A club that would have me

We’re all looking for a sense that we belong somewhere, that we’re a member of something, that there are others we can identify with. In its most, well, enthused forms, it can lead to the wearing of much black in one’s teenage years and a fair bit of backcombing too.

It can also lead to that which we call branding. What started as a reassurance of quality has entered cult territory for some brands, with the likes of Apple becoming so much more than just a computing brand which is pretty decent if you look at some of the other dross out there. They are now part of our identity.

This is not the place to drone on about branding, but it is the place to look at how hotels have tried to build this kind of zealotry in their loyalty programmes as they look to shift them from rewards programmes into actual loyalty. It hasn’t worked so far; no-one has got into any bar fights because someone said they’d rather stay in a Doubletree than a Westin. There are the Aman Junkies, but that’s not relevant here for multiple reasons, the least of which being that after all that spa-ing you should be relaxed and not scrappy. 

The closest the sector has come has been the private members’ clubs and the clue there is in the name. Members are happy to pay so that they can a) always get a table and b) it’s guaranteed that there’s plenty of PLU action. Or at least P who want to be LU. 

This week saw Membership Collective Group – that into which Soho House etc have been shovelled – reveal more of its plans for its $100m (placeholder) offering and some of where it thinks that membership/loyalty will take it and, critically, whether it can be maintained.

Founder Nick Jones wrote in the registration statement: “Much of the success of Soho House has been down to our ability to respond and adapt to shifting lifestyle trends as well as to the needs of our progressive and forward-thinking membership base. Over the years, the growth of our membership has reassured me that as we have expanded, we have also continued to add value to the member experience.”

So no worries about over extending. Fret not, he said, members would remain at the heart of everything the group did. The heart and, it seems, the back pocket, as he described a digital-only membership “like having a House in your pocket”. This is clearly impossible, unless your ‘phone is constantly exhorting you to drink more at lunchtime and then accost your publisher, but the next iteration of the iPhone could change all that. 

The group said that Soho House Digital Membership, a paid digital-only membership that it planned to launch in late 2021, would enable Soho House members “to connect, communicate and collaborate anywhere in the world”.

Jones said: “Offering a new digital-only option will make our membership truly global and diverse, enabling the best creatives from all over the world to make meaningful connections with each other: from an established producer in Ghana to a 22-year old scriptwriter in West Hollywood, or the founder of an emerging tech start-up in Jakarta to a digital designer in Beirut.”

So like LinkedIn, but slightly more selective? There have been fears that Soho House would extend itself too far, is this a brand dilution or a strengthening? Or just another lure to make you want a membership proper? If everyone can be a member, then where’s the value? Where’s the table? 

But at least the group has a plan, which is more than we saw in the Airbnb IPO. And it still brings in membership charges as well as room rates, which is the dream for the hotel sector.

What hotels would love, more than sparking bar fights over brand loyalty, is the chance to charge for their loyalty programmes in much the same way that Soho House manages to. There have been mutterings during the pandemic about changes to payment models, including from Mews founder Richard Valtr and some of these are likely to be picked up.

But as yet, no hotel brand has come close to being the must have, hill to die on, if I can’t stay there I stay nowhere flag. In this age of polarisation and the need to be right at all costs, do we really need any more random loyalties? No, not really. But if hotels want to generate chargeable loyalty then there are other ways to do it and they begin and end with service. 

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