added a rooftop terrace to its elegant Michigan Avenue digs a few years ago, declined to comment but its website says denim is not permitted at any time.

Century-old clubs are competing with new clubs that are seizing on modern mindsets. To McCabe, Soho House is a prime example. The swank London-based club for “creative souls,” which opened a glamorous Chicago location in an old West Loop warehouse in 2014, is successful because it knows who it wants to serve and won’t compromise — “out-clubbing” the traditional preppy clubs by being highly selective for the cool and artsy, McCabe said.

Ironically, Soho House’s opening in Chicago may be helping the classic clubs rather than siphoning members.

“I think it has raised awareness of club culture,” said Mileaf of the Arts Club, whose audience of creatives (often fine and performing artists) differs from that of the Soho House (many in advertising or entertainment).

To succeed, traditional clubs need to hold tight to the original values that make them distinctive while also considering how to appeal to potential new pools of members, McCabe said.

At the Union League Club, known for its dedication to philanthropy and community service, member demand forced the dress code issue. Some people complained that they couldn’t come to the club or bring their friends after a jeans-clad day at work, Nissen said.

The club’s entrepreneur group, in particular, said its meetings would fare much better with a more relaxed dress code, as the startup community is famously casual.

There was little pushback when the board proposed removing the denim ban, Nissen said. The handful of minor objections were along the lines of, “If I wanted that I would go to a hotel or a YMCA.”

“There probably is something lost,” Nissen said of the change. “But I think more is gained than lost.”
The club, which has 1,700 resident members (meaning they live within 25 miles), has seen a slow decline in membership since its peak just before the Great Recession, said Kylie Craft, membership manager. The average member age is about 50.

A big challenge has been that the cachet of club membership is no longer enough to entice people to join, and few employers pay membership dues, as was standard in the club heyday.

“In the past, people would belong to a club just to belong; it was sort of a right of passage in a business or profession and the only question was, ‘Which club?'” Nissen said. “Now people want value, and that’s the challenge.”

The value proposition he touts is beyond the club’s restaurants and athletic facilities, which are available in abundance outside its gilded walls. He focuses on how “we make a difference in the lives of our members and the lives of others,” by building relationships and involvement in charitable causes.

The club also has introduced more family-friendly programming, such as a summer camp for kids and Saturday kids workshops, to cater to the growing numbers of young families who live downtown and use the club for more than business.

The Union League Club’s membership base still is composed largely of attorneys and financial professionals and some government officials, though it hopes its changes might attract more diverse professions.

The dwindling of futures and options floor traders, who used to be a big membership base, has marked a shift already. The trading profession has been largely replaced by algorithms designed by trading technology firms, whose employees also join the club, Nissen said — but prefer to wear jeans.

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