How London’s private clubs weathered the Covid storm

Nine months after Metro Bank took control of The Conduit’s Mayfair site due to unpaid debts, the private members’ club is finalizing renovations to a rented building in the heart of Covent Garden, which is slated to open in August.

The club, new to London’s club land when it opened in 2018, teased its 3,000 members this week with an online discussion on Chinese human rights, before fully opening up its food and beverage outlets. meeting and working with clients who have adopted a hybrid way of life shared between the city and the outlying residences.

The Covent Garden site will also feature a bookstore with over 1,000 titles curated by staff at The Conduit and ‘The Fix’, a two-story space where members ‘take meetings and exchange ideas’.

The Conduit will provide a two-storey space where members will “have meetings and exchange ideas” © The Conduit

The opening offers new hope after a ruinous period for private clubs in London, which have had to deal with serial blockages and a drop in commuters, as well as the retention of foreign hotel workers , including those in Europe who have been restricted by immigration rules imposed since Brexit. .

In an email to its members last July, the Chelsea Arts Club, a 130-year-old creative club, said the crisis had already caused “catastrophic damage” to its finances and asked its members to they would provide “voluntary financial support”. ”.

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

“My bet is that just as human beings have adapted extraordinarily well to current circumstances, we will come back to a standard much faster than you might think. People yearn for the community and want to contact again, ”said Paul van Zyl, co-founder of The Conduit, whose basic membership costs £ 1,800 a year.

“We will be obsessed with hygiene, but community and closeness are more precious than ever. There is a real desire, ”he added.

Paul van Zyl: “People yearn for community and want contacts again” © The Conduit

Along with the rebirth of The Conduit, there are other glimmers of hope in the underground. Pavilion, which operates three clubs in London, plans to open a fourth venue in the coming weeks in Knightsbridge, while The Arts Club expands internationally with further openings planned in Los Angeles and Dubai ahead of the year. next.

Many traditional clubs have survived by giving members a reason to continue paying an annual membership fee while the premises are closed. Even the most historic venues, often with older members, have embraced Zoom wine tastings, conferences, and home food deliveries.

Remy Lyse, chief operating officer of the Arts Club, Mayfair, said during the lockdown he only lost about 3% more members than in a normal year by offering events online . These ranged from breakfast to virtual painting lessons and a podcast for members.

Has it reached the breakeven point over this period? “Some weeks yes, others no,” Lyse said.

The biggest challenge for clubs 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.

Even after hospitality venues were allowed to open indoors from May 17, attendance in London remained 28% below 2019 levels.

Most sites expect a substantial return from commuters no earlier than September, while international travel is unlikely to pick up significantly until fear of unknown variants entering the UK subsides.

Loyal members of the Army & Navy Club have helped the 184-year-old institution survive © Laurence Mackman / Alamy

The Army & Navy Club, a 184-year-old institution originally established for members of the armed forces, dubbed “The Rag,” said 93% of members have remained loyal and agreed to pay their annual membership to advance to give the club immediate access to funds.

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

Corporate event bookings were starting to pick up, he added, with army regimental dinners confirmed starting in September.

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

Soho House has grown to around 30 outlets and 100,000 members from its home London base over the past 26 years © Richard Chivers / View / Alamy

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

He is forecasting a listing in New York that could reach £ 3 billion, while new clubs in Austin, Tel Aviv and Rome are set to open this year.

Bidgood said he watched the progress of Soho House as the Army and Navy strived to become “a must-see for this younger audience. [rather than] that traditional element of clubs being old and stuffy with old people napping under the newspaper ”.

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

“There is always a financial angle but we are not motivated by the creation of many clubs. Less is more for me, ”said Lyse. “I’m sure things can work a little differently, but there is so much excitement that I think people will come back.”

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Nancy Owens

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