The Rise of Private Members-only Clubs in New York City

The Rise of Private Members-only Clubs in New York City

Social life in London has long revolved around members-only clubs such as Annabel’s or 5 Hertford Street, but the concept has largely been foreign in New York. Yet private clubs are on the rise in Manhattan like never before, with an uptick that began before the pandemic and has only picked up steam since. With the opportunity to go out much more fraught than in the “before” times, New Yorkers are seeing the appeal in making sure their nights are everything they want them to be — and no one can provide that quite like a club you select directly for your desires. While at the onset of the pandemic having a membership at someplace like Soho House suddenly had no use, now such access is all the more in demand — and newer clubs like Zero Bond, NeueHouse and Casa Cipriani are making it a trend.

“The pandemic was a catalyst for things that were already in motion and the members club experience was already in motion in New York based on what was out there for the consumer already,” says Scott Sartiano, who owns Zero Bond along with Will Makris. “I think that people will pay extra and spend extra time becoming a member of a place where they feel it’s a curated environment. And I think the pandemic just put a match to gasoline a little bit on that, in that regard.”

Josh Wyatt, chief executive officer of NeueHouse parent company CultureWorks, agrees.

“Pre-COVID-19, there were a number of operators looking to enter into New York, predominantly from London where there’s been a two-century track record of private clubs that have done well throughout thick and thin. I think one of the things that COVID-19 accelerated was this need for community and an understanding that an organization is out there to help curate that community.”

Before the pandemic, Wyatt would go out five or six nights a week, and therefore there was little pressure to make sure each spot was a hit.

“You didn’t really think about it like, ‘OK, I’m going to go to five different places,’” he says. “But now I think, ‘OK, my time and my decisions matter more.’ If I am going to go out, I want to make sure it’s a really fantastic evening and I want to bump into people that I know or people that I may not know, but I know that the community that I’ve joined has good taste.”

Inside NeueHouse at Madison Square Park.

Wyatt has been CEO of CultureWorks for the past three years, and oversaw the merging of NeueHouse and Fotografiska, as well as the launch of the members-only hotspot cocktail bar Chapel Bar, which opened this past September and immediately went on to host Met Ball parties and fashion week soireés.

The space had previously been built out to become a bar by other owners, but was left unfinished. When NeueHouse discovered the space, they saw it as a way to provide the nightlife element to their existing community-forward mission.

Wyatt describes Chapel Bar as a “couture moment” for the NeueHouse community, which can do everything from have a meal to rent a desk or office.

“Let’s talk about a high-end fashion brand. Use the example of Miu Miu or Dior or whatever it may be,” he begins. “You have these fashion week moments, the moments of deep elegance, deeply chic people and designs on the runway, right? But then below that, in everyday life, they’re then selling or promoting their brand to a market of people that really value and respect what they’re doing. That’s sort of what Chapel Bar is for us. It’s that couture moment that helps us to build a wider community around Fotografiska.”

If you’re going out to Chapel Bar, you’re not just looking to get a drink.

“For us, it’s not just a bar. It really is a community. You walk in there and our members and their guests, we hope, are people that really value what we’re doing for photography, art, music, fashion. Really taking it back, in a lot of ways, to how New York maybe was 20 years ago, pre-internet, pre- all this money changing things,” Wyatt says. “I’m a little bit older so I’ve seen how New York used to run. It was really fun. Now, COVID-19 obviously was really challenging, deeply tragic, but there are some good things that have come out of this pandemic. One of those, I think, is a return to culture and a return to community.”

At Soho House, the interest in connection has driven applications as work from home continues and people are seeking out social interactions in new ways.

“I can’t speak to what other clubs are experiencing, but we’ve continued to see strong demand in Soho House membership — even throughout the pandemic,” Nick Jones, founder and CEO of Soho House, wrote in an email. “Our waitlist grew as people realized that they truly value connection. People will always want to eat, drink and socialize, and naturally they want to do that with people they know and trust. Our members across the world know that Soho House is a great, safe place to do all of that.”

Safety is also top of mind at Zero Bond, which opened in 2020 and has recently become the hotspot du jour, serving as a date night venue for Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson and victory party tour stop for Mayor Eric Adams. The club, located on Bond Street in NoHo, is filled with about $15 million of art from the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol, and features an omakase bar, and grill and club menus across 20,000 feet of space.

Zero Bond

Zero Bond

“I think that definitely from a programming perspective, people’s needs and wants changed, whether it’s wanting more space, more exclusivity, more safety,” says Sartiano. “One thing that we talked about before opening a few years ago was programming, where we had a speaker series and things like that. And I just think people, their first reaction is they want to be social and see their friends in a safe environment and really just socialize and have something good to eat and drink as opposed to all of the programming. Obviously, every time we think it’s safe to do events or things with bigger crowds or things where you’re packed into a room to hear someone speak, we plan them and then some sort of new wave comes along and we end up canceling them. So I think that’s been a big difference.”

Unsurprisingly, each private club thinks of itself as in a category of its own when asked about competitors. Wyatt broke it down in the following manner, preferring the term “complimenter” to competitor:

“The other complimenters in the space are extremely focused on one particular item,” he says. “Soho House, fantastic, incredible company. Deeply respect them. They’re very much a social company, right? Zero Bond, same way. Extremely elevated, beautiful design, Scott Sartiano is a personal friend, and I’m a member of Zero Bond as well. Lovely, elevated food and cocktails but again, the moments really start there sort of 6 p.m. onward. What I love about our ecosystem is we really are an 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. ecosystem, whereas Soho House probably is a 4 p.m.-to-midnight ecosystem. Zero Bond is a 6 p.m.-to-2 a.m. ecosystem. I don’t think it’s a hyperbole to say we are a category of one but I think the complimenters and the people that we really respect are Soho House, Zero Bond, Casa Cipriani. But again, those are expert, world-class experts in social and sort of ledger hospitality, whereas we’re trying to blend that social and work and culture angle.”

When asked what sets them apart from the others, the Zero Bond guys are equally confident in their standing.

“Where would we start?” Sartiano asks. “We don’t really compare ourselves to other places. I just think that we always look at our friends and our immediate orbit of relationships and what they want and what they need and that’s how we do things. And I think we’re in huge demand. I think we’re hard to get into. We don’t tell people how many members we have but we’re not about the size of the membership; it’s about the quality of the community.”

“I think our location plays a big part,” Makris adds. “We have one of the best locations in the streets of New York.”

Zero Bond

Zero Bond

“I look at a lot of the other members of clubs and they’re looking for something very, very specific in their members. Like one might be for creatives. One might be for Wall Street types or things like that. And we’re not for one,” Sartiano says. “We feel New York is all about diversity and we want athletes and actors to mix with finance and politicians and I think that that’s very New York. I think that’s one of the unique aspects of New York versus many other big cities.”

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