As our world copes with COVID, private-membership social and dining clubs are sprouting like mushrooms after a rain. It’s not just a pandemic side-effect: Some of these new clubs were open or in the works before March 2020, including the much anticipated Carriage House, located in a pair of newly-renovated landmarked buildings designed by Addison Mizner and Maurice Fatio in Palm Beach. Carriage House was founded by Michael Bickford, the chairman and CEO of Round Hill Capital, an international real estate investment firm, with his Brazilian-born wife Paula, who now serves as the club’s creative director.
Membership committees are the gatekeepers of old-school clubs. Owners generally rule the roost at the new ones. But don’t ask them what their members have in common. Some qualifications are obvious: a desire to belong and the funds to afford it. But club-specific descriptions tend to be similar, generic, politically correct, and, well, squishy.
Nexus, in New York’s City’s Tribeca, has “a very eclectic membership in age and stage in all industries,” says senior managing director Douglas McMahon. Members of that city’s Casa Cipriani “are a diverse, eclectic group of people across all industries and generations…interesting and wonderful people,” says Maggio Cipriani. Fasano’s members appreciate its “personalized, private, and intimate experience,” and the “sense that there are relationships involved,” says its general manager, Andrea Natal. And on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, the Britely boasts of “diverse people from all walks of life,” “like-hearted people, respectful,” who share “a passion for community” and are “somehow connected and willing to join another group,” says managing director Estelle Lacroix. Carriage House, says Paula Bickford, will attract “an eclectic mix of diverse cultures, interests and ages” with “a more diverse and young spirit than the traditional clubs of the past.”
Only one club founder, Jeff Klein, of San Vicente Bungalows in West Hollywood and Santa Monica (now scouting a New York location), was at all specific about his members: “The elite of entertainment, media, art, fashion, tech, music, and politics,” he says. But in the next breath, he adds that they go to SVB, “where privacy is king, to be themselves.” So, the SVB clubs enforce strict bans on photos, social media posts, and gossip, even placing stickers that have become status symbols over cell phone camera lenses. Klein says that since he opened late in 2018, the rules have only been breached twice, by guests of members, resulting in those members’ “permanent termination.”
“There was a magic moment in the history of money in the mid-’90s,” says Paco Underhill, author of How We Eat and The Science of Shopping. “Until then, global wealth was in the hands of the aristocracy. Today, around the world, it’s earned in the course of your own lifetime. The faces of the people walking in the door”—in high-end stores, hotels, restaurants—“changed rapidly. Once, in an exclusive restaurant, the person at the next table was the same class as you. Today, you just don’t know.” Clubs have grown in importance, he says, because they exert “complete control over who is coming through the door. I can buy into the community I want to be part of.”
Today, the appeal of private membership has only increased. “It’s a measure of paranoia,” Underhill continues. With new social distancing and capacity rules, “The landscape is easier to manage in a private club.” And there are ever more aspirants clamoring at the gates. “An amazing amount of wealth has been generated by the market, despite COVID,” says Matt Winn, partner and chief development officer of the What If Syndicate, which seeks nothing less than to redefine the hospitality industry. “People with wealth, settled in their careers, are looking for places to gather where my people get in, but not everyone. It’s a way to say, ‘I’m part of it and you’re not;’ to drive demand and the feeling of exclusivity. How badly do you want it?”
Author and journalist Michael Gross delves deep into the new world of private clubs for PALMER Vol. 1, available now.