When Nick Jones, the founder of Soho House, the chain of swank private member clubs, began plotting his invasion of Hong Kong more than a decade ago, he never could have predicted how bad the timing of its actual debut would be. The city, a former colony of the British Crown, was home to a booming economy, and a thriving urban creative elite — the type to which the London-based club has long catered. Meanwhile, the 50-year “one country, two systems” deal under which Great Britain had transferred sovereignty back to China wasn’t set to expire until 2047.
By the time Jones and his team were putting the finishing touches on their gleaming new outpost — at 120,000 square feet, the largest in the company’s portfolio, and its first in East Asia — in the summer of 2019, the situation looked a little more complicated. A proposed new extradition law had sparked a pro-democracy movement. Mass demonstrations erupted on a weekly basis, with police responding in force and tear gas hanging in the air. Demonstrators stormed the city’s Legislative Council.
Meanwhile, workers were installing the new Soho House’s karaoke stage and boxing ring. They filled the swimming pool, the burbling centerpiece of the club’s solarium-like 30th floor, stocked the swim-up bar with plenty of reposado tequila (key ingredient in the club’s signature cocktail, the picante), and dangled a mirrored ball from the ceiling.
Jones, a ruddy, affable 57-year-old, seemed characteristically unruffled. In a September 2019 interview with WWD, he noted that his Istanbul club, which occupies the former U.S. consulate, had opened shortly before the 2016 coup attempt.
Within a month of that article, the coronavirus was likely already circulating in central China. Jones had planned a mid-February visit to check on the progress, but as the trip approached, it became clear that the new virus had the makings of a global catastrophe, with cases cropping up not only in Hong Kong but in London as well. A month later, his glittering new showpiece in Sheung Wan lay empty.
It’s been a devastating year for the leisure and hospitality industries. Hotel occupancy rates remain at historic lows, and the tourism business is not expected to return to pre-Covid levels until 2024. In-person dining and drinking — which made up nearly half of Soho House’s revenue in 2019 — are faring even worse, with more than 110,000 restaurants (or one in six) having closed in the U.S. since the crisis began.
Soho House, which operates 27 clubs, or “houses,” around the world, from Chicago to Mykonos and West Hollywood to Mumbai, as well as a host of restaurants, day spas, coworking spaces, and two cinemas, has struggled like all the rest. As of now, 16 locations are closed, 11 are operating at reduced capacity, and the company’s public restaurants are similarly compromised. Though membership dues have provided a cushion — the club continued to collect quarterly fees, which can top $900, converting them to credits for later use — it was forced to lay off 1,000 employees of the 8,000 total. Many more were furloughed. (And that was even with a $22 million PPP loan.) A Brooklyn Soho Works coworking space — another one of the company’s new gambits — that opened in September 2020 closed shortly thereafter.
“The reason for Soho House’s existence is to bring people together,” notes Rafat Ali, founder and CEO of the travel trade publication Skift. “So I think it’s probably a lot worse for them than a lot of other hospitality companies. It’s probably hit them right in the bull’s-eye.”
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That certainly seems to be the case one afternoon in early January when I visit Dumbo House. The Brooklyn space is done up in an effortlessly stylish yet homey aesthetic, all layered textures and jewel-like tones, the lighting subtly flattering, the armchairs enveloping and plentiful. Uniformed cooks stand in a spotless open kitchen, listlessly prepping ingredients for what passes in pandemic days for a dinner rush. Stepping out onto the rooftop terrace, I take in a stunning view of the Brooklyn Bridge — so close you could almost fling an avocado toast onto the Manhattan-bound lanes — and ponder my poor luck: I’m finally inside this exclusive club, nearly two decades after Jones’ celebrity magnet first touched down in New York City, and I’m practically the only one here.
Appraising the empty rooms, it’s almost impossible to picture the spirited party scene I’ve heard so much about. I spent the previous day glued to my phone screen as a mob of far-right militants stormed the U.S. Capitol. Earlier in the week, British PM Boris Johnson invoked another nationwide lockdown following the discovery of a supercharged new coronavirus variant. With society itself seemingly dancing on a cliff’s edge, the club’s handful of patrons — sipping cocktails in the fading daylight or staring numbly at their screens — strike me as the dazed remnant of a once-mighty civilization.
It’s an upscale archipelago, a hotel chain, a snug garrison for a pampered urban elite, a restaurant group, a digital play, a celebrity refuge, a coworking juggernaut, a royal love nest, a lifestyle brand, an elitist throwback, a gated community, and a state of mind.
