Hospitality: Elite or Expansionist? Soho Clubs Want to Be Both

Hospitality: Elite or Expansionist? Soho Clubs Want to Be Both

By FRED A. BERNSTEIN for the New York Times

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Nick Jones, the founder of Soho House, a chain of members-only clubs that includes an outpost here, knows about exclusivity. Last winter, after he found the New York Soho House too crowded, he cut several hundred members from the rolls, sacrificing revenue to maintain the cachet his company depends on.

But now Mr. Jones finds himself at a crossroads. At the same time that he is striving to keep his clubs exclusive, he is spending more than $100 million to expand the chain, which he started in 1995 in London. That means reaching a larger audience without diluting the Soho House name.

Nowhere is the contradiction more evident than in Miami Beach, where the Soho Beach House — a private club grafted on to a hotel — will open next month, with 50 guest rooms and six suites.

Mr. Jones described the hotel as “really a private club with bedrooms.” He added that, by Miami Beach standards, having just 50 rooms makes it “minute.” At that size, he said, “we’ll be able to control everyone going through the door.”

Mr. Jones’s company agreed to operate the Beach House, on an oceanfront site immediately south of the vast Fontainebleau hotel, more than four years ago. The complex, then controlled by the New York developer Ryder Properties, was going to include 60 condominiums as well as the club and the hotel.

But Mr. Jones was worried that the condominiums would not leave enough space in the building for the kinds of amenities Soho House members expect.

So after selling 80 percent of his company in 2008 to Richard Caring, the British fashion mogul, Mr. Jones bought out Ryder Properties. Then he canceled the condo portion of the project, and gave about a dozen buyers their deposits back, with interest.

His goal was to increase control over the property, even if that meant investing far more of his company’s money than under the original plan. “I had plenty of chances to get out of the deal,” Mr. Jones said. “I didn’t want to.”

Once he was calling the shots, Mr. Jones sent the project’s architect, Allan T. Shulman, back to the drawing board, asking him to expand the club and hotel into spaces once reserved for condos.

“We needed the space to put in the Soho House features,” Mr. Shulman said. In the redesign, he said, he added a spa (under the Cowshed brand, also part of Soho House UK) and a rooftop pool, as well as what Mr. Shulman called “an elaborate and discreet series of spaces” for eating, drinking and socializing. Soho Beach House encompasses the former Sovereign Hotel, a landmark 1940s Art Deco building, and a new 15-story tower.

Though the facade and lobby of the Sovereign have been restored, the other interiors are entirely new. The original Sovereign had about 100 guest rooms, Mr. Shulman said; Soho Beach House, with twice the square footage, has only half that many. (The largest rooms are 1,500 square feet)

The décor will include about 140 artworks, many contributed — that is, bartered — by Soho House members “as part of a food and drink program,” Mr. Jones said.

As building plans took shape, Tim Geary, the director of membership and marketing for Soho House North America, began identifying potential members for the club. At first, he said, the rolls will be limited to 750. “We prefer to omit a few of the most obvious candidates at the beginning than to have a list that is all-encompassing,” he said.

But no matter how short the list, nonmembers will have access to all the club facilities if they stay in the hotel. And they will enter through the main entrance, in the Sovereign Hotel building at 4385 Collins Avenue.

At several Soho House properties in Britain, the ground-floor restaurants are open to the public, but only club members can go upstairs, Mr. Jones said. That arrangement, he said, works well. But in Miami, he said, “it’s going to be slightly challenging, because it’s not as simple as upstairs and downstairs.”

Mr. Jones, 46, spoke over lunch at the West Hollywood Soho House, where he appeared to know many of the 1,000 or so members by name.

That club opened in March on the top two floors of an office building on Sunset Boulevard. It has already attracted members of Hollywood’s old and new guards, including Dustin Hoffman, who hosted a screening of “The Graduate,” and Zac Efron, who came by to watch the N.C.A.A. basketball finals. But there are no public facilities at all, which means it is easy to control who comes and goes.

At the Soho Beach House, the price of admission will not be membership, but about $575, the lowest rate for rooms facing the Intracoastal Waterway. (Oceanfront rooms will be more.)

Mr. Jones said that he does not plan to turn anyone away but that he hopes people who book the rooms will be members — or people who could pass for members. At another of his properties, Babington House, an inn in Somerset, England, he said, “sometimes people arrive, and it’s so obviously not for them. If they want to move to another hotel, we totally understand.”

Mr. Jones founded the original Soho House over a London restaurant in 1995. It quickly became an art and entertainment industry hangout — Damien Hirst was an original member, Mr. Jones said — and led to the New York club, in the meatpacking district, in 2003. The clubs, including a Berlin outpost that also opened this year, have a total of about 22,000 members. A spokesman for Soho House said the company’s revenue was $94 million in 2009.

In 2008, Mr. Caring made a huge investment in Soho House, buying out 28 limited partners, including David Bowie, for £105 million, about $161 million today. That left Mr. Jones with a 20 percent stake and the means to expand.

When Mr. Caring bought into the company, the Miami project was already under way. But construction was taking longer than Mr. Jones had hoped, which had the benefit of letting him change course.

Ryder Properties had bought the Sovereign Hotel for $25 million in 2005. Soho House paid $13 million for a portion of the property, while arranging to lease the rest from W. P. Carey, a New York lender, according to Guy Williams, chief financial officer at Soho House. Altogether, the company is spending about $100 million on the Miami project, some from a £50 million credit line at HBOS.

Mr. Jones brought in the interior designer Martin Brudnizki, whose projects in New York include the restaurant Le Caprice, owned by Mr. Caring. For Soho Beach House, Mr. Brudnizki is looking to Miami in the 1940s as well as Latin America for influences. (Mr. Geary, the membership director, said many of the new members will be from Latin American countries.) He was asked to avoid any ostentation that might seem off-putting to potential members. “The shiny thing doesn’t do it for locals,” Mr. Geary said.

Half a century ago, he said, people tried to sneak into the elaborate pool area of the Fontainebleau from the modest Sovereign Hotel next door. Now, he predicted, they will go the other way — using the Fontainebleau to try to sneak into the Soho Beach House.

Had construction gone faster, the club might have opened in late 2008, as the economy was crashing. Now, Mr. Jones said, there is a chance the worst is over. “The great thing about Miami,” he said, “is it takes so long to build down there, the recession will have come and gone.”


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