Make the most of membership and taste the good life

Private clubs have always been the domain of the super rich. With the economic crisis taking its toll on businesses, many are now looking for new ways to draw clients.

Dubai's Capital Club celebrated its third birthday last month.
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You're super rich, just engaged and your wedding must be an event to surpass all others. How about a ceremony in the shadow of the pyramids, adorned with 50 albino peacocks?

Perhaps you are peckish and hunger for cupcakes from your favourite London patisserie - why not have a dozen flown into town?

Although it sounds fanciful, these are real requests made by private members in a world where, if you have enough money, almost anything is possible.

Catering to the whims of the wealthy is big business, and luxury concierge and private members clubs are thriving in the UAE.

Traditionally, membership is by invitation only, but most will screen new applicants.

Once in the club, you can outsource anything. Basic services include travel arrangements, finding a nanny, a gardener, or feeding your cat while you are away.

Pascale Aoun is the operations manager of Quintessentially in Abu Dhabi, the world's best-known private members club.

"We had to arrange for the luggage of a client to be unpacked and ready in his hotel closet on arrival at 12 destinations worldwide on one trip," she says.

But it doesn't stop there - private members clubs will source one-off watches or jewellery, antiques, flowers, perfumes or gifts.

They open the door into a world of A-list parties, VIP access to sporting events, haute-couture fashion shows and red-carpet premieres alongside private jets, yachts and fast cars.

It's all about having something that no one else has, being ahead of the game, being first. Being best.

"Any dream. Any adventure, we can help. It can be any kind of request. We do anything as long as it is legal," says Ms Aoun.

The only other boundary is the limit of your imagination.

"One member, in London I think, wanted to know exactly how many words there are in the dictionary," she adds with a smile.

Quintessentially is the Goliath in the luxury lifestyle-management field. Unrivalled in its global reach, the private members club opened in Dubai in 2005 and in Abu Dhabi three years later.

Endorsed by celebrities including Jemima Khan, the human-rights activist, and Tom Chaplin of the rock band Keane, Quintessentially likes to keep membership numbers confidential.

Ms Aoun says the UAE market is quite different to the rest of the world.

"The standards of luxury here are very high. Anyone can have dinner at a five-star hotel, so people are looking for something more.

"Our members are very interested in art; we provide an art consultant to attend exhibitions, assist in choosing paintings or drawings for a house.

"In this part of the world, people are very [much] into electronics. We brought the new iPhone 3G to a member within 48 hours of it being launched. We were one of the first to bring the iPad to Abu Dhabi. You have to stay on top of technology developments."

For some, however, being part of a global private members club is something of a contradiction - they are looking for something much more exclusive.

Karim Chbib left Switzerland for Dubai in 2007 with a suitcase and US$1,000 (Dh3,670) in his pocket.

He was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who had built a career as a concierge for a number of Emirati families, the al Thani family in Qatar and as an adviser to King Khalid bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia.

In 2009, Mr Chbib decided to go it alone and set up UniK Concierge, a luxury lifestyle-management service.

With just 13 members, UniK is a very exclusive club.

"We are boutique, so we are very close to our clientele," Mr Chbib says. "I know each and every one of my clients personally.

"Whether it is in Dubai or New York with a drink or dinner, I have direct contact with them every week.

"Our clients are international high-net-worth individuals who like to live interesting lives, but don't have the time to take care of the details themselves because of work commitments." Mr Chbib says his job is to make people feel important, to give them something their friend or neighbour doesn't have. He is about to launch a range of high-net-worth products aimed at doing exactly that.

He says if you have time, you can manage anything.

"We had to bring in the original costumes from the Harry Potter movies for a teenager's party in Dubai. We did it, of course.

"Another client of mine wanted to have a limited edition Ballon Bleu Cartier watch in three days for his son's birthday.

"It was sold out in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, all across the region. The only solution was to have it imported, so I flew to Geneva, picked up the watch and flew back."

From a 20-hectare ranch in Montana, a secret restaurant in New York or a €35 million (Dh187.3m) manor house in the south of France, UniK sources a range of jaw-dropping properties around the world for clients' use.

The Abu Dhabi Formula One race has opened up a new arena for exclusivity - private clubs will ensure members secure front-row seats to the track and invites to the stream of parties that follow.

But it's as much about business as it is about pleasure.

Based in the Financial Centre, Dubai's Capital Club celebrated its third birthday at the end of last month with a James Bond-themed party for its 1,500 members. It has become a central hub for business networking in the UAE.

"This is an Old World private members club. It is very much alive and a big place for business. It's a great platform for me," says Mr Chbib of UniK.

Nigel Sillitoe, the chief executive of the Dubai-based market research company Insights Discovery, joined the Capital Club when it first opened.

"It gives us a competitive edge," Mr Sillitoe says. "It's a good environment, especially in the evenings.

"When we invite senior executives, they are fascinated. It's not stuffy, there's a degree of exclusivity, but it's not pompous or old fashioned. Actually, today is my birthday and I might be going there for a drink."