All of this explains why the recent news that the 26-year-old company has retained JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley to stage a public offering has raised eyebrows. The London-based company, majority-owned by supermarket tycoon Ron Burkle, is said to be aiming for a $3 billion valuation, after two rounds of funding totaling $200 million in the last two years set a $2 billion valuation. Due in part to its imperial ambitions (six new houses are set to open this year), the company reported losses of $120 million in 2019 (on $400 million in revenues), while renegotiating an unpaid $480 million loan from a British private equity firm.
“Those numbers are quite striking to me,” observes investment banker Euan Rellie, co-founder of BDA Partners and a lifetime Soho House member. “Even before the pandemic, it was losing nearly 30% of its total revenues. 100 million pounds in pre-tax losses a year is a big, big number.”
Rellie, an unflagging fixture at Soho House in New York’s Meatpacking District since its opening in 2003, is full of praise for the club’s “understated glamour” and “very, very slightly disreputable” charm. Nevertheless, he is strikingly unsentimental when discussing business fundamentals, including the seemingly precarious financial state of his beloved sanctuary (his knowledge of which, he clarifies, is based purely on published reports). Soho House looks to be “quite a risky financial endeavor,” he says bluntly. “To be building a business that big, that’s losing money, owes lots of money, is borrowing lots of money, and is nowhere near making a profit — it doesn’t sound at first blush like a wonderful investment opportunity.”
The club scene was in rough shape even before the pandemic — why nurse a drink in the corner when you can just swipe right? — and for many nightspots, Covid represented a mournful last call. Those that have managed to hang on, however, are eagerly anticipating a remunerative comeback — a liberating, champagne-soaked, hedonistic mass-awakening. “People will go mad,” Jones recently predicted about post-pandemic life, no doubt imagining the considerable pent-up social energy among his members, to say nothing of the piles of unspent stimulus money burning holes in their Vuitton totes.
That said, Soho House is not just a party palace. It’s an upscale archipelago, a hotel chain, a snug garrison for a pampered urban elite, a restaurant group, a digital play, a celebrity refuge, a coworking juggernaut, a royal love nest, a lifestyle brand, an elitist throwback, a gated community, and a state of mind.
What it maybe isn’t any longer, according to longtime members and employees who fell in love with the place during its heyday, is a singularly cozy clubhouse, a swaddling Cheers for the beautiful people, a hang away from home. As the company spread its tentacles around the world, a new sort of British empire, it inevitably transformed into something less personal and intimate. It scaled. It propagated. It turned into a business. Whether it’s a $3 billion business is a matter for the market to decide, and its judgment may be just around the corner.
Jones insists the company has refocused, that it’s taken the opportunity afforded by Covid to improve the member experience, sand down the rough spots, rein in costs, and return to first principles, leaving Soho House in an ideal position to prosper in a post-pandemic world — a world in which a slightly faded brand suddenly seems newly relevant, in which investors cheerfully disregard a heavy debt load, old market fundamentals fall by the wayside, and the travel and leisure industries flourish anew. A world in which masks are discarded, picantes flow like water, pools are packed, and guest rooms booked solid.
Who knows? A global pandemic might just be the best thing ever to happen to Soho House.
It was nearly 2 p.m. in London, and ITV news presenter Kirsty Young was on her way to the set when her phone buzzed. It was her husband, Nick Jones, calling to alert her to a breaking news story. An ambitious restaurateur, Jones was at that moment on a visit to New York City to advance a risky new gambit — his boldest since the failure of his high-concept burger joint, Over the Top (named for the selection of inventive sauces that customers could order slathered atop their patties), a decade before.
In the intervening years, Jones had opened a modest French bistro in a townhouse on London’s Greek Street, followed by a private club upstairs: the first Soho House. Advertised as a place for creative types in the media and film worlds to congregate, network, and let their hair down, Soho House was conceived as a more casual, artsy answer to more rakish members-only nightspots like Blacks and the media-centric Groucho Club. In comparison, recalls Ben Widdicombe, a veteran society and gossip columnist, who lived in London at the time, “Soho House was a little more respectable, a little sleeker,” albeit without the pretensions of the unimpeachably aristocratic Annabel’s.
A few years later, Jones purchased Babington House, a Georgian manor set on 18 acres in Somerset, and converted it into a posh country retreat for Soho House members. Another branch in Notting Hill opened shortly thereafter.
