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Tue 7 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Signature style

Guy Guillemard, CEO of elite private clubs management firm Signature Clubs International gives Kat Slowe an insight into one of the region’s most private and exclusive clubs.

Signature style

Guy Guillemard, CEO of elite private clubs management firm Signature Clubs International gives Kat Slowe an insight into one of the region’s most private and exclusive clubs.

“He’d be a CEO or a director,” Signature Clubs International CEO Guy Guillemard says, summing up his elite clubs’ standard client. “He’d be in his forties. He would be married and he would be Arab, Asian or European.

“He would be responsible for his company in the UAE and the GCC, so he’d have a regional role and he would travel 25 percent of his time. He’d want fun… He tends to be someone who enjoys sport, food and wine. He probably attends the World Economic Forum — it’s that sort of level of importance.”

Being a private club company, we are quite sort of deliberately publicity shy and low key. The old adage is it is not what you know, it is who you know.

Signature Clubs International, formed by Guillemard and his partner, Russell Matcham, in 2005, currently operates two clubs in the region. The first, Capital Club Dubai, already possesses around 1,360 members, composed almost entirely of the Middle East’s social crème de la crème. The Capital Club Bahrain, which officially launched last month, at this point has 350 members. But, though neither club is operating at full capacity, it is no easy feat to gain admittance into these echelons of power.

“Being a private club company, we are quite sort of deliberately publicity shy and low key,” Guillemard says. “The old adage is it is not what you know, it is who you know… It’s very much a process by invitation, but we do have direct enquiries as well.”

Typically, he describes, out of every 100 new members to the club, 85 on average would be introduced or recommended by an existing member. Ten out of the 100 would be through an existing corporate member wanting to add someone else and only five percent would join via direct enquiry.

Guillemard refuses to reveal the cost of a membership, claiming it would infringe on his members’ privacy, but states that it is transferable. This means that after a few years — there is a minimum time period to discourage speculation — members can recoup their initial sign-on fee upon leaving the club, in addition to possibly achieving a profit if the cost of membership has appreciated.

Since launching a year ago the value of membership has already appreciated by 30 percent. But any such sale must go through the club and screening requirements would apply, as usual, for any new member. “We have a membership committee,” Guillemard says, “and the task of our membership managers is not to hare round the city like real estate people trying to sell it to anybody — not at all.”

“I give out flyers at Dubai Mall,” Guillemard’s public relations officer jokes.

Guillemard explains that the membership managers’ task is, in fact, to profile people put forward by another member. And they are apparently pretty thorough — the managers will actually go and meet the person in question, finding out about their background and their company, before submitting this report to the top membership committee.

“Generally the membership committee has about twelve people on it and generally we know somebody in that sector or of that nationality who can say ‘yes, he is a member of the Canadian Business Council and he’s a good guy, so he’ll be fine.’

“Or, she is a very nice woman,” he adds. “I suppose any question mark is on somebody’s reputation. Sometimes people feel well that person is perhaps a little bit too junior or there is a perception that person is going to bother other members, by trying to sell them financial services, property or whatever.”

Capital Club’s key draws

Guillemard insists that while not every member has to have the title of chairman — as they are not “snobby” — he does care about preserving the quality of the club. After all, one of the Capital Club’s key draws is that its high profile clientele enables its members to network with others of a similar status, which can be beneficial not just from a social standpoint, but also potentially advantageous for their respective businesses.

“When you are talking about members who are the same sort of quality as our peer group of members,” Guillemard says, “they tend to be people who are interesting, either from the point of view of this might be my next client, but perhaps just as importantly somebody who I can ask for advice about something, or somebody who can introduce me to somebody.”

And there are other, more obvious, benefits to be gained by joining this elite group. These include private viewings prior to auctions at Christies, exclusive tickets to sold-out events and secret access to landmarks not yet available to the general public.

“When the QE2 came in we chartered the biggest catamaran we could get hold of and we had sixty members who sailed in with the QE2,” Guillemard says. “When the Burj Dubai was under construction — about four fifths of the way up — we were able to very privately get a group of people to go to the top, which was a great experience.”

But it has not all been the high life for the Capital Club. There were challenges to overcome in the set up stages and the recession has had an inevitable — if minor — impact on the number of private events held at the venue.

The Capital Club only recently celebrated its first birthday, due to its launch date having to be delayed until April 2008 last year, as a result of unforeseen problems.

“We have plans for further clubs at different stages in Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Mumbai, Oman, Riyadh and Damascus, Guillemard adds, “but nothing firm. Nothing is absolutely, definitely going to happen.” Elite club’s challenges

The club CEO explains that the “macro challenge” on setting up a new club is usually finding a suitable location.

“In certain cities, like Abu Dhabi, you can’t find an apartment, so where can you find 4,000 square metres of prime space at a price that makes the business viable? Because some of the numbers being considered by developers, who think they can lease anything they have got to big banks or others, are huge — the banks not so much today, I can tell you, but they have unrealistic expectations of what a club can afford.”

After the initial challenges of location, the lease terms, Guillemard says, probably present the next major hurdle to overcome. Most landlords, he reveals, prefer to operate on short term leases — three to five years at a time. This is because they may seek to sell the building or, for example, to let a bigger tenant take over two extra floors.

“That doesn’t work for a club,” Guillemard says. “We make the highest investment of any tenant, probably, per square foot in any building… We have invested $15m to $18m in a club like this (Dubai Capital Club) and we are a fixture. We should be a fixture. But not all landlords want to give you a lease of 30 years — so that’s a challenge.”

And Guillemard’s list of woes does not end there. Guillemard remembers his greatest challenge with the Dubai Capital Club being his struggle to obtain effective designers, consultants and contractors in an “atmosphere where people were signing contracts left, right and centre.”

“Because we have very high standards,” he says. “We are demanding and rather than apologising for that, I am proud of that. But, at the end of the day, if you are a design company and you are being offered a four hundred bedroom hotel — with six restaurants — by somebody who will probably want you for four more hotels, you know the more important client.”

And the key to Guillemard’s success?

“I find in life it is usually about five or six important decisions and about half a million small ones,” he says, smiling. Guillemard’s capital looks to be on the up.