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Food and Drinks

Soho House in Hong Kong: how new private members club for creative types – no suits allowed – will be different

A version of the British Soho House chain due to open in Sai Ying Pun will have a rooftop pool, gym, hotel and space for events – but only artists, fashionistas, filmmakers and others connected to the creative industries can join

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2018, 8:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2018, 8:26pm

It’s the morning after the opening of White City, the vast Soho House in Shepherd’s Bush, London, so I expect Nick Jones, founder of the chain of private members clubs, to be exhausted and grumpy. We’re in the new 120,000 sq ft (11,150 sq m) club to talk about another opening – Hong Kong’s Soho House, due in March next year.

Despite the previous night’s endless round of glad-handing, Jones is energetic, affable and down-to-earth – not what might be expected of the impresario of an institution criticised for being elite and pretentious.

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Soho House clubs are intended for “people working in the creative industries” and famed for the requirement that members refrain from wearing the corporate warrior’s uniform of suit and tie. Annual membership fees start from US$1,500 (HK$11,800).

Depending on where you sit – a member ensconced on one of the club’s overstuffed lounge chairs, or a not-yet-member hoping to get off the very long waiting list – the club’s policies are either welcome, or obnoxious. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a member.)

Founded in 1995, the enterprise now employs 6,000 people and has 19 locations worldwide. It is in full-throttle expansion and, before the Hong Kong club is ready, the first Soho House in Asia will open in Mumbai this October.

Jones says the Hong Kong club, located in a new building in Sai Ying Pun, will occupy 12,000 sq ft and have all the bells and whistles expected of a Soho House.

“It will have six floors of work space. Soho Works will be in the building. There’s event space. There are three floors of fitness and well-being. There’s a screening room. There’s a pool on the roof.”

Additionally, about 25 per cent of the space will be a hotel, with guest access to club facilities, he adds.

So why Hong Kong?

“Hong Kong has been a dream for us for a very long time. It was always an aim for Hong Kong to be the first city in Asia. We’ve been looking at Hong Kong for probably six, seven years,” Jones says.

“Finding property in Hong Kong is very difficult, as well as one with a long enough lease. The rent goes up and people close down. We’re doing the club with Nan Fung and the lease is 20 years just like a lease you’d find in London,” says Jones, referring to property developer Nan Fung Group.

We start every club with a blank piece of paper. We don’t just say, ‘repeat that’. Instead, we ask, ‘what have we learned from the last one?’
Nick Jones

Securing a long lease in the right location aside, Jones says, the city has importantly begun to embrace creativity.

“Even 10 years ago, it was just a load of very corporate, city people, Australian bankers getting p***ed. Now, the creative community has really been gaining strength. There’s a big art scene, a big fashion scene, a big film and TV industry,” he says.

Applicants for Soho House membership must work in the creative industries or at least be connected to them. Moreover, club rules explicitly discourage members from wearing a jacket and tie – Soho Houses the world over might be filled with members working on their laptops, but they are dressed in trainers and untucked shirts.

In short, financial types are officially not welcome on the premises.

Notwithstanding that one ironclad rule, Jones eschews the cookie-cutter approach. Rather, “we react to what our members want”, Jones says.

He cites Soho Farmhouse, the club’s countryside idyll located in Oxfordshire, southern England, Cowshed (Soho House’s natural bath and beauty brand) and Soho Home as examples of businesses undertaken at the behest of members.

“We start every club with a blank piece of paper. We don’t just say, ‘repeat that’. Instead, we ask, ‘what have we learned from the last one?’ We don’t want to put the same decor in.”

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He gives the example of White City, the club we’re sitting in, which is strongly redolent of the 1950s but, he says, has familiar DNA.

“If you walked in here and I took the blindfold off, you’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s a Soho House’.”

Jones will not reveal exactly how the Hong Kong Soho House will differ from other private members’ clubs in the city, saying only that: “It’s not beige.”

“We’re going into Hong Kong to be there for people who were born and live in Hong Kong, so we’ve been listening to them about exactly what kind of food they want: how they want the gyms to be set up, what sort of membership programming they want – and we do that in every city we go to. We’re not trying to take a British club and plonk it in Hong Kong and go, ‘you’re gonna like this’.”

There have been rumours that Soho House is planning an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, but when asked about this, Jones does not give a direct answer.

“Of course, we’re a business, which wants to and does make money. For the past 20 years, we’ve grown our revenues and profits. Regardless of what process we’re going to pursue – IPO, taking another investor – our expansion will continue and we will pursue the same growth strategy, building more houses in different cities,” he says.

“I know that the word ‘expansion’ is quite a dirty word because people think, ‘they’re getting too big’. But we back this up with the opinions of our members. Where we are now with 20 clubs, compared to where we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, we’re in a much better position. We’re not Starbucks. The clubs are much nicer. We’re in better locations. Our members are much happier.”

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The company’s Cities Without Houses membership, established in 2017, is the framework for Jones’ expansion plan and allows for membership in cities where there is not yet a permanent House.

Hong Kong has been one of the launch locations for the programme, allowing members to utilise Soho Houses all over the world. The Every House programme confers the same benefits, i.e., use of all houses globally, to members in cities that already have clubs.

Jones is involved in every aspect of decision-making at Soho House, but denies being a control freak.

“I like to see everything. I have an opinion on everything. I talk to everyone. The great thing about our membership is they’re not shy to tell you. Every member has my email. I keep an eye on the figures every day. My main job is … making the membership happier. That’s the crown jewel,” he says.