Soho’s Club Merchant Shrugs Off Global Slowdown
He doesn’t look like a man masterminding a global takeover.
And yet here is Nick Jones, in a cavernous open-plan office in Soho, London’s cramped creative heartland, amid high-tech film-editing studios and buzzing restaurants, plotting how to take his concept of cool to the global elite, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its October issue.
Dressed in worn jeans, a gray T-shirt and a blue zippered sweatshirt, Jones looks like the sort of relaxed hipster drawn to his Soho House empire, the network of exclusive private clubs he started in London in 1995 and then took to New York; Miami Beach, Florida; West Hollywood, California, and Berlin.
Now, from a Dean Street basement adorned with photographs of the 10 Soho Houses that have already opened their doors, Jones, 48, is launching five more clubs around the world during the next two years, beginning this fall: Toronto; Barcelona, Spain; Chicago; Istanbul; and Mumbai.
“We’re trying to grow in different regions,” says Jones, sitting on the kind of worn leather chair you might find at Soho House in London or New York. “We want the clubs to have a nice, international flavor.”
His targets are people in the arts, fashion and media. He’s convinced there are plenty of them who will pay upwards of $1,000 a year to sign up for his brand of shabby chic and relaxed cool.
For that fee, you get access to Soho House clubs that offer restaurants, rooftop pools, cinemas, gyms, spas and hotel rooms.
Sue Walter, who’s overseeing a revival of eight-year-old Hospital Club in an 18th-century former hospital in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood, says the test for Jones will be to preserve the aura of relaxed cool as his empire grows.
“Nick Jones is a bit like Richard Branson,” she says. “Nick has managed to expand the brand without diluting it. The challenge is, when you stretch the brand and get bigger, it’s harder to make sure your vision gets translated right down to the reception desk.”
The expansion, which Jones says is likely to add 10,000 members to the existing 28,000, is being financed by Ronald Burkle, the U.S. supermarket billionaire who helped bankroll the Clinton political dynasty.
In January, Burkle, 59, invested 250 million pounds ($388 million) in Soho House Ltd., taking a 60 percent stake that values Jones’s remaining 10 percent at about 42 million pounds.
“With the capital we can provide, we see the company taking its brand and experience all over the globe,” Burkle says.
The deal came after Soho House’s revenue rose 19 percent to 132 million pounds in 2011. Occupancy rates at Soho House hotels averaged more than 90 percent last year.
Pressed on how much the expansion will add in revenue, Jones laughs and says, “I don’t think we’ve worked that out.”
A little stardust may help. In February, Paramount Pictures Corp. threw a pre-Oscars party for Martin Scorsese at Soho House West Hollywood.
Damien Hirst created a painting for Soho House Berlin when it opened in 2010. London’s Shoreditch House, which has been situated in a former East End warehouse since 2007, is a favorite of Kate Moss, Madonna and other celebrities.
In a Sex and the City episode, Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, and her friends use a stolen membership card to sneak into the rooftop pool at Soho House New York, located in the Meatpacking District, only to be discovered and booted out.
In the world of real people, the Soho House membership formula, a postmodern, no-ties-allowed twist on the stuffy, old English gentlemen’s club, is somewhat more inclusive.
“Our favorite member is a struggling scriptwriter in the corner who hasn’t quite broken through, an artist who hasn’t quite sold his or her first beautiful painting,” Jones says.
Just don’t wear a suit. Peter Bingle, a public relations consultant and former director of public affairs at Bell Pottinger Public Affairs Ltd., did and lost his membership two years ago.
“It’s a reverse snobbery by forcing people to dress down,” he says.
Bankers, beware, too; you’re allowed if you have what Jones calls a “creative soul,” a fuzzy concept that only his membership committees can judge.
With most of the clubs open from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m., members can down lattes by their laptops in the morning, have a working lunch, knock back drinks and dinner in the evening and bring their kids around on Sundays. Jones has replicated the original model at four other clubs in London; one near Bath, England; and four houses overseas.
Six Soho House outposts offer hotel rooms, with prices ranging from about $325 and up a night at Soho Beach House Miami to $580 and up a night at Soho House New York. As laid-back as Jones can seem to be, it’s taken a control freak to keep the clubs on track.
“He’s insanely energetic and never satisfied with sitting still,” says Norman, who recalls having lunch with Jones during the week Shoreditch House opened: Jones fired off instructions to the kitchen while ordering the waiters to get the placement of salt and pepper shakers just right.
Lounging in his Soho office, Jones says he still fusses over everything from wall colors to the choice of lighting and music. The next day, he’s headed to New York to oversee the renovation of the hotel rooms at the club there.
At London’s just-opened Little House, in upscale Mayfair, Jones and his design team opted for a more opulent Soho House look of blue-velvet sofas and Jenny Holzer artwork.
Jones presents himself as an accidental entrepreneur. He says his grades weren’t good enough to get into university, so he joined the training program at Trusthouse Services Group Inc. and went on to become marketing manager of Grosvenor House hotel in London.
In the 1980s, Jones raised enough money to start a restaurant chain called Over the Top, which was a flop.
“They were really, truly bad, and they deserved to fail,” Jones says. At the same time, he says, “It taught me: Don’t give up if it doesn’t work.”
Jones trudged on, and in 1992, he rebranded one of the restaurants as Cafe Boheme, a French bistro. A few years later, the space above the eatery became available. It was unworkable as a traditional restaurant, and so the first Soho House was born.
Three years later, Jones opened Babington House, his first stab at a club with hotel rooms. There, in the splendor of what had been an English country house, he met the woman who became his second wife, Kirsty Young. Better known than her husband, Young hosts BBC’s Desert Island Discs, one of the most popular radio programs in the U.K. They live in Oxfordshire with their two children.
Even as the newest clubs are fitted out, Jones is scouting the world for five more cities, with emerging markets in Asia and South America high on his list. All the while, Soho House has flourished right through economic slowdowns and recessions.
“People still eat, drink and nap,” Jones says. “There might be an argument that people do it more when things are going badly.”
Editors: Stryker McGuire, Rick Levinson
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