The Fitler Club, scheduled to open in early 2019, is being built in a former motor car factory on the edge of Philadelphia’s Center City downtown area and touted by its developers, few of whom have had any previous connection with the club business, as “the next evolution in private lifestyle club space.”
David Gutstadt and a slew of “Just the Right People” are betting that the staid old world of private clubs can be disrupted, Philadelphia magazine reported.
Gutstadt thinks he’s invented something new with what he’s planning as the Fitler Club, Philadelphia reported. The plans call for something posh yet casual, exclusive yet diverse, hedonistic yet philanthropic, and a one-stop shop for the modern urbanite to achieve personal and social fulfillment.
Gutstadt’s first step as he tries to sign up members, Philadelphia reported, is to talk a lot about his plans for the club and how it will distinguish itself in a market that includes the reinvented and again-thriving Union League of Philadelphia.
Gutstadt was recently given a chance, Philadelphia reported, to address a gathering of corporate and foundation executives from around the country that was sponsored by Philadelphia-based Comcast and dedicated to the region’s food and hospitality sector, “I want to take a couple minutes,” he said, “to talk about what we think is a really exciting project for the City of Philadelphia, and hopefully in the future bringing this to other cities around the country.”
“I am the founder … in a new venture called Fitler Club, [which] is what we believe is going to be the next evolution in the private lifestyle club space.”” Gutstadt continued.
“I actually came out of the hospitality space,” Gutstadt, a 42-year-old with an economics degree from Princeton who then spent two decades working with top investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, told the group. “I’m a 20-year hospitality veteran.”
About six years ago, Gutstadt continued, he was ready to leave the hospitality finance game and move to Philadelphia with his children and his wife, the former Julia Dranoff, whose father, Carl Dranoff, has filled a lot of Philadelphia space with apartments and condos. Shortly after the move, he added, he became a long-distance commuter, lured back to work in Manhattan by the CEO of the aggressively upscale fitness club operator Equinox and charged with developing a plan for the company’s move into hotels.
So, Gutstadt explained, he spent five years “racing around studying hotels.” Meanwhile, out of the corner of his eye, he was seeing the explosive growth of the co-working company WeWork, which would soon diversify its offerings by moving into housing, education and fitness.
Gutstadt was also noticing, Philadelphia reported, how hip private clubs like England’s Soho House were establishing successful outposts in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. It began to seem clear, he said, that people are increasingly willing to put more and more of how they experience their daily lives into the hands of trusted brands.
“Watching all this, I’m sitting at the pointy end of the spear and saying this is an unbelievable confluence of lifestyle and design and hospitality all coming together,” Gutstadt said. “Everyone gets to this moment in their life where the lightbulb goes off.”
And in that moment of enlightenment, Philadelphia reported, Gutstadt asked himself: What would the club of the future look like?
He then described the answer he gave to himself: “It’s got to have health and wellness. Because that’s important to people. Got to have great restaurants and social space. It’s got to be diverse and community-oriented. Everything the modern urbanite wants. We put in a co-working space. No one’s done that. What a great opportunity.”
The Philadelphia that he sees emerging, Gutstadt said, is clearly ready for such a place. “You collect 2,000 or 3,000 of the most interesting, influential leaders, connectors, influencers across all segments of Philadelphia. What do you have? You have a platform that can actually do good and effect change,” he said.
Philadelphia then reported on a tour that Gutstadt provided of the location he has selected to create the future in private club space. It is on the far western edge of the city’s downtown “Center City” area, on a landing outside a huge five-story concrete-and-brick building that was once a Hudson Motor Car factory.
Hudson disappeared in the late 1950s, Philadelphia reported, and the building was then adapted for other uses. For decades, it was called the Marketplace Design Center. Now, the original structure is undergoing a gut renovation, and a five-story, steel-and-glass box has been added on top, creating nearly 300,000 square feet of space to house the new international headquarters of Aramark Corporation.
Gutstadt hopes to open the Fitler Club early in 2019, Philadelphia reported. Pointing to a blueprint taped to a window in the construction site, he described plans for offices, a restaurant, private dining area, terrace, bar, a private area for investors, and a second restaurant.
Looking out of big windows that provide views of the Schuylkill River, a new riverside trail, the 30th Street train station and two modern new glass towers, Gutstadt asked, “What restaurant in Philly has these views? The bridges light up at night. You’ve got this beautiful landscaped promenade, like a mini-version of the High Line in New York.”