Even so, establishing a settlement in the New World was a far more challenging endeavor. And it appeared considerably more so on that morning in 2001, when Jones’ breakfast at a SoHo café was interrupted by the thunderous sound of a passenger jet slamming into the World Trade Center’s north tower. He immediately dialed his wife, and shortly after the second plane hit, Young’s producers got Jones on the phone again for a live interview. Asked to describe the scene, he told her, “Everyone’s out on the street, everyone’s out on their rooftops, everyone’s on their mobile phones. I don’t think anyone can quite believe what’s happened.”
Shortly thereafter, the towers came down.
As for his new club, Jones says he never had any second thoughts about moving forward with the plan. “I fell in love with New York even more,” he says.
He’d come to town to genuflect before the local community board, which to his surprise, met as scheduled that week. Whatever objections local residents might have had to the presence of another nightspot in New York’s Meatpacking District, home to now-legendary if seedy watering holes like Mother and Hogs & Heifers, no one spoke in opposition.
A little more than a year later, on an evening in November, Jones assembled a group of 60 family and friends for what he termed a “hard hat dinner.” Aside from the kitchen and the bar, the club was still largely an empty shell, save for the Swarovski crystal chandeliers, reclaimed wood beams, and trestle tables piled with floral arrangements. The elevator was out of commission, so guests tromped up five flights.
Cachet was what Jones was selling, and as he quickly confirmed, his adopted city was starved for it.
Rellie remembers seeing Jones on his hands and knees spiffing up the steps with a rag even as town cars were pulling up to the curb. Fashion publicist Alice Ryan, another British transplant who’d been enlisted to help oversee member recruitment for the new club, compared the high-wattage crowd to an exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s. Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke were there, as were Alan Cumming, Griffin Dunne, Jane Rosenthal, Robert DeNiro, Julianne Moore, Fisher Stevens, and Graydon Carter. (Though the Vanity Fair editor had famously declared the “end of the age of irony” following the 9/11 attacks, he hadn’t said a word about nightlife.) David Bowie and Iman showed up, too. Standing on the roof after dinner, gazing out across the city’s wounded skyline, the rocker expressed his hearty approval. “I like the idea,” he said. “Can I buy the whole club?” Jones gently suggested he become an investor instead, which he promptly did.
At some point during the hard hat party, guests were asked to write down the names of a few friends, who would go on to form the core of the membership roster. That left thousands of additional spots, though, and a committee was formed to begin the painstaking work of arthroscopic social surgery, separating those who’d make the cut from the far greater number who wouldn’t. That divide-and-conquer strategy didn’t sit well with everyone, particularly those who found themselves excluded. In light of the terrorist attacks, the notion of a private club — run by Brits, no less — struck some as unacceptably elitist, a betrayal of the city’s newfound spirit of fellowship.
“It’s a national myth that America is not about class,” says Widdicombe, author of the recent memoir Gatecrasher, about his adventures as a party columnist. “You can debate whether that’s actually true all day long, but nobody debates that America, and especially New York, is about money.” That said, Widdicombe adds, “money doesn’t necessarily bring you cachet.” Cachet was what Jones was selling, and as he quickly confirmed, his adopted city was starved for it.
Soho House was hardly the first members-only social club in New York. The Knickerbocker and the Metropolitan, for instance, have each provided a gated haven to high-born gentlemen for more than a century, but they did so quietly, and with a fusty, timeworn aura. Soho House was downtown; it was cool. Critically, it welcomed women in equal numbers. And it seemed to be in the news constantly, particularly after a 2002 incident at the London flagship when the two-year-old daughter of Jude Law and Sadie Frost, there to attend a birthday party for the child of Supergrass’ drummer, consumed half an ecstasy tablet she found on the floor. She was fine, but the Fleet Street tabloids leapt on the story. The local council imposed a series of stringent guidelines on the club (flat surfaces were removed from bathrooms, for instance), and an aura of debauchery attached itself indelibly to the brand. “It wasn’t bad for business,” Jones later acknowledged. (A more grisly tabloid firestorm erupted in 2010 when fashion designer Sylvie Cachay was found dead in a hotel room bathtub at the Meatpacking District location, murdered by her boyfriend.)
“Nick wanted to ensure that it was creative New Yorkers: managers, agents, publicists, models, great hair and makeup people, playwrights, artists, philanthropists, fashion writers, political figures, dynamic CEOs, musicians, celebrities.”
Deciding who made the membership cut in New York fell to a committee of 17, who met roughly every month in the club’s “library” (lined, cheekily, with bookshelf wallpaper). In addition to Ryan and Rellie, members included actors Dunne, Stevens, and Piper Perabo, model Jamie King, filmmaker Stephen Daldry, socialite Amanda Brooks, and Vogue features director Eve MacSweeney. Tellingly, the group included not a single person of color. (Jones insists that while “we haven’t always got it right, we’re making a huge effort to get it right now,” pointing to Dumbo House and Downtown L.A.’s Soho Warehouse in particular as having a more “diverse and interesting” crowd.)
