Inside Auckland's coolest private club

Author
Paul Little,
Section
On Trend,
Publish Date
Saturday, 2 September 2017, 12:06PM

It's not just who you are that could get you membership at Auckland's coolest private club, who you know is just as important, discovers Paul Little.

To be clubbable, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is not to deserve being beaten over the head but to be "suitable for membership of a club because of one's sociability or popularity". By that definition, Vinci Gin-Nen, director of marketing at Quay St's Seafarers Club and a right charmer, is every inch the clubbable man. He's the face of the place, which was founded by former ad men Simon Curran and Lucien Law.

Law was inspired by a photo to investigate the site. "I kicked open the door to have a look at the roof and there was a clothesline and a weight bench. No one had been there legally for a long time."

Two years later in 2014, Seafarers opened its doors to members, even though, according to Law, "plenty of people told me about the clubs in Auckland that opened and failed".

Not just in Auckland. Reports from the UK - the home of the traditional oak and leather gentlemen's club - suggest that many face closure due to oversupply. That shouldn't be a problem in Auckland, which boasts Seafarers, the more traditional Northern Club, founded in 1869, and that's it. The Northern's only competitor in its market sector was The Auckland Club (1853-2010).

In popular culture, clubs have been hotbeds of conservatism and the old boys' network; they're Phileas Fogg heading off around the world in 80 days, or Lord Lucan going to ground on his way to Brazil after killing the nanny or Colonel Blimp fulminating against the state of the world from behind a cloud of cigar smoke.

To some the very idea of a club is anathema. Because integral to notions of membership and belonging and networks are notions of exclusion and elitism and privilege. And those concepts are non-egalitarian, entitled and all sorts of other things which we in New Zealand used not to be. But now . . . ? Exactly.

Traditionally, to join a club, you had to be nominated and seconded for membership and then approved by all or a certain percentage of the existing members. These days, really, who would have the time? If you want to join Seafarers you can apply in an online form, upload your photo and someone will get back to you.

According to Gin-Nen, Law and Curren set out to create a new boys' and girls' network. "The Northern Club is inward-looking and this is outward-looking. They discussed how to progress that notion to a new generation. Another big thing was mentoring - find someone who's up and coming, give them a membership and then build them into the network."

The original membership "was curated. They were based on industry; so, architecture - here's 10 names," Gin-Nen said. "Being in the vicinity of Britomart there was Westpac and all these corporates. We approached people to be ambassadors from different sectors. Auckland is still a very small city and circles intertwine and overlap; that was a key thing. People know other people. A big part, once the ambassadors had signed up, was to engage their networks through events."

One ambassador was Showroom 22 fashion influencer Murray Bevan, or, as the Seafarers website calls him, Murray Beavin. So, not exactly a place where everyone knows your name - but who joins a club for the spelling?

There are events, from leading industry figures giving talks, to yoga and a rooftop screening of Eat, Pray Love - at which point you might wonder if you've joined an exclusive club or a P&O Pacific cruise.

Part of the old Seafarers Mission building, which used to provide cramped beds for sailors passing through the port, the premises have been revamped to spread the club across three floors, one mainly for business and two mainly for pleasure. It's open from 7am for people who want to have meetings or do work here, but with the best will in the world it doesn't look its best by day. The decorating style could be described as Early Dentist's Waiting Room. As for the view, thanks to Ports of Auckland, which allows the best real estate in town to be used as a giant loading dock, from here you look down on the world's most beautiful car yard. Beyond that, there's the Waitemata Harbour. At night it would look sensational. By day it's the worst great view on earth.

The key to the club's success is the ability to combine work and pleasure, according to Gin-Nen. "The most regular members are the ones who use it for work plus. There are some people you don't see after five, and others you don't see before 10."

They can meet and work and use office facilities during the day, then move on to the bars and social spaces in the evening. The third big deal is reciprocal membership with some 20 clubs around the world, including the Groucho Club and Arts Club in London, plus clubs in Hong Kong, Shanghai Singapore, Munich, New York, Los Angeles, Munich and elsewhere.