Continuing the tour, Gutstadt described plans for a plush, 50-seat movie theater that shares a hall with 14 five-star hotel rooms and suites. “Two floors down are the fitness and event space, a ballroom, a trophy room and a bowling alley,” he said. Plans also call for a climbing wall and a 75-foot lap pool. With his Equinox experience and personal interests, Philadelphia reported, Gutstadt plans to be very hands-on in the fitness center.
Early renderings of the design concepts, Philadelphia reported, show a sleek and modern look leaning toward Industrial Chic, with soft, muted furnishings playing off the brutal solidity of the exposed concrete building elements. But design will vary throughout.
“The whole story of the club revolves around this being your second home,” Gutstadt said. “Just like your home, there’ll be different areas. One might be industrial and edgy, another clubby and comfortable.”
The project’s design architect, Matthew Rosenberg, who lives in Los Angeles, told Philadelphia that the design concept is evolving as he gets to know this city better. “We’ve had to adjust our design sense,” he says, “and understand there’s history in the building and Philly that definitely doesn’t exist in L.A. More richness and texture … more old-school feel.
“Our goal is to get members to spend as much of their day there as possible, from breakfast in the morning to lunch to dinner at night,” Rosenberg added. “We want to curate their day from waking up till the time they go to bed in the hotel — keep them there and show them there’s a much higher level of experience by staying.” Details that the designer and Gutstadt work on, Philadelphia reported, range from how the surfaces look to what the door handles feel like to how each room smells.
Gutstadt described the ultimate goal for his concept in this fashion: “I would like each component of this club to be the best example of its kind,” he said. “Not just in Philadelphia, but really in the country. I want people to say: This is the greatest gym I’ve ever seen. This is the best restaurant experience I’ve ever had. And this is the best hotel room. Best private movie theater.
“If we’re thoughtful, I think we can achieve that,” he added. “Then we can take it other places. This could be the next billion-dollar idea for the membership club model.
“The day I gave notice [to Equinox] was the day I signed the letter of intent for the space I have right now,” Gutstadt said. “I had done a lot of concepting. We had done some programming and some layouts. It was like a night job. But the moment we hit the button and I had my agreement with the landlord and the main partner in the deal, I said, Okay, this is going to be it now.
“That was April 2017,” he said, “I started thinking about it seriously about nine months before that. Thinking, sketching, playing around — executive-summary-type stuff. But the concept — that was all just me.”
Philadephia’s report also quoted Michael Forman, a lawyer who in 2007 started an investment company, Franklin Square, that has grown in a decade to 300 employees, and has joined Gutstadt as a partner in the Fitler Club venture.
“One of the reasons David [Gutstadt] looked to me to be his partner is that I’ve had success and I have a pretty good network,” Forman told Philadelphia. “So we relied upon the network that I’ve relied upon and who has invested and had some success with me. And they’re the right kind of people. They are good Philadelphians.
“This is a for-profit venture, but we’re going to set aside a certain percentage of our income for philanthropy,” Forman added. “And we’re looking to do more than just a pure for-profit model.”
To buttress that idea, Philadelphia reported, Gutstadt turned to a friend in New York, Dan Bassichis, who now runs Admiral Capital, an investment company he started with David Robinson, the former basketball great with the San Antonio Spurs and U.S. Naval Academy. Robinson has spent his retirement years building inner-city schools, helping athletes transition back into the real world when their playing careers end, and giving other wealthy professionals a place to invest their money that has a philanthropic component.
Admiral Capital, Philadelphia reported, has not only put $4 million into Gutstadt’s Fitler Club concept (the second largest investment after Forman’s), it has helped to attract other celebrities from the sports and entertainment world, including several connected with the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Gutstadt has also been able to land a few well-known Philadelphians for operational roles, Philadelphia reported. Jeff Benjamin, a front-of-the-house guru who spent 20 years building a restaurant group with Marc Vetri and then sold most of it to URBN in 2016 for just under $20 million, will be Chief Operating Officer and oversee all hospitality components of the club.
Gutstadt has also landed a celebrity chef to oversee the food-and-beverage operations, former Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga, who was introduced to Gutstadt just as he was wearying of trying to make it in Philadelphia’s highly volatile and competitive restaurant scene.
“[Gutstadt] started telling me about this private club and hotel and restaurant and fitness thing,” Sbraga told Philadelphia, “and I’m just like, ‘Wow, I don’t know what to compare this to.’ It was really interesting. I think I was his first employee.”