The committee’s brief was simple, Ryan says, “Nick wanted to ensure that it was creative New Yorkers: managers, agents, publicists, models, great hair and makeup people, playwrights, artists, philanthropists, fashion writers, political figures, dynamic CEOs, musicians, celebrities, et cetera. The most phenomenal ensemble cast.” Debates sometimes became heated, particularly when applicants were seen as pretentious, rude, or overeager. Mariah Carey was summarily “waitlisted” — a perpetual purgatory, often equivalent to a rejection. Events doyenne Peggy Siegal and magazine publisher Jason Binn slipped in, but not without some strenuous lobbying.
Jones flew in from London for the meetings, during which he peppered participants with questions, soaking up information about the local customs, leading characters, and peculiar cultural practices. He blanched at the relentless self-promotion exhibited by certain aspirants, but Ryan assured him it was simply the American way. “People would write unbelievably self-congratulatory letters about how staggeringly impressive and wonderful they were,” she recalls. “It would almost be comical. It worked for some and it didn’t work for all.”
The Meatpacking location officially opened for business in June, and it was an instant media sensation. Before the year was out, it had become a major plot point on Sex and the City (Samantha, furious over being wait-listed, sneaks in under a member’s name). By that time, it was already clear that Jones’ bet had paid off. The collective spirit that had blossomed in the aftermath of 9/11 had by then given way to patriotic chest-thumping (bombs began falling on Baghdad in March) and pervasive anxiety, and after a brief time-out, the city’s eternal scramble for social dominion was back in full effect.
“New York is built on the idea of exclusivity,” notes Joey Jalleo, former EVP of Strategy for André Balazs Properties, who helped create the Boom Boom Room. “And that creates demand, it creates want. I think they hit a real nerve in New York at a time when there was so much money and everyone was clamoring to be ‘in’ somewhere.”
Unlike other trendy dining spots, where you might wait weeks for a reservation, at Soho House, “I could just sit down and feel a little bit special — in a town that doesn’t always make you feel special,” says a talent agent who belongs to the West Hollywood house. “You feel like you have a little extra shine on you.”
For those who made it past reception, the club felt like a boozy cocoon, safe from the color-coded threat alerts, shoe bombers, anthrax fiends, and gas-station snipers that haunted our dreams.
As New York membership slots dwindled, a faint air of desperation set in, like a game of musical chairs played with poolside chaises. “I think some of the PR people on the committee were admitting their own clients,” recalls one committee member who requested anonymity. “I don’t know if people sponsored potential members for money, but they definitely traded favors.”
That said, it wasn’t FOMO alone that fueled Soho House’s conquest of New York. For those who made it past reception, the club felt like a boozy cocoon, safe from the color-coded threat alerts, shoe bombers, anthrax fiends, and gas-station snipers that haunted our dreams. New Yorkers needed comforting, and for the fortunate few, Soho House provided it.
That cosseting instinct was the goal from the beginning. “We all love walking into a place and someone saying, ‘Hi, Nick, would you like your regular table and your regular whatever?’” Jones says. Adds one former employee who has worked at Houses around the world, including the London flagship, “We used to really spoil [the members], and that makes the job fun. You would have leeway to bring people drinks or let them bring in extra guests. It never felt like a job. It was just socializing.”
Rellie still relishes the memory of a night he spent soaking up the vibe of the London club prior to the New York opening. He and several buddies were slumped on their chairs, exhausted, after a night of drinking. At around 4 a.m., he recalls, the waitress approached their table. “‘You guys look pretty worn out,’ she said. ‘I tell you what, how about if I go see if the kitchen can rustle up some bacon sandwiches to help you get a second wind?’” The gesture made a lasting impression. “I remember thinking,” Rellie says. “Wow, these guys really know how to look after you.”
Having established a foothold in New York, Jones returned his attention to London. He purchased Cecconi’s, an Italian standby in Mayfair, which he promptly updated (it’s now a global chain). Houses opened in Shoreditch and Chiswick. In the meantime, however, the Manhattan location somehow developed an identity crisis. Increasingly, it seemed, the place had been invaded by pinstripes. On some nights, the pool room, a prized redoubt for clandestine smokers, took on the shouty atmosphere of a frat house rec room. Legions of finance types who wouldn’t know a creative thought if it garrotted them with a Ferragamo necktie had snuck onto the list. “The place became, like, bankers and a bunch of secretaries who wanted to bone the bankers,” recalls a founding member who’s since moved on.
