Growing numbers of travelers are staying at these old-school institutions, swapping the hotel experience for one that they say offers culture, history and a sense of belonging.
When Kwame Campbell, 48, a real-estate conference producer, travels to Providence, R.I., for events at his alma mater, Brown, he stays at the Hope Club in the College Hill neighborhood, chartered in 1876. “I love it,” he said. “It is like an Edith Wharton novel, one of those turn-of-the-century mansions.”
Mr. Campbell said he enjoys the sense of history, though room modernizations can make for unusual configurations. “My shower had a frosted window overlooking the hallway,” he said. “It was definitely a moment out of ‘The Shining.’ ”
As more boutique hotels offer a retro, club-like experience, some travelers have discovered that they prefer the real thing: lodging overnight in private, 19th-century clubs. So-called city clubs offer culture, history and a sense of belonging under one landmark roof, and, although it might sound counterintuitive, are often cheaper than hotels. The Hope Club, for example, starts at $110 a night.
Occupancy rates in city clubs, while lower than hotels (61 percent versus 69 percent in 2017) are on the rise overall, according to Jonathan McCabe, a consultant to the club industry who is the former general manager of the Union League Club of Chicago. “The Union League Club of Chicago, Union League Club Philadelphia, The Yale Club in New York and the New York Athletic Club are all chockablock full in their guest rooms,” he said.
The catch — which is also a great part of the appeal — is getting in.
American city clubs, many affiliated with elite universities, date back a century or more and come with some questionable historical baggage. Early city clubs excluded women, Jews, African-Americans and other minority groups.
These days, nearly all are coed, diverse and far more inclusive than they once were. The Princeton Club of New York accepts not only Princeton alumni but graduates and faculty of 16 associate schools, including Villanova, William & Mary and Bucknell; the Cornell Club-New York, to which Mr. Campbell belongs, admits members who are graduates of Brown, Tulane and Notre Dame, among others. Some clubs offer annual membership for under $1,000 a year to young applicants. Members can dine, read, drink or go to programs at their home clubs, and receive a major travel perk: They can lodge overnight in similar clubs worldwide at member rates.
City clubs, by virtue of their long history, can charge low room rates because most are exempt from federal income tax. They are often located in city centers, in areas where comparable hotels might charge twice the rate. The Los Angeles Athletic Club, which rents rooms to the public starting at $249, has been in its downtown home since 1912, before downtown Los Angeles’s golden age and its more recent resurgence with the addition of the Nomad and the Ace to the local hotel scene.
Some city clubs like the L.A.A.C. have opened their rooms to the public because of economic circumstances, realizing they needed to increase occupancy. But they must walk a delicate balance. To avoid tax penalties, social clubs cannot derive more than 15 percent of their gross receipts from nonmember use.
Old-fashioned in London
The East India Club in London is near St. James Park, Buckingham Palace and Pall Mall. Patrick Williams, 52, a marketing vice president and Irishman living in New York, stays there through his membership in the Stephens Green Hibernian Club in Dublin.
The East India Club dates to the mid-19th century and was founded by servants of the East India Company and commissioned officers of Her Majesty’s Army and Navy. “It’s an old-fashioned part of London that’s right in the heart of the hedge-fund and private-equity industries,” said Mr. Williams. “There is also something rather James Bond-esque about saying, ‘I’m staying at the East India Club in St. James Square.’” But the East India Club does not have Bond-level luxury prices: a single with a shower is 87 pounds (about $113).
Modern clubs like Soho House in New York City were founded in the tradition of 19th-century clubs, and their members include young, media-savvy professionals who find athletic and university clubs too stodgy. Soho House has an international club network of its own, with 23 “houses” globally, 14 of them with bedrooms to rent for the night. All can be booked by members and nonmembers.
Natacha Tonissoo, 32, a London-born Brooklynite who works in travel public relations, joined Dumbo House in Brooklyn for $3,200 a year so she could utilize Soho House’s other locations. On a spring trip to London, she visited the White City Club, located in the former headquarters of the BBC, and used the gym, pools and sauna.
