A Surge Of Interest In Members-Only Clubs Is Sweeping Across Major U.S. Cities

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A Surge Of Interest In Members-Only Clubs Is Sweeping Across Major U.S. Cities

June 3, 2024
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Private clubs have a rich history in New York City's social life and other major American cities. These exclusive clubs, many established during the Gilded Age, were meticulously crafted as opulent spaces for a city’s most influential figures to connect. The Union Club, for instance, stands as the oldest private club in New York, boasting a membership that once included the likes of Winston Churchill, William Randolph Hearst, and Ulysses S. Grant. Founded in 1836, the Union Club continues to thrive, housed in a landmarked building on 69th Street and Park Avenue.

In recent years, newer private clubs have increased in NYC and elsewhere, varying in price point, amenities, and exclusivity. They have partially arisen to fill voids caused by the pandemic, such as the loss of “third places” and the abundance of empty office space. Many commercial landlords in New York aren’t in a position to be picky about their tenants. With so much empty real estate, they’re welcome to new types of tenants, whether that be an office-to-residential conversion or a conversion into an exclusive members-only club.

According to a survey by GGA Partners, over 60 percent of private clubs increased their membership in the U.S. in 2022. More executives work from home but still crave social interactions. Some of the city’s most exclusive clubs have staggeringly high membership fees. Aman New York opened in 2022 and offers a membership with an initiation fee of $200,000, plus annual dues. Casa Cruz also opened in 2022, and membership fees range from $250,000 to $500,000. By comparison, the fees for ZZ’s Club from Major Food Group look modest at $20,000 at initiation and $10,000 annually. ZZ’s Club says this is the cost of entering the “world’s first and only private location of Carbone,” the company’s restaurant that’s frequently visited by A-List celebrities.

Not all clubs are as expensive to join. Verci has more of a college campus feel, and membership ranges from $200 to $300 monthly with no initiation fees. “We’ve been using this as our third space, our shared living room, a place for about 120 people that are all young and creative and artistic,” said Anant Vasudevan, a co-founder of Verci. The first Verci location was opened last year in a former office space in Lower Manhattan. Newer clubs like Verci typically rent their space instead of owning it like older institutions, such as the Union Club. Renting may limit the staying power of new clubs that lack the prestige and resources of more established clubs. Newer clubs are more vulnerable to shifts in the economy and fluctuations in the workforce, even among top-level workers. Many of the newer crop of private clubs have come and gone, such as the much-publicized women-only social club The Wing, which closed in 2022.

Gaining access to these clubs also sometimes requires navigating opaque membership rules. For example, Cipriani in NYC says it has the sole discretion to approve or deny any application. For Maxwell, those interviewing to join must pass a “vibe check.” These secret rites of passage are often part of the appeal, giving potential members a feeling of prestige.

Opening up new worlds

New York isn’t the only city seeing a resurgence of private clubs. In Chicago, new clubs cater to wealthy, young professionals looking to connect in a remote work world. This is unusual in some respects because private social clubs have existed in Chicago for more than a century, but many haven’t always allowed younger members. Soho House launched in the West Loop of Chicago in 2014 and set the bar for the city's new, hip, upscale club model. Catering to Chicago’s creative community, Soho House has a rooftop pool, gym, spa, and live music, among other perks. Membership fees start at $600 per quarter, and discounts are offered to $300 quarterly for members under 27 years old.

Miami is another city teeming with new private clubs. Seaspice recently opened a new private club and event space above its main waterfront restaurant. Seaspice was already a hot spot among the rich and famous, hosting the likes of Jay-Z, Leonardo DiCaprio, and David Beckham. It is getting even more exclusive. The Seaspice Private Club is an invite-only establishment designed like a superyacht, providing 180-degree views of the Miami River. The Seaspice team says members will be treated to world-class entertainment and luxurious cuisine. Good luck getting an invite, though.

Of course, not all private clubs are as exclusive and catered to the super-wealthy. Verci in New York City has a program that allows some members who can’t afford the monthly fees to pay what they can or nothing at all. This has helped folks like Khalil DaTerra, a 21-year-old artist, who says joining Veric opened up a whole new world for her because she didn’t attend college. “Having this campus feeling of dropping into a community is so valuable,” she said.

Are they really ‘third places’?

Private clubs are helping to fill the social void for some, but others argue they aren’t true “third places.” Third places are often classified as libraries, coffee shops, and community centers where people casually spend time outside of home and work. Research shows these locations have been under threat in recent years. The pandemic led to more small business closures, and last year in New York, Mayor Eric Adams proposed budgets that would force libraries to cut hours and programming. Ironically, Mayor Adams is known to frequent the private club Zero Bond, which offers a drink called “The Trillionaire” and charges $3,850 annually plus a $1,000 initiation fee.

While private clubs offer community, they can’t be considered third places. Ray Oldenburg, the sociologist who coined the term in the 1980s, said third places must be inclusive and not set formal criteria for membership. In that sense, the business interests of private clubs conflict with the idea of a third place. People join these clubs seeking connection, but the clubs are seeking profitability and increased membership.

Whatever you may think of the increase in private clubs, their popularity has risen and filled a void in the post-pandemic era. These members-only clubs also play an interesting role in the commercial real estate markets where they’re opening. With a glut of empty office space in many major cities, landlords could potentially seek to retrofit their spaces for a new private club. In February, more than 98 million square feet of office space was available in Manhattan, nearly double the amount in March 2020, according to Colliers International. Some of this space could be turned into new housing, but it’s easy to see some of it becoming an expensive new private club. Whether the average person could gain entry is another question entirely.