Jones well knew cachet is a delicate thing. Tastes are fleeting. In 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, rubbing elbows with Wall Streeters seemed more like a punishment than a privilege. First, signage went up declaring a new dress code: no suits and ties allowed. But it soon became clear that the problem was more than cosmetic. One former staff member recalls stumbling across a member entertaining two sex workers in the cinema. “He had the coke all racked up,” the staffer recalls. “It was like walking onto the set of a really awful porn.” The member was put on suspension.
What followed was a purge of the membership rolls so merciless and messy that it brought to mind the slaughterhouses that gave the area its name. Staff members called it Bloody Sunday. In all, some 500 members received letters graciously thanking them for their patronage and informing them that a renewal would not be forthcoming.
There was some collateral damage. One source recalls the story of a wealthy real estate investor whose dismissal infuriated his wife, a prominent philanthropist and museum trustee. “They fucked up,” the source recalls. “They wanted to keep her, and she’s like, ‘I’m out, fuck you.’”
As for all those bankers, Jones eventually came up with a fix for the problem — giving them a separate home of their own. In 2017, he opened The Ned in London, a hotel, eight restaurants, and a private club with members drawn exclusively from the U.K.’s financial hub. Memberships go for more than $4,000 a year, plus a $1,000 initiation fee — but they won’t get you into Soho House.
The 2009 Wall Street bloodletting made for favorable press — finally, the architects of the financial crash were getting their comeuppance! — which coincided somewhat fortuitously with the next stage of Soho House’s westward expansion. Jones had spent five years plotting his assault on L.A., whetting the Industry’s appetite with annual Oscar week pop-ups that far outclassed the usual award’s week brand offerings. In 2010, Soho House West Hollywood opened for business on the top two floors of a nondescript commercial office building on the far west end of Sunset Boulevard.
Except for one hiccup (a class-action lawsuit over unpaid overtime), the L.A. incursion was deemed a success, and Jones eventually followed up with two additional SoCal houses, one downtown and another right on the shore in Malibu. Meanwhile, over the next decade, the company embarked on a global blitz, opening in Berlin, Miami, Toronto, Chicago, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Mykonos, and Mumbai.
In early 2020, reports from the Hong Kong team gave Jones and his colleagues a head start in planning for the emerging pandemic. The coronavirus outbreak became “an every day, every hour conversation,” he says. “Did I ever think the next year was going to turn out the way it did? No.”
As cities around the world went into shutdown, Jones watched powerlessly as an empire he’d spent 25 years building shut down, house by house, in the space of a month. “I did feel ‘holy shit,’ every day,” he says. Even so, he says the notion that the business might fold never occurred to him. In part, that’s because he’s a congenital optimist, who couldn’t quite bring himself to imagine that the crisis would last as long as it has. But he had bet the house on the web of relationships he’s assembled and nurtured over the years. “We have very supportive shareholders and a very loyal membership and a very brilliant staff who stood by us,” he says.
As the situation became increasingly dire, Jones gathered his leadership team. “We all sat in a room and said, ‘Right, are we going to mope around, or are we gonna get better?’ If companies haven’t taken this opportunity to get better, it’s a wasted opportunity.”
The company renegotiated loan terms, rental agreements, and supplier contracts. The executive team took a 40% pay cut — money that went to an emergency fund for struggling staff members that has distributed $900,000 to date. Other workers saw their pay rolled back by 20%. Jones says that out of 110,000 members around the world, only 10,000 canceled or froze their memberships.
Now, after more than a year of socializing put on ice, Soho House is gunning for global domination.
Meanwhile, the company took the opportunity to refine its focus. The digital group, which consists of 50 developers based in London, along with teams in Eastern Europe and India, compressed its timeline for a reintroduction of the Soho House app. The “Shapp,” the cringey name they’ve given the product, was an attempt to create a “digital Soho House,” which included a tool for online bookings, a digital wallet to allow for frictionless payments (no more waiting for that check), a virtual bulletin board, and encrypted text, audio, and video communications among members. Overall, the digital efforts have set them back a reported $80 million — but can now do things like create the virtually serendipitous audio group chat vibe similar to Clubhouse. “You can search for other members, be connected, or create a group based around a common theme,” explains CTO Raj Dhawan. “If you walk into a house, say you’re traveling to Berlin, and want to meet fellow members, you can flag that you’re open for a drink.”