It's especially popular with folk from Waiheke who have to come to the mainland to do business during the day. Given it's just a few steps from the terminal they can relax into the evening without that, constant niggling worry about needing to get across town to catch the last ferry home.

Running a club is a constant juggling act between having enough members paying enough money to be viable and keeping numbers at a level where the veneer of exclusivity won't be tarnished.

"That's been one of the things that we had to monitor - that you couldn't just keep taking memberships," say Gin-Nen. There was a point where we were distributing to a database that would be maybe 2000 members." That would give it about the same sized population as the Northern Club.

In late August Seafarers launched a new membership offering: "A lot of memberships have expired so we have a gap where we have unique opportunity - the usual members will renew, new ones will join. It will be the usual process - a handful of arts people, a handful of business people to balance things up. We did a women-in-business series to attract people around women doing great things."

No one likes to save a buck as much as someone trying to make a buck. As the club's website says up front: "As a member of Seafarers Club you will enjoy the benefits that come with being part of our creative and inspirational community - start saving money from day one with deals we have negotiated for our members locally and internationally."

As well as everything the old guard knows and loves, the new deal offers "new luxury private dining room and kitchen on Level 5. The Matisse Room is available for hire for private dining and those special functions". And then there's what may be the clincher: "We're reducing the membership from $1500 + gst per annum to a 6-monthly $500 +gst. and we're refining the value proposition for members." Previously membership could cost up to $2500 a year.

All very appealing. As are the opportunities for star spotting to some would-be members. Seafarers has earned itself a rep as the go-to, after-show hangout for visiting stars.

"My brother is a promoter overseas in regards to concerts, so the celebrity contact is naturally just there," explains Gin-Nen, who has ended up at Seafarers after 15 years in foreign exchange and finance, which, though it sounds unlikely, turns out to have been the perfect training ground for dealing with the whims and wiles of the likes of Prince, Oprah and Justin Bieber.

"My last client base in finance was private wealth, which is where the connection to hospo came in. In that part of finance you were hosting that very small percentage of the luxury network. A big part is creating a space where your privacy is more valuable, along with the quality of the staff and the hosting."

Prince sent an advance party to case the joint and set the ground rules: no swearing; no Prince songs to be played and a fruit platter, please. He invited 100 fans along and joined them for a time. "I had my moment with him in the lift - he said thank you," says Gin-Nen.

Oprah lived up to her people's princess reputation. "She went through to every staff member in the kitchen shook hands said thank you." Adele wanted the windows covered to foil the paparazzi.

Not that celebrities get carte blanche.

"I call myself a referee and I can red card people. I was happy to tell Justin Bieber he couldn't smoke. It's just being confident at my age to approach them. If you say anything goes - that's when you get into trouble. I can say no with a smiley face. I have to look after the regular membership the next day. The stars fly out."

Marisa Fong is typical of that membership and a big booster for the club. She's president of the Auckland chapter of Entrepreneurs Organisation, director and co-founder of TBC Partners, a business advisory outfit, a member of the board of trustees at Simplicity KiwiSaver, director of Masimaya Ltd a holding company and trustee and chair of Professionele, a charitable trust.

"I'm passionate about women's causes and business," says Fong who joined Seafarers about a year after it opened. "And I'm interested in how entrepreneurs can support the wider community."

She can pursue that passion and interest from Seafarers. The day she spoke to Canvas, Fong had already had two meetings and lunch at her club.

"I have been to lots of different members' clubs overseas and belonged to the Northern Club," she says. "But it's not quite the same," says Fong. "I'm not white. I'm not an old man. As much as I know they're trying to open things up, it doesn't feel right."

She describes the club as a "physical representation of what the internet offers", where everyone can mix on an equal footing.

Fong is the perfect candidate for a club that has to simultaneously serve several different markets, because no single market in a city the size of Auckland is big enough to keep a private members club afloat. Rich listers won't party in Auckland; they'll fly to an island. People come and go so quickly around here, as a look at the rapidly rotating faces in any of the social pages will demonstrate. But so far, for just enough people, Seafarers is the perfect oasis.