Its 'corridor of power' is still lined with RK Laxman's iconic works of illustrious Indians, and the lofty view of Lutyens' Delhi remains as stunning as ever. But much has changed at The Chambers, one of the most sought after business clubs in the country, at New Delhi's Taj Mahal hotel. As it opens its doors this weekend after an ambitious revamp (with a party whose invites are currently hot property), the club — for long seen as a hub of powerful politicians and rich industrialists — is seeking to draw younger blood into its fold, and to reboot in the post-Covid world.
The new avatar is more expansive: spread over two floors (not one, as earlier), there is a larger members-only restaurant, a new Blue Label bar with a display of Diageo's expensive whiskies, a cigar lounge with Davidoff's latest limited-edition Year of the Ox gordo, a Stephano Ricci-designed meeting room (plus six others), dinnerware from Bernardaud, glassware from Riedel, and similar bric-a-brac connoting old luxury. And, symbolic of the new luxury befitting our times, a spanking new air purification system with medical-grade filters.
The Chambers lounge bar
But these are just the physicalities. As Chambers looks at a wider pool of achievers — think start-up captains and cultural influencers — and a global footprint (it opens in Bengaluru later this year and then in London), the idea definitely is to be relevant to today's realities. "While retaining its unmatched exclusivity, the reimagined The Chambers will extend an invite to the globally-acclaimed — the new generation of achievers of India," says Satyajeet Krishnan, Area Director and General Manager of Taj Mahal.
Membership remains by invitation and through referrals, but one of the most significant new benefits is a one-time transfer of a lifetime membership to a son or daughter. The young are being sought in more ways than one.
Leaning towards experiences
Events and curations are being tailored to fit a new definition of post-pandemic luxury for this audience. Meals may thus be local and healthy instead of the baked brie or pumpkin gnocchi of yore, gin selections will arrive on trolleys, and tickets to exclusive experiences such as meals by star global chefs or conversations between newsmakers will be up for grabs. All these experiences, says Krishnan, will be crafted for the new generation "who are more accessible, believe in a borderless world, and appreciate experiences that are ultra unique".
If Chambers is pivoting, so are other sought-after private clubs in India and across the globe, as ideas of exclusivity and socialising in smaller, curated groups assume greater significance in a world shaken by the pandemic. New digital realities and emerging at-home lifestyles mean that, in fact, the club is transforming into more than a physical space.
Soho House, the world's most sought-after membership for "creative souls" (that allegedly left out the suits from Wall Street from its membership), has a new SH.App. Members must now book bedrooms, tables, events, the gym or invite guest to the House through it, to ensure less crowded venues. But paradoxically, the app is also connecting more members globally and bringing the club home. "I want the SH.App to be like having a House in your pocket: allowing you to do everything that you can do in our physical spaces, digitally," says founder Nick Jones in an exclusive interview with The Hindu Weekend .
Opening up the network
This takes forward the idea of a globally-connected, spread-out creative community that is at the core of Soho House. "I had to stay on in Stockholm for seven months during the pandemic, but thanks to the 'Cities Without Houses' set up [a membership type that allows people to connect in cities that don't yet have a House], I met up with the community in Sweden and connected with many amazing people," says Cecilia Oldne, Asia head for wine investment firm Amphora, and a global member of Soho House.
New membership categories such as Soho Friends are clearly aimed at extending this network (there are several different categories with fees ranging from ₹85,000 to ₹3 lakh plus, for which applications can be made online). This one, recently introduced internationally, does not offer access to the Houses all over the world when they travel, but does give entry to studios (only in London as yet, these are spaces for members to meet/eat together), and other benefits such as at restaurants. "We will bring this to Mumbai later this year," says Jones.
It is this sense of community that Soho House has managed to uphold that is today more attractive than ever, as we contend with physically boxed-in lives. It could explain why Soho House globally retained 90% of its paying members through 2020 even as it was forced to shut its Houses (now reopened). Through that time, engagement came through strongly-curated, digital programming such as home hair care tutorials with Queer Eye's Jonathan Van Ness, cocktail masterclasses, and idea and expertise sharing sessions.
Going forward, this digital curation seems likely to be an important way to keep up engagement with and between members, even as the company plans a public listing in New York with a whopping $3 billion valuation, as per the Financial Times .
A Colonial charm
"I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members." Many people may not see the humour or irony in American actor-comedian-writer Groucho Marx's oft-quoted remark (his resignation note for an elite club). The idea of exclusive members-only clubs in the country has always held great appeal right from Colonial times, despite the post-Liberalisation boom in socialising at other 'open' venues such as restaurants, cafes and bars.
The holy troika of the Bengal, Madras and Byculla Club (in Mumbai) were established in the 1800s as places to socialise for British residents of the presidencies. Post 1857, many such clubs sprouted across smaller towns, and continue to function till this day with members drawn from the bureaucracy and local movers and shakers. Their shimmer may have dimmed but has never been entirely lost. Some like the Gymkhana or the post-Independence cultural centre, the India International Centre in New Delhi, are so sought after that memberships may take years or generations to acquire.
In the last six to seven years, however, Delhi and Mumbai have seen a new kind of club culture emerge, with new private players setting up swish facilities with strong food and beverage and curated programming targeted at a younger audience.
One of the most talked about new entrants into the private clubs space in India currently is The Quorum, with an address in Gurugram since 2018 and another one set to launch in Mumbai next month. The club has built its reputation with an eclectic programming around art, music, business and current affairs. The pandemic, says its CEO Vivek Narain, will give a fillip to ventures such as his as "the need for spaces like ours has become more prevalent", with members seeking quality experiences but where the rules of engagement can be more controlled than at open venues.
"I think dining at a private club now has more prestige than dining at the latest restaurant," says Anant Rishi, a young Delhi-based entrepreneur who joined The Quorum because he "liked the vibe, its cocktail culture and the events and talks they host where we can meet other professionals".
As privacy becomes a more important element of luxury, other hospitality groups too are focussing on creating clubs. In Goa, the Jamming Goat at Calangute is starting a supper club with curations that include a series of dinners by top chefs.
Meanwhile, clubs are also offering strong personalisation. At À Ta Maison (ATM) Delhi, a beverage concierge not only offers customised drinks and hosts popular social mixers, but also gives tips on "how to get the most exclusive mescal" for home bars, says Rakshay Dhariwal, founder. "In the post-pandemic world, as people want to engage with others in smaller groups, the private club category will get bigger," he says, adding, "But the flip side is that only those with deep pockets should get into this business because it takes a long time to build a good network and membership base. And real estate, [especially] in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, is very high and will eat into your revenue."
The good thing though with club class expanding is that many of those who aspire to it may as yet get to enjoy it. With apologies to Groucho.
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