London’s private clubs dig deep after Covid storm

Nine months after Metro Bank seized control of The Conduit’s Mayfair venue over unpaid debt, the private members’ club is finalising renovations on a leased building at the heart of Covent Garden, due to open by August.

The club, a new entrant to London’s “club land” when it opened in 2018, teased back its 3,000 members this week with an online discussion on Chinese human rights, before fully opening its catering, meeting and work spaces to a clientele that has adopted a hybrid lifestyle split between the city and out-of-town homes.

The Covent Garden site will also feature a bookshop with more than 1,000 titles curated by The Conduit staff and “The Fix”, a space spread over two floors where members “take meetings and exchange ideas”.

The opening offers fresh hope after a ruinous period for London’s private members’ clubs, which have struggled with serial lockdowns and falling commuter numbers, as well as retention of foreign hospitality workers, including those from Europe who have been restricted by immigration rules imposed since Brexit.

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The Conduit will provide a space spread over two floors where members ‘take meetings and exchange ideas’ © The Conduit

In an email to its members last July, Chelsea Arts Club, a 130-year-old club aimed at creative people, said the crisis had already wrought “catastrophic damage” on its finances and asked members if they would give some “voluntary financial support”.

Of the 103 members clubs in London before the pandemic, seven, including The Conduit, have closed. Others include Soho members’ club Milk & Honey and The Hospital Club, rebranded “h Club”, which focused on catering to the music and entertainment sector, and also shut its sister venue in Los Angeles.

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“My bet is that in the same way as human beings adapted extraordinarily well to the current circumstances, we’ll revert to a norm far quicker than you think. People are longing for community and want contact again,” said Paul van Zyl, co-founder of The Conduit, whose basic membership costs £1,800-a-year.

“We’ll be obsessive around hygiene, but community and proximity are more valuable than ever. There’s a real yearning,” he added.

Paul van Zyl
Paul van Zyl: ‘People are longing for community and want contact again’ © The Conduit

Alongside The Conduit’s rebirth, there are other glimmers of hope in clubland. Pavilion, which operates three clubs in London, is planning to open a fourth venue in the coming weeks in Knightsbridge, while The Arts Club is expanding internationally with new openings planned in Los Angeles and Dubai before next year.

Many traditional clubs have survived by giving members a reason to continue paying an annual subscription while premises were shut. Even the most historic venues, often with older members, have embraced Zoom wine tastings, talks and home food deliveries.

Remy Lyse, chief operating officer of The Arts Club, Mayfair, said that during lockdown it had only lost about 3 per cent more members than in a normal year by offering online events. These ranged from breakfast talks, to virtual painting classes and a podcast for members.

Did it break even over this period? “Some weeks it did, some weeks it didn’t,” Lyse said.

The biggest challenge now for clubs located in and around St James’, Mayfair and Soho, an area renowned for its historic members’ institutions, will be the slow return to offices, lack of corporate events and international travel.

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Even after hospitality venues were permitted to open indoors from May 17, footfall across London has remained at 28 per cent below 2019 levels.

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Most venues expect a substantial return of commuters in September at the earliest, while international travel looks unlikely to resume significantly until fear of unknown variants entering the UK subsides.

the Army & Navy Club
The loyal membership of the Army & Navy Club allowed the 184-year-old institution to survive © Laurence Mackman/Alamy

The Army & Navy Club, a 184-year-old institution originally established for members of the armed forces, nicknamed “The Rag”, said 93 per cent of members had stayed loyal and agreed to pay their annual membership up front to give the club immediate access to funds.

Robin Bidgood, chief executive, said trading had been around a third of normal levels throughout the pandemic, with a small number of members using the club as a permanent residence and for essential business travel.

Corporate event bookings were beginning to resume, he added, with army regimental dinners confirmed from September.

Many older clubs with ageing memberships have noted the rapid expansion and popularity of Soho House, which has grown to roughly 30 outlets and 100,000 members from its original London base over the past 26 years.

Soho House on Dean Street
Soho House has grown to about 30 outlets and 100,000 members from its original London base over the past 26 years © Richard Chivers/View/Alamy

During the pandemic, it invested heavily in an app for members and new offers such as its “Cities Without Houses” scheme, which offers access to online events, discounts and networking.

It is planning a New York listing that could be valued as high as £3bn, while new clubs in Austin, Tel Aviv and Rome are being prepared to open this year.

Bidgood said he has watched Soho House’s progress as the Army & Navy works to become “a go to place for that younger audience [rather than] that traditional element of clubs being old and stuffy with ancient people having a snooze under the newspaper”.

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But, he warned, clubs must be careful not to become “five-star hotels with members” as the opportunity for clubs is to maintain a personal relationship with clients.

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“There is always a financial angle but we are not driven by making plenty of clubs. Less is more for me,” said Lyse. “I’m sure things may work slightly differently but there is so much excitement that I think people will come back.”

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