Reasonable room rates and reciprocal arrangements are proving to be just part of the appeal for a growing interest in private city clubs as an alternative to boutique hotels or Airbnb. “The access, the exclusivity and the amenities” are also proving to be strong draws, one young woman said in describing why she prefers staying and using private clubs, vs. high-end hotels, even with the added annual fee.
Growing numbers of travelers are staying at private clubs, The New York Times reported, swapping the hotel experience for one that they say offers culture, history and a sense of belonging.
When Kwame Campbell, 48, a real-estate conference producer, travels to Providence, R.I., for events at his alma mater, Brown, he stays at the Hope Club in the College Hill neighborhood, chartered in 1876, the Times reported.
“I love it,” Campbell told the Times. “It is like an Edith Wharton novel, one of those turn-of-the-century mansions.”
Campbell said he enjoys the sense of history that the Hope Club provides, though room modernizations can make for unusual configurations. “My shower had a frosted window overlooking the hallway,” he told the Times. “It was definitely a moment out of ‘The Shining.’ ”
As more boutique hotels try offer a retro, club-like experience, the Times reported, some travelers have discovered that they prefer the real thing: lodging overnight in private, 19th-century clubs. So-called city clubs offer culture, history and a sense of belonging under one landmark roof, and, although it might sound counterintuitive, are often cheaper than hotels. The Hope Club, for example, starts at $110 a night.
Occupancy rates in city clubs, while lower than hotels (61 percent versus 69 percent in 2017) are on the rise overall, according to Jonathan McCabe, a consultant to the club industry who is the former General Manager of the Union League Club of Chicago. “The Union League Club of Chicago, Union League Club of Philadelphia, The Yale Club in New York and the New York Athletic Club are all chockablock full in their guest rooms,” McCabe told the Times.
The catch—which is also a great part of the appeal—is gaining access to be able to use the rooms, the Times reported.
American city clubs, many affiliated with elite universities, date back a century or more and while early city clubs excluded women, Jews, African-Americans and other minority groups, the Times reported, these days nearly all are coed, diverse and far more inclusive than they once were.
The Princeton Club of New York now accepts not only Princeton alumni but graduates and faculty of 16 associate schools, including Villanova, William & Mary and Bucknell, the Times reported. The Cornell Club-New York, to which Campbell belongs, admits members who are graduates of Brown, Tulane and Notre Dame, among others.
Some clubs offer annual membership for under $1,000 a year to young applicants, the Times reported. Members can dine, read, drink or go to programs at their home clubs, and receive a major travel perk, in the form of lodging overnight in similar clubs worldwide at member rates.
City clubs, by virtue of their long history, can charge low room rates because most are exempt from federal income tax, the Times reported. They are often located in city centers, in areas where comparable hotels might charge twice the rate.
The Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAAC), which rents rooms to the public starting at $249, has been in its downtown home since 1912, before downtown Los Angeles’s golden age and its more recent resurgence, with the addition of the Nomad and the Ace to the local hotel scene, the Times reported.
Some city clubs like the LAAC have opened their rooms to the public because of economic circumstances, realizing they needed to increase occupancy, the Times reported. But they must walk a delicate balance. To avoid tax penalties, social clubs cannot derive more than 15 percent of their gross receipts from nonmember use.
Modern clubs like Soho House in New York City were founded in the tradition of 19th-century clubs, and their members include young, media-savvy professionals who find athletic and university clubs too stodgy, the Times reported. Soho House has an international club network of its own, with 23 “houses” globally, 14 of them with bedrooms to rent for the night. All can be booked by members and nonmembers.
Natacha Tonissoo, 32, a London-born Brooklynite who works in travel public relations, joined Dumbo House in Brooklyn for $3,200 a year so she could utilize Soho House’s other locations, the Times reported. On a spring trip to London, she visited the White City Club, located in the former headquarters of the BBC, and used the gym, pools and sauna.
Why not save the annual fee and stay at a hotel? “It’s the access, the exclusivity and the amenities,” she told the Times. “I’ve met people in similar industries and made business contacts. A hotel is a one-off experience, no matter how aesthetically pleasing it might be.”
To be sure, Airbnb has hurt city clubs, just as it has hurt hotels, the Times reported. The 2008 economic downturn was also a challenge, as membership rolls thinned.