Now, after more than a year of socializing put on ice, Soho House is gunning for global domination. In this improbable moment, on top of its 27 locations around the world, the company is planning to spin out six new hubs in 2021, including a massive new space on London’s Strand, and new branches in Rome, Paris, Tel Aviv, Austin, and Canouan in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Also on the drawing board are Manchester, Glasgow, Brighton, Palm Springs, Napa Valley, Philadelphia, Portland, Stockholm, Nashville, Tulum, Tokyo, Sydney, and Melbourne. A stateside version of Soho Farmhouse, a sprawling Arcadian retreat in the Cotswolds, is reportedly planned for Rhinebeck, New York. With each new house, the value of a premium globetrotting “Every House” membership increases, as do the opportunities for members to book hotel rooms in far-flung locales while remaining safely ensconced in their comfort zones.
At the heart of Soho House’s business lies a delicate alchemy: identifying enough of the right customers to make a profit while turning away the majority — or, consigning them to the waitlist — so as to maintain that all-important sense of exclusivity. Trying to scale such a business is practically oxymoronic.
That isn’t stopping Jones, who’s been on a tear to spin out the brand in seemingly every direction imaginable. They introduced something called Cities Without Houses, which allows those with the misfortune to live in one of 40-odd burgs too uncool for a clubhouse of their own to join up anyway, at a reduced price. This concept was driven, according to one former employee, by a budget shortfall. “It’s the least sexy thing I can think of to call something,” the former staffer says, “but it was just a way of getting more members.” (Soho House calls the claim “incorrect,” citing “member demand” as the reason for introducing the new tier.)
This past October, with Covid raging, the company introduced yet another membership tier, Soho Friends, which Jones characterizes as a way for the company to get to know the 70% of Soho House customers who are not House members but visit as guests, or patronize the restaurants or spas. Friends are allowed to book hotel rooms (no longer an option for the general public), attend events (Mussels Monday, anyone?), access portions of the Shapp, and at select Houses, hang around in “the studio,” which basically sounds like a sub-VIP anteroom or glorified lobby. That said, $13.33 per month seems a little steep for the privilege of being constantly reminded you’re not really sitting at the cool-kids table. “Is It Just Us Or Is Soho House’s New ‘Friends’ Membership Super Shady?” social journal Guest of a Guest wondered.
There are other revenue streams as well. The Soho House chain of day spas, known as Cowshed, markets its own product line, including a scented candle ($58) and shower gel ($45). And in 2016, the company launched Soho Home, a line of home furnishings “designed to mirror the look and feel of our Soho Houses around the world,” as the website puts it.
And then there’s Soho Works, the company’s bid for a slice of the coworking pie. In 2015, around the time WeWork was raising money at a $5 billion valuation, Soho House opened a coworking space of its own in Shoreditch, London. Like most of the company’s initiatives, Jones says, the move was prompted by the members themselves, who were increasingly using the spaces — or irritated by people using the spaces — to conduct business.
“You’re huddled around a computer looking at brand strategies, and there’s like models walking around in bathing suits, going to the pool on a Tuesday. Suddenly, at like 4:30, there’s a DJ setting up right next to your head.”
As the so-called creator economy amped up, the houses began to resemble “a student Starbucks,” as Rellie puts it. “People would go there and just literally stay with a laptop for the whole day.” Tangles of chargers bloomed from scarce electrical outlets. Corridors and stairwells became prime real estate, as members, forbidden from taking phone calls in the main seating areas, jockeyed for space.
“It became my office,” admits one Dumbo House member who runs her own small marketing firm. On average, she camped out there four days a week, often with a few employees in tow. The location was catnip for prospective clients, who were thrilled to be invited for a peek behind the curtain, and the rent couldn’t be beat. That said, there were some downsides. “You’re huddled around a computer looking at brand strategies, and there’s like models walking around in bathing suits, going to the pool on a Tuesday,” she says. Unsurprisingly, the workday often ended early. “Suddenly, at like 4:30, there’s a DJ setting up right next to your head.”
Meanwhile, the sight of all those pitch decks took a toll on the clubs’ carefully constructed ambience, and veterans began voicing their disapproval. One, Archer Adams, a former music executive and luxury umbrella purveyor, not only canceled his membership but published an open letter of complaint in a London style magazine. “Walking into Soho House today, one is immediately confronted with a plethora of solo, individual members working on laptops and texting on their phones,” he sniffed, addressing Jones personally. “Most interactions appear to be business meetings.”
