In the past few years, we’ve witnessed and helped foster a resurgence of social, membership, and special interest clubs. What began as a simple antithesis to tradition (the not-your-parents’ country clubs) has stratified into an entirely new model for membership, based less in shared interests and more in shared identity.
Creative elites. Creative entrepreneurs. Modern nomads. Thought-leaders.
While these clubs are progressive in terms of brand, message, and programming, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how traditional their offerings are — fine dining, exclusive parties, social lounges — and the inability of many of these clubs to foster a sense of community and connection beyond physical place. In a world in which isolation is crucial for survival, the value of togetherness is at an all-time high. The membership clubs that succeed and emerge from this pandemic will be those that can prove their value today, and in the future.
Photo by Adam Friedberg
Move to Virtual
Though membership and community are intangible concepts, they manifest through the physical world. Social clubs can build spaces, open restaurants, and plan parties and events, but ultimately it’s the chance interactions, connections, and stories that unfold across these touchpoints create the sense of belonging and desire that draws people in.
In the same way online courses cannot compare to the college experience, member-based organizations cannot simply distribute food, things, and entertainment and expect to evoke the same sense of community. Membership clubs need to explore (a) how they can provide unique value within the digital realm while (b) finding new ways to foster the magic of togetherness that emerges from shared experiences.
Though there is certainly security in numbers, we expect the membership organizations that emerge from this pandemic to be smaller, more niche and more nimble than the near 100,000-person social clubs that exist today. Though these behemoths can feign intimacy with multiple houses and members spread across the globe, there are limits to establishing real, human connection over the internet, and little to differentiate social clubs from social networks.
Smaller-scale clubs will not only improve the ability of clubs to create value for their members now, virtually, but will help ease the minds of members as we begin to venture back out into the world, allowing them to socialize more safely in the company of people they know and trust.
Stratification of Service
Though many hang their hat on the notion of identities, membership clubs still tend to differentiate themselves through their services and offerings — from film screenings and panel discussions to fine dining and lodging.
In the future, we expect that a single membership will offer a more diverse and universal range of experiences. Rather than a destination in of itself, the social club will become a facilitator, creating a security bubble through which any social experience can be delivered without unnecessarily exposing members to new people or places. Rather than having to choose between travel, entertainment, or work, clubs will deliver benefits that speak to a full and holistic lifestyle, united by the shared values and identities of their members.
We are a company of travelers, restaurant frequenters, and die-hard experience seekers. As much as we’d like to jump back to our old, pre-pandemic ways, we also have to acknowledge that these behaviors, at high frequency, are unsustainable from both an environmental and public health perspective.
Instead of a loss, we see this as an opportunity to transform these practices into something more intentional and meaningful. Globalization has opened our eyes to the amazing cultures and life-changing experiences that exist in the out world — but reckless consumption must come to an end. We need more time in fewer places; less stuff, but more value. Social clubs can help us navigate the world responsibly, helping us identify and immerse ourselves in the experiences that mean the most to each individual.
Pacifist Turned Activist
Many brands and membership clubs offer ways for patrons to feel good and ethical by lifting the burden of activism off their shoulders. They donate on behalf of their members, promote fundraising through exclusive events, and create easy avenues for activism without requiring members to roll up their sleeves themselves and dive into the conversations behind these causes.
These efforts are well-intentioned, but as this world continues to evolve at a rapid pace, we see the need for these difficult conversations to become a part of our daily lives. Class inequality, misogyny and racism are not easy topics to cover, but membership clubs have the ability to facilitate these sensitive conversations between like-minded individuals, and in this new world we believe it is their responsibility to do so.
Membership organizations are often viewed as thought-leaders; the vanguard of the identities and interest groups they represent. Now is the opportunity to embrace that role. Simply changing with the world may not be enough. To build community, belonging, and a true sense of membership in the post-COVID world, social clubs must create the change their members desire.