The benefits of private club membership in the UAE

Lifestyle membership clubs can offer cardholders exclusive leisure discounts across the Emirates. But there can be a big catch - you need to work in a specific profession to join.

Pete Lindsay with his wife Henrietta, daughters Tane, Tiana, Maia and son Dale at his residence in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
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About six times a week, Pete Lindsay walks into any one of four gyms on his way to work, uses the facilities, and leaves without paying.

But it is all above board – he is entitled to as a member of a lifestyle club which allows him to use several gyms free of charge and receive discounts on everything from restaurant bills, insurance and more.

Sounds like something worth signing up to? Forget it, unless you work in a handful of roles in the aviation industry.

Mr Lindsay, 51, is a member of Aviation Professionals Club (APC), formerly Emirates Pilots Club, which is bound by a set of constitutional rules that bars all but certain groups from joining. It is one of a handful of groups of its kind in the UAE that offer membership cards to those working in specific professions.

“Our constitution doesn’t allow us to open the door per se to all aviation professionals but select groups,” says Mark Eadon, the chief financial officer of APC.

“So what we want to do is we want to invite professionals, particularly in the areas of management, to apply for membership for the club as well as other airline pilots who may be visiting or working in the UAE other than the ones we currently represent.”

New Zealander Mr Lindsay, a 777 training captain with Emirates Airline, joined the non-profit group soon after it was founded 15 years ago.

“There was no package for us like other expats had in Dubai at the time. They had club packages built in and we didn’t,” says Mr Lindsay, who is member number 318 and says back then expats often socialised at hotel clubs before prices became too high.

A fellow pilot, Mike Park, also a Kiwi, had an idea to start a group which would negotiate discounts on behalf of its members. Pilots were often free in the weekdays when the clubs were quiet and he thought they could negotiate a good deal.

“They have increased the options available over time. It started off as a way of purely belonging to a few clubs,” says Mr Lindsay. “Then it expanded to providing equipment to us when we were overseas with days off, like bikes and bits and pieces cheaper than having to rent and buy them. Then as it got larger it expanded into medical benefits, insurance benefits.”

Back when he joined, membership for his family cost around Dh100 a month. Today he pays double that – a family membership costs Dh200, while a single is Dh100 – but he estimates that saves his family in excess of Dh20,000 a year in gym memberships and dining out.

He is one of 9,500 members whose combined monthly income is estimated to be Dh475 million per month, based on an average salary package of Dh50,000. The vast majority, 75 to 80 per cent, are based in Dubai, as are most of the deals, but APC has members and deal partners all over the Emirates.

And it estimates its members spend a minimum of US$68.4 million in its 800 domestic deal partners, which include gyms, leisure clubs and restaurants, every year.

“Based on a series of different algorithms we can generate an understanding for how many members can use a particular club at a particular time. And we will buy memberships according to that algorithm,” says Mr Eadon.

“But the advantage to the partner in giving us these memberships is the amount of money that the member will spend during the time they’re at that venue.”

And that can be considerable.

During July and August, 850 members dined at The Meat Co during a special promotion. APC estimates that each member spent on average Dh500, delivering Dh725,000 in revenue for the chain. The club has also calculated that members spend about Dh2.5million at the Westin Hotel in Dubai each year.

“We do not just offer the lifestyle club benefits and the tangible benefits at discounts at hotel bars and so on. We have a dance ball and we have a group gathering where we put on a buffet dinner and have a live band at no charge to them,” says Mr Eadon.

In addition it offers a range of different insurances as well as discounted car leasing packages.

Aviation Professionals Club is unique in the UAE for the range of benefits it offers, but it is not the only lifestyle membership club in the country.

Suki Van Den Berg was working as a flight attendant for Emirates Airline in 2008 when she decided to set up a card, called Club Exec, also for those working in the aviation industry.

“I started flying part-time for the Royal Family with [Dubai] Air Wing on secondment and the crew couldn’t have the Face Card [a club for flight attendants working for Emirates]. So I had an idea to start another card because none of the other airlines that were around then had one,” she says.

“I remember my first big presentation I gave to a company and the first thing they asked was how do you compare to Emirates Pilots Club? I said to them, ‘well, I can’t compare because they have thousands of members but five years down the line you are going to ask why you never bought a membership’. They bought a membership,” adds Ms Van Den Berg.

Today it has about 2,500 members and is now also open to teachers. The card’s most popular programme, Club Exec diamond, costs around Dh3,000 a year and entitles members access to a beach club and gym on The Palm, as well as several other Dubai fitness venues, and 10 to 40 per cent discounts on food and beverage outlets. Joining the gym and fitness clubs separately would cost upwards of Dh35,000.

The benefits enjoyed by these types of profession-based clubs inspired another lifestyle card called DuNight Destinations, however, it is open to all.

DuNight Destinations, which has in the region of 10,000 members, offers discounts of 20 to 50 per cent, but no free access, to between 200 and 300 venues in the UAE for Dh400 to Dh500 a year. Most of its deals are in Dubai.

“I used to work in the hotel industry so I could see the number of people coming in with this Face Card and getting 40 per cent discount on drinks,” says Wendy Smith-Williams, the founder of DuNight Destinations.

“Why should they get 40 per cent discount off [while I get nothing] just because I am Joe Public? It’s obviously there to be had if you have the right demographic. That was what spurred me on to do it,” she adds.

Ms Van Den Berg and Ms Smith-Williams, who jointly promote their respective clubs, have now teamed up to launch a lifestyle membership card together with two others called Safira, which is specifically designed for the under-17s. From January 1, it will offer free access to six venues in Dubai in addition to discounts.

And they could be on to something. The lifestyle club membership card industry appears to be on the rise, with talk of a similar concept on its way for Abu Dhabi.

“There is a great of opportunity ahead for clubs of this type,” adds Mr Eadon. “There’s quite a lot of interest in that kind of business moving forward.”