Philadelphia reported that the common answer from most of the people involved with the development of the Fitler Club, when asked if they belonged to any clubs, was “No.”
“It would never come to my mind to go be part of a club,” Sbraga said. “Honestly, when [Gutstadt] first said it, it was hard to wrap my head around, because chefs don’t do that.”
Forman said that he belonged to a few golf clubs, but used them just for golf. He’d thought of joining the The Union League of Philadelphia, he added, but realized he’d probably never go there.
Philadelphia also spoke with a charter member of the Fitler Club, Amanda Branson Gill, a documentary film producer who came to town when her husband joined a technology venture capital firm in the city.
“We’ve lived in Philadelphia for 10 years,” Branson Gill said, “and it never occurred to us to join the Union League. The Union League is fine and a real institution that is an important part of the civic fabric of Philadelphia. But it’s not a place I would ever join.”
Philadelphia’s report on the Fitler Club acknowledged how the Union League is now thriving under the direction of General Manager Jeff McFadden, with a waiting list for membership and a broadened appeal thanks to recent additions of golf club campuses and dining venues outside the city and at the New Jersey shore.
“In some ways, [the Union League has] become the only game in town,” Forman told Philadelphia. “I remember the old Locust Club [but a] whole bunch of clubs have dissolved and consolidated into the Union League.
“I think there is an opportunity for the next generation,” Forman added. “And that’s what Fitler Club is—it’s the next generation of clubs. There’s room for the Union League to continue to thrive and for us to thrive by providing a little bit different experience. I think our amenities will be a little bit better, like the gym and hotel. The ballroom will be different and updated. Hopefully, we can succeed.”
David Gutstadt also talked politely about the Union League (of which Carl Dranoff is a member), Philadelphia reported. But Gutstadt believes, and is making a big bet, that “the new urbanites” represent an untapped market for the kind of place he’s trying to create.
As Gutstadt was conceiving Fitler Club, Philadelphia reported, it became clear to him that the resurgence of the urban private membership club had started in London, where a host of clubs have opened in the past few years.
So is Gutstadt also creating a club for people who would otherwise never join a club?
“I wouldn’t couch it like that,” he told Philadelphia. “I just think Fitler Club is designed for what we think the modern urbanite wants.
“We ask ourselves every day — who is our member?” he added. “We don’t have a sheet of paper that says, ‘Twenty-five percent will be males between ages 25 and 35.’
“In my mind, it’s a very organic process,” he added. “It’s not ‘Are you male, female, black, white, straight, gay?’ It’s ‘Do you identify with the culture and community and the design and the aesthetic — with the whole package?’ Health and wellness. Great food. Elevated design and art and culture programming. Do you want to be part of this great community that we’re going to build, that wants to have fun but is socially conscious and wants to give back to the city?”
With all that it will have to offer, however, the Fitler Club is going to cost thousands of dollars a year for even the lowest-priced membership, Philadelphia reported. (There is a plan to offer “scholarships” to people who are doing notable things in lower-paying professions.) The membership rolls will be limited (charter members were confirmed this spring), and from a practical standpoint, especially in the beginning, the club’s membership will no doubt consist largely of friends, and friends of friends, of people who have enough money to invest in the project.
So how does Gutstadt plan to create inclusivity in an inherently exclusive setting?
“There’s a push and pull,” he told Philadelphia, “of who determines who gets invited and who determines who gets in. It’s a private club; somebody has to be the gatekeeper. But we’ve tried very deliberately to be as diverse as we could be from an investor-group perspective.
“And then at the second tier, we’ve tried to proactively identify people who are the leaders in each of their fields — the best doctors, emerging artists, celebrities, leaders of nonprofits, major institutions, leaders in academia,” he added. “Business leaders are a lot easier to identify and easier to convince to join. But our commitment is that when we say we’re a club of leaders, connectors and influencers, it’s not just because they’re running a big company.”
Gutstadt told Philadelphia that preliminary membership pricing information plans to start Fitler Club dues “at $225 a month for a younger person.”
“That’s not crazy,” he said. “The Union League has a $7,500 initiation fee, and dues are $400 a month.” Fitler Club’s initiation fees will start at under $2,000, Philadelphia reported, and step up in roughly thousand-dollar increments depending on a members’ age, and monthly dues will follow a similar tiered structure.
To view renderings of the rooms and amenities planned for the Fitler Club, visit https://www.phillymag.com/news/2018/03/17/fitler-club-david-gutstadt/