As a member of the Capital Club, you have access to private clubs all over the world, including the RAC in London, The Madras in Chennai and The Terrace in New York.

Russel Matcham, the chief executive of the Capital Club, says it was set up when he and Guy Guillemard, the founders of Signature Clubs, saw an opportunity to bring Dubai's disparate business communities together.

"The free-zone development plan of Dubai is very successful, but it divided the business community into industry segments," Mr Matcham says. "There was an opportunity to bring these business communities together. We set out to achieve this by creating a board of governors that comprised business leaders from all the major industries and cultural groups and these governors invited friends and colleagues to join the club."

Mr Matcham says membership benefits include what he calls the "Third Place", or a relaxed and sophisticated environment to meet and entertain business associates that is not a home or an office.

"It is a place where you can spend time and feel at home," he says. "This leads to high-level business networking that is far more than bumping into someone and swapping cards. It is about building enduring business relationships from meeting members on many occasions and becoming friends."

Private clubs are no longer just the preserve of old boys. About a third of Quintessentially's members in the UAE are female, while the Capital Club is currently focusing on bringing in more senior women executives as members.

The Dubai Ladies Club in Jumeirah describes itself as an ultra-exclusive private members club and a centrepiece of the Dubai Women Establishment.

It boasts a membership list including royalty, sport stars and business leaders.

Perhaps, given the expat populations and levels of wealth, people in the UAE are a particularly clubbable bunch. The industry, however, relies on an ever-growing stream of wealthy members and, following the economic crisis, there are fewer than there used to be.

According to the Capgemini World Wealth Report 2010, the UAE lost almost 19 per cent of its high-net-worth individuals in 2009, with numbers falling to about 54,500.

"We opened in Abu Dhabi in 2008," Ms Aoun of Quintessentially says. "It was all going well until May 2009, then the market went quiet. People were still travelling, but instead of going to 12 destinations they were going to five."

Mr Chbib agrees. "Clients are now much closer to the negotiation," he says. "They are more demanding and looking for real value for money."

Milton Pedraza, the chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York-based research firm, says the recession has made the ultra wealthy think about what really matters, giving lifestyle management a new legitimacy.

"It has gone from being, 'I'll get you anything to entertain you' to, 'I'll get you everything you need in your life first and foremost' - to look after your most treasured possessions, your children, your parents, your house and so on," he says.

"These high-net-worth individuals are now so time starved and unconnected with the services that make their lives function, like how to get the best maid or the best nanny. They are willing to pay a premium for access to networks offering trust and expertise, suppliers that really care."

Katharine Giovanni, the founder of the US-based International Concierge and Lifestyle Management Association, says the economic crisis is fuelling growth in the industry.

"Companies are looking for new ways to draw clients in, so, for example, real estate management companies are now offering concierge services or personal assistance. Adding a concierge desk to a lobby makes them a five-star property," she says.

"You find them now in various buildings: condos, country clubs, even shopping malls."

And it's the niche market, she says, that is growing the fastest.

"We are seeing concierge services for divorced men, for funerals, for widows and in hospitals. I know of one specialising in the patients of plastic surgeons, a concierge for seniors, this is where the growth is. The industry is going after every demographic - even non-profit.

"We have around 400 members globally. It's strongest in the English-speaking nations, but we also have members in China, Russia, India - even in Iran and Egypt.

"The concierge industry is no longer solely geared towards the very rich. We are all trying to squeeze 36 hours into a 24-hour day and people are looking for help with the parts they can't manage alone."

Belonging to the Best

Capital Club

Members 1,500
Opened 2008
Cost on application
Benefits designed for those in business, finance and government in the UAE.
Facilities include dining rooms, lounges, meeting rooms, a wellness centre and guest rooms.
Reciprocal arrangements with clubs in Qatar, China, India, Indonesia, the New Zealand, Canada, Belgium, UK and the US

Dubai Ladies Club

Members 3,000
Opened 2005
Cost Dh10,250 a year; Dh3,250 for three months; Dh1,750 for one month
Benefits Private members club for women for business and leisure. Fully equipped fitness centre, tennis and squash courts, swimming pool, spa and childcare centre

Club Concierge

Members 100,000 (worldwide)
Opened 2007
Cost Dh15,000 to Dh20,000 per year
Benefits Tailor-made lifestyle-management assistance with everything from relocations to special events.
Offices in Dubai, India, Singapore, Japan and the US


Members confidential
Opened 2005 (Dubai); 2008 (Abu Dhabi)
Cost From Dh5,500 + Dh1,000 joining fee (general); from Dh18,500 + Dh1,500 joining fee (dedicated); Dh70,000 to Dh170,000 (elite; by invitation only)
Benefits Personal assistance, discounts, goods, services, treats and practical help in all aspects of life

UniK Concierge

Members 13
Opened 2009
Cost From Dh10,000 to Dh25,000 a year
Benefits Members are offered a tailored service adapted to their needs and expectations to enrich their lifestyle experiences.
Offices in Dubai and New York

Additional reporting by Felicity Glover