Jones, who says he had originally encouraged members to work out of the houses, admits “it got out of balance.” Now, for an additional fee starting at $200 per month, members who want a workspace will be asked to make use of one of the various Soho Works locations instead (there are currently nine with more on the way). “We see Soho Works as another great platform for our members, to help them grow and flourish,” Jones says.
Still, it wasn’t just the plethora of laptops that alienated Adams. Although he didn’t respond to a request for comment and his post recently disappeared from the internet, a cached version reads like a laundry list of the various tensions inherent in transforming what began as a cozy, high-touch, bacon-sandwiches-at-dawn experience into a global megabrand. He grouses about members’ events that seem more like sales presentations, and marketing emails pushing Soho Home furniture offerings. Soho House, he declares, has become “deeply uncool,” “an international McDonalds for rich people,” and “an endless hustle.”
He’s not alone. “In the beginning, it was fun,” says a founding member who has since quit the club. “We’d sit on the roof and smoke, and it was like a little slice of bad boy London in New York. But once they started franchising everywhere, it was like, ‘I just don’t care anymore.’” A longtime employee who has since left the company admits that the original spirit of the place has been diluted. “It became more about ‘Let’s open new houses,’ and they stopped taking care of people the same way,” the person says.
Jones says some of the criticisms are fair. “I can’t sit here and say, ‘We’ve never made a mistake, in 26 years of growing houses around the world,’” he admits. “We’re taking many fewer new members, and looking at members who don’t fit in, who don’t respect us or our team, and asking them not to renew.”
And they’re hoping the Shapp, which captures data the staff can use to keep track of customer preferences, will enable a return to that intimacy, particularly as the business scales. “You’ll tap your phone at reception,” CTO Dhawan says, “and they’ll know who you are, that you may be a friend of Nick, that you prefer latte rather than cappuccino, that you have a guest waiting and that you have a table reserved for 7.” That said, he adds, “the exclusivity and the personal touch will always remain. It will be more informed, but not creepy.”
Jones recently confirmed rumors that he’s looking at taking his hospitality empire public in the coming weeks or months. It would mark his third attempt to attract public investment after a proposed 2018 offering and a more recent high-yield bond sale failed to stir sufficient interest. No doubt some of the company’s longtime investors — most prominently Burkle (who reportedly owns 55%), and Richard Caring (25%) — would eventually like to see a return, even on what observers imagine has largely been a vanity investment.
Despite the company’s precarious finances — in particular its heavy debt burden, and its weakened performance during the pandemic — it’s hoping the third time might well be the charm. For one thing, the company insists its financial situation is considerably better than media reports would suggest. The press “always like to quote our debt,” president Andrew Carnie tells Marker. “It’s purely investment. 25 years of rapid growth. At any point, if we wanted to slow down the investment in our business, we would obviously turn a profit pretty quickly.”
Among the various cost-saving measures Carnie has implemented is a capital-light approach to expansion. In former years, opening a new house was an expensive proposition, requiring massive up-front investments, whereas the new houses, including the one in Hong Kong, are financed by local developers. “It’s easier to use developers’ money,” Carnie explains. “They pay us a fee for house design, and then we pay them an agreed rent over a set long-term period, between 15 and 25 years. That allows us to go quicker and do more at a less cost to Soho House.”
The subscription model Soho House has been perfecting for a quarter of a century has suddenly become one of the hottest trends on Wall Street, due to the success of companies from Netflix to Dollar Shave Club.
Skift CEO Rafat Ali believes the company is well-positioned for a public offering — particularly a SPAC, the blank-check vehicle du jour being embraced by a number of travel companies. “They’re at the confluence of some good trends,” he notes, citing the emergent creative economy, the expected post-Covid social renaissance, the coworking boom, and especially the membership aspect, “which generally speaking is what everybody is looking at. I’m sure they’re going to market the hell out of their subscription thing.”
Indeed, the subscription model Soho House has been perfecting for a quarter of a century has suddenly become one of the hottest trends on Wall Street, due to the success of companies from Netflix to Dollar Shave Club. Even before the pandemic, such businesses were growing at five times the rate of the S&P 500 as a whole, according to data from Zuora, a subscription management company. The pandemic demonstrated the resilience of the model: While the economy as a whole slowed, the so-called “subscription economy” grew by double digits. Of course, many of the real winners have been largely digital subscriptions, rather than real-estate heavy businesses, dependent on in-person experiences like gym chains or private clubs.
