“I’m almost using the club to find other ways out of the city,” said Kwame Campbell, a real-estate producer who is a member of the Cornell Club. His membership grants him reciprocal access to country and other private clubs in places such as Westchester County and Rhode Island, he said. Country clubs have seen a bump in interest amid the pandemic, with their sprawling outdoor spaces and golf amenities, experts told Crain’s.
Meanwhile for city clubs, their cosmopolitan appeal is waning.
“The value proposition is changed because of not going to the office in the city. We’re not having in-person meetings. We’re not having conferencing or business meetings,” said Frank Vain, president of the McMahon Group, a consulting firm whose clients include the Yale Club and the Century Association.
That becomes an issue for the city’s private clubs, whose revenue relies on a mix of dues collection and income related to in-person events, which largely can’t happen right now. And the clubs can’t recruit new members, said Joe Trauger, vice president of government relations at the National Club Association, which represents private clubs.
“It is sort of an existential moment,” Trauger said.
The publicly filed layoffs are a sign of that distress—and a rare one, given that the club circuit is a part of New York society that is willfully tight-lipped. The Racquet and Tennis Club, The Century Association, and the Colony Club all declined to comment for this story. The Yale Club, University Club, Harvard Club and Penn Club, which have all laid off staff, did not respond to requests for comment. The Cornell Club, which has not filed with the Department of Labor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Like virtually every business, private clubs have moved virtual, even offering online dating events. But it’s a far cry from the benefits members signed up for.
“Online events are not going to be enough to keep them,” Campbell said.
“Old school: You pay for that membership, you meet people, you network and you write it off as a business expense,” he said. “And now it’s like you can’t write it off as a business expense.”
Much of the value of the Cornell Club lies with whom you happen to bump into when you’re there, Campbell said.
“It’s the randomness,” he said. “The randomness of running into, like I said, the ambassador of this country, or somebody who works at Saturday Night Live.”
For Campbell, unimaginable random meetings happened. He met the ambassador of Morocco, an SNL set designer and the maker of Mozart in the Jungle at the downstairs bar of the Cornell Club.
That type of gathering won’t happen any time soon. The Cornell Club has offered deals and breaks on dues in the meantime, Campbell said.
He said he’d consider freezing his membership but never canceling it. It has been too valuable to him over the years, he said, adding: “I feel like I’m part of a legacy.”