In recent years, many city clubs realized they were not maximizing revenue from rooms and launched multimillion dollar renovations, the Times reported. The University Club of Milwaukee, which merged with Tripoli Country Club (https://clubandresortbusiness.com/university-club-milwaukee-wis-tripoli-cc-complete-merger/), renovated and updated its rooms in 2015. The Detroit Club closed its 1892 building for four years and now has 10 new bedroom suites, in contrast to a few sparse rooms before, plus whirlpools and saunas.
Private clubs that open rooms to the public take measures to ensure that guests know the rules in advance; most have dress codes and other regulations, the Times reported. The Los Angeles Athletic Club sends its house rules in confirmation e-mails and on a card given guests at check-in that reads: “Conduct yourself with dignity, grace and courtesy at all times. Appropriate attire is expected. Smart casual, a collar shirt, no baseball caps, no shorts for evening use.”
Though some competitive hotels such as the Ace have “out-clubbed” the clubs by offering an elite feeling, rich aesthetics and social events, they are nonetheless not private, the Times noted. Expensive does not necessarily mean exclusive.
“We like being members of a club,” said Jason Kaufman, author of “For the Common Good? American Civic Life and the Golden Age of Fraternity,” which examined blue-collar fraternal organizations between the Civil and First World Wars. “We’re liked and accepted, and we benefit from the kindness of strangers who share our affiliations.”
Added Jonathan McCabe: “The reason people stay in private clubs is so they don’t have to be with the great unwashed masses, the proletariat. I was at the Four Seasons in Chicago for high tea and there was a man wearing a shirt that had the F word on it. And my grandchildren were with me.”
For other travelers, the appeal is the attention to service. “Nobody is looking for a tip or a handout, and is really not supposed to take one,” said Marsha Goldstein, 73, a retired tour-company owner and member of the Union League Club of Chicago who has stayed at private clubs all over the world. “They have set the bar very high for service, and if you don’t get it, you need to be vocal. It’s critical to clubs’ success to have you be vocal if you’re unhappy.”
Private clubs also offer safety, a factor that deters some solo travelers from Airbnb, as well as networking opportunities, the Times reported.
“I really think city clubs are going to explode in the next decade—at least the ones who decide to put business connections and security at the forefront,” Gabe Aluisy, who hosts a radio show about private clubs and wrote a book on private club marketing, wrote in an e-mail. “You won’t get a personal introduction to a key business contact in a city from a hotel concierge, but you might from a private club manager or membership director who knows the membership intimately. And with security concerns all over the world, private clubs are a comfortable refuge. where patrons have been vetted.”
Robin Lee Allen, 34, a private-equity fund manager and Babson College alum who belonged to the Princeton Club of New York, moved from New York to San Francisco in 2016 and used reciprocal privileges at the 19th-century University Club of San Francisco, atop Nob Hill, the Times reported. He threw his 33rd birthday party in its red-walled Black Cat Bar, which features memorabilia from the now-defunct Press Club of San Francisco, and stayed over after his friends left.
Allen told the Times that his room resembled “a Westin. But you’re paying for opening the door and knowing nothing weird will happen when you’re walking around the club in the middle of the night,” he added.
“It really isn’t about ostentatiousness or even showing off,” Allen said. “It’s about knowing that as you walk in and out, people will recognize you by name and by face.”
Allen will be moving to France soon for a work assignment and has switched to the Harvard Club of Boston, because of its wide reciprocal network.
Of course, private clubs are not for everyone, the Times noted. Children are not always welcome. Cellphone and laptop use is often permitted only in certain locations that are sometimes as small as a closet. Dress codes might prohibit jeans, flip-flops and baseball caps. Then there is the elitist history.
Campbell, the Brown alum, an African-American who hails from the Golden Isles of Georgia and is a first-generation college graduate, told the Times that none of this bothered him.
“The Hope Club was probably no blacks, no Jews at one point,” he said. (It was.) “But things have changed. You need to exercise your right to use those clubs and have access to them, because it’s a right that you’ve earned.
“It’s a sense of belonging someplace where you formerly did not belong and claiming it,” Campbell said. “It’s my form of protest, to be the black person who shows up.”
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