AAs much as we hate to admit it, we all like to feel a little superior from time to time, don't we? Like when you get a special message in gym class. Or get a free coffee from your barista. Or enter the club before the rest of the line. There is something deeply comforting about knowing that you are somehow separate from everyone else, that you have gained a special privilege, that you have been allowed to observe others from behind the velvet rope. That's why many people regularly spend thousands of pounds a year to do just that.

But the private club, a once highly sought-after seal of social approval, appears to be in decline. At least, that's the impression you get from the latest news about Soho House, the exclusive, arts-centric club founded by restaurateur Nick Jones in 1995. Over the weekend, a spokesperson refuted a report from GlassHouse Research that suggested the brand had expanded too quickly and left members experiencing a “decline in service quality.” Meanwhile, in December, the chain announced it would stop accepting new members in London, New York and Los Angeles, following complaints that the clubs were becoming too busy.

According to an article in The times, Soho House members have been having problems with the service for some time, with one person claiming to have canceled their membership because the chain “allowed so many new members in” that the clubs were becoming “overwhelmed”. Meanwhile, another former member who joined a decade ago told the publication that overcrowding at the bar in Babington House, Somerset, had become “mob-like”.

A local club membership starts at £850 a year, but rises to almost £3,000 a year for global access to the network's 41 clubs, which are located everywhere from Mexico and India to Turkey and Amsterdam. Frequented by the likes of Taylor Swift and Rita Ora – and the location chosen for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's first date – Soho House has long been associated with sophisticated celebrity clientele. It also seems unfazed by the latest headlines, stating in a statement to the New York Stock Exchange that it is “confident in the strength of its business and is focused on executing its strategy”.

But the GlassHouse report indicates that the once-prized members' club format may be going out of fashion overall. While new venues are opening all the time – see The Twenty Two in Mayfair and The Pavillion in Knightsbridge – many are clinging to life, if not already extinct. In 2021, The Conduit's Mayfair site was seized by Metro bank because of unpaid debts – it soon announced plans to open a new site in Covent Garden. That same year, the 130-year-old Chelsea Arts Club sent an email to its members asking for “voluntary financial support” in light of the strains imposed by lockdown. According to a report from the Financial TimesOf the 103 member clubs in London operating during the pandemic, seven have already closed.

The Ned, which Soho House opened in 2017

(Shutterstock/Chrispictures)

And still, more continue to open every year. I’ve lost count of the number of times friends have suggested meeting at a “hot new members’ club” they’ve just joined. What began as a sexist and classist institution for men – gentlemen's clubs reserved for the upper classes began to emerge in the 18th century – has become ubiquitous in cities around the world. Offering access to the upper echelons of whatever industry appeals (clubs tend to focus on specific workplaces), often with the option of food, accommodation and even a gym and a lively nightlife, the modern members' club It's certainly attractive. But is it exclusive? And how could it be when there's a new one opening every week (trust me; I get the press releases)?

All the recent furore around Soho House begs the question: in 2024, what's the point of a members' club? If you live in London, it is undoubtedly much more difficult to get into some of the best restaurants than it is to get into a private club. Hotspots like Sessions Arts House, Rita's, Mountain and The Devonshire are practically fortresses unless you know someone who knows someone. And if your incentive is to be somewhere other people aren't, you're better off trying to get into one of those places than a membership club.

It seems to me that some of the established clubs, like The Groucho, opened in 1985, represent a relic of another, more libertine era. Attended by famous partygoers like Kate Moss and the Gallagher brothers, clandestine bacchanalia used to be synonymous with a members' club. But I'm not so sure that exists anymore, especially when you look at the branding around some of the latest members' clubs opening in London today.

There’s The Other House in South Kensington, which has a major focus on wellbeing – there’s a “vitality pool”, for example. Surrenne, a new opening from the Maybourne Group (owner of Claridge's and The Connaught), has a “longevity clinic” and a pool that includes a sound system for in-water mediation. Although the recently opened Upstairs at Langan's has a beautiful bar with a small dance floor, on weekends everything closes at 2am. Isn't that when the party should start?

If you live in London, it is undoubtedly much more difficult to get into some of the best restaurants than it is to get into a private club.

It's hard to say what the future holds for the club of not-so-humble members. Will our wellness-obsessed society eliminate the hedonistic hideaways of the past? Is it just a matter of time before the hottest private club is actually a juice clinic or fasting retreat?

It seems we have come a long way from the purpose for which the membership club was created. Gone are the days of trying to buy your way into some dark corner to carry out darker deeds with impunity. You might be able to have more fun at a private club than, say, the local pub. But does it make a lot of sense to try to keep anything behind closed doors when all the people on the other side are doing is, erm, getting an LED facial? We have beauty clinics for that.

Then there is the mere proliferation of all this. Of course, we all want to feel something when we show our membership card to an arrogant receptionist, watching her hostility change to pseudo-warmth within seconds. And I'm sure there will always be those who are willing to spend their money to validate the fact that they consider themselves special. But one has to ask how special it is to be part of something that is rapidly expanding, giving everyone the illusion of superiority without actually making anyone superior.

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