In the case of Soho House, when revenues from bookings and food and beverage sales nose-dived, those monthly dues provided a much-needed cushion. They also offered would-be investors an object lesson, should they need one, in the distinct advantages of establishing a recurring revenue stream. “The less of a transactional-based business you have, the better,” says Michael Bellisario, a hotel industry analyst with Baird Capital. “You pay your bill and it’s on autopilot. Someone can value that into forever. Just put a multiple on it.”
But perhaps what has Soho House best poised for post-pandemic growth is all the pent-up yearning to socialize, fraternize and consort — albeit safely, among “like-minded” fellow creatives, walled off from the great unvaxed.
That helps explain why other companies, ranging from boutique hotel chain Citizen M to Marriott, Accor, and even TripAdvisor, have begun adding their own subscription offerings. A company called Inspirato, which offers all-you-can-travel luxury bookings for a flat membership fee of $2,500 per month, recently introduced a discounted tier to cash in on the subscription boom.
Ill-timed though it may have been, the rollout of Soho Works also positions the company well for the post-Covid era, in which remote work is expected to remain the norm, companies are shrinking their footprints, and nobody wants to spend any more time at home than is strictly necessary. Though they’re hardly the only game in town, the plummeting cachet of WeWork and implosion of the Wing would seem to open up a lane for a stylish entrant.
But perhaps what has Soho House best poised for post-pandemic growth is all the pent-up yearning to socialize, fraternize and consort — albeit safely, among “like-minded” fellow creatives, walled off from the great unvaxed. “Among people who can afford it, there’s a demand for gated everything,” Ben Widdicombe says. “There’s a demand for gated socialization, gated health care, gated education, flying private. So I think that the overarching cultural trend is to raise the drawbridge and build gates.” The impulse may be rooted more in psychological comfort than rational logic, considering a virus can circumvent even the toughest membership policy. (An employee at the Hong Kong house recently tested positive for Covid-19, prompting a quarantine of some fellow staff members.) But the goal of any gated community has always been to keep out the riffraff.
Finally, with vaccinations ramping up quickly and cities reopening, many are predicting a new global “roaring ’20s,” a free-spending collective unshackling that will make the post-World War I era look like a game of Hacky Sack. Rarely if ever have investors been more primed to shrug off an iffy balance sheet and envision a future of untold profits. “A lot of companies are getting free passes today,” Bellisario notes. “Hotel brands, cruise lines, airlines, gaming — just think of any Covid-impacted sector or subsector, and a lot of those stocks are trading at or above where they were one year ago.” Jones is presumably trying to get in early on this travel stock boom. Of course, even a successful offering will bring headaches of its own. Delivering quarterly earnings reports will likely be a far less agreeable experience than squiring a billionaire investor around a flashy new club.
But perhaps Jones’ most difficult challenge will be maintaining that scrupulously selective admittance policy when institutional and retail investors — many of whom would presumably never qualify for a Soho House membership of their own — begin clamoring for price gains. “You have to take in a certain amount of new members to be financially growing every year,” says a former high-level staffer who is familiar with the company’s finances. “I don’t know how they’re going to do that if they have to deliver to shareholders every year. It’s pretty easy for the director of membership to tell Nick, ‘There’s nobody cool applying, I’m getting bad candidates.’ But try telling that to shareholders, and it’s going to be, ‘I don’t give a fuck who it is. If they’re going to buy stuff, let them in.’” There are signs that Jones is already nudging the doors open a bit wider. In a recent interview, he described the key criterion for membership as having a creative mind, adding, “There are lawyers who have creative minds.”
All that said, Rellie for one thinks if anyone can pull it off, it’s his old friend. “Nick’s held his breath and taken big bets ever since the Meatpacking District club,” he says. “He keeps on putting more chips onto the table and finding other people to put more chips onto the table. Investors are going to be asked to gamble that eventually the houses will be packed to the rafters with people paying $25 for cocktails again. We’ll have to see, but I wouldn’t bet against him.”
When I visited the Meatpacking club in mid-February, things already looked to be picking up. In fact, the sixth floor was alarmingly crowded, with most patrons doffing their face masks to devour their $18 Dirty Burgers and swig their $17 picantes with the greedy enthusiasm of newborns.
A little spooked by the presence of so many other humans gathered closely in one place, I retreated to the roof deck, where despite the cold, I found every bungalow occupied with clubgoers chattering away behind thick velvety curtains.
Undaunted, I zipped up my coat, grabbed a chaise, and ordered coffee. Then I sat there for as long as I could, under the gray Manhattan sky, watching the steam rise heavenward from the empty pool, and daydreaming of all the bacon sandwiches, Mussels Mondays, and louche, glamorous, slightly disreputable nights to come.
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