Why not save the annual fee and stay at a hotel? “It’s the access, the exclusivity and the amenities,” she said. “I’ve met people in similar industries and made business contacts. A hotel is a one-off experience, no matter how aesthetically pleasing it might be.”
To be sure, Airbnb has hurt city clubs, just as it has hurt hotels. The 2008 economic downturn was also a challenge, as membership rolls thinned. In recent years, many city clubs realized they were not maximizing revenue from rooms and launched multimillion dollar renovations. The University Club of Milwaukee, which merged with a country club, renovated and updated its rooms in 2015. The Detroit Club closed its 1892 building for four years and now has 10 new bedroom suites, in contrast to a few sparse rooms before, plus whirlpools and saunas.
Private clubs that open rooms to the public take measures to ensure that guests know the rules in advance; most have dress codes and other regulations. The Los Angeles Athletic Club sends its house rules in confirmation emails and on a card given guests at check-in that reads: “Conduct yourself with dignity, grace and courtesy at all times. Appropriate attire is expected. Smart casual, a collar shirt, no baseball caps, no shorts for evening use …”
The privilege of exclusivity
Though some competitive hotels (think the Ace) have out-clubbed the clubs by offering an elite feeling, rich aesthetics and social events, they are nonetheless not private. Expensive does not necessarily mean exclusive. “We like being members of a club,” said Jason Kaufman, author of “For the Common Good? American Civic Life and the Golden Age of Fraternity,” which examined blue-collar fraternal organizations between the Civil and First World Wars. “We’re liked and accepted, and we benefit from the kindness of strangers who share our affiliations.”
“The reason people stay in private clubs,” said Mr. McCabe, the industry consultant, “is so they don’t have to be with the great unwashed masses, the proletariat. I was at the Four Seasons in Chicago for high tea and there was a man wearing a shirt that had the F word on it. And my grandchildren were with me.”
For other travelers, the appeal is the attention to service. “Nobody is looking for a tip or a handout, and is really not supposed to take one,” said Marsha Goldstein, 73, a retired tour-company owner and member of the Union League Club of Chicago who has stayed at private clubs all over the world. “They have set the bar very high for service, and if you don’t get it, you need to be vocal. It’s critical to clubs’ success to have you be vocal if you’re unhappy.”
The personal touch
Private clubs also offer safety, a factor that deters some solo travelers from Airbnb, as well as networking opportunities. “I really think city clubs are going to explode in the next decade — at least the ones who decide to put business connections and security at the forefront,” Gabe Aluisy, who hosts a radio show about private clubs and wrote a book on private club marketing, wrote in an email. “You won’t get a personal introduction to a key business contact in a city from a hotel concierge, but you might from a private club manager or membership director who knows the membership intimately. And with security concerns all over the world, private clubs are a comfortable refuge where patrons have been vetted.”
Robin Lee Allen, 34, a private-equity fund manager and Babson College alum who belonged to the Princeton Club of New York, moved from New York to San Francisco in 2016 and used reciprocal privileges at the 19th-century University Club of San Francisco, atop Nob Hill. He threw his 33rd birthday party in its red-walled Black Cat Bar, which features memorabilia from the now-defunct Press Club of San Francisco, and stayed over after his friends left. His room, he said, resembled “a Westin. But you’re paying for opening the door and knowing nothing weird will happen when you’re walking around the club in the middle of the night. It really isn’t about ostentatiousness or even showing off. It’s about knowing that as you walk in and out, people will recognize you by name and by face.” Mr. Allen is moving to France soon for a work assignment and switched to Harvard Club of Boston because of its wide reciprocal network.
Of course, private clubs are not for everyone. Children are not always welcome. Cellphone and laptop use is often permitted only in certain locations, sometimes as small as a closet. Dress codes might prohibit jeans, flip flops and baseball caps. Then there is the elitist history.
Mr. Campbell, the Brown alum, who hails from the Golden Isles of Georgia and is a first-generation college graduate, said this did not bother him. “The Hope Club was probably no blacks, no Jews at one point,” he said. (It was.) “But things have changed. You need to exercise your right to use those clubs and have access to them because it’s a right that you’ve earned. It’s a sense of belonging someplace where you formerly did not belong and claiming it. It’s my form of protest, to be the black person who shows up.”