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Marc Nicholson.

Interview - Marc Nicholson, founder of private members’ club 1880

Dec 20, 2019 5:50 AM

STEP ONTO THE escalator leading up to the club 1880 and you’re at first confused by the strange glittering prismatic walls surrounding you, a kind of high-tech rabbit hole promising a wonderland upon arrival. 

Push through the stylish doors and you’re greeted by 1880’s chic elegance – handcrafted wood and leather furniture, discreet chandeliers, a gentle clashing of traditional and cutting-edge design motifs, walls of whimsical antiques and art, and intriguing cyberpunk elements such as sound-proof private pods. 

With Christmas just around the corner, the 22,000 sq ft club is tastefully bedecked with silver baubles and white fir trees, giving the impression that you’ve indeed entered a kind of wonderland in the middle of Robertson Quay. The club’s name, 1880, is taken from the decade Robertson Quay was founded.

The club founder Marc Nicholson is a 50-year-old Canadian with a slightly impatient youthful vigour and a baby face that alternately lights up and contorts like that of a child’s. Like many entrepreneurs, he has chutzpah to burn – but there’s an additional ringmaster theatricality to it that makes you unsurprised to learn he was once a child actor.

Mr Nicholson has lived in Singapore for 17 years with his Singaporean wife and teenage daughter and son, and envisioned 1880 as a kind of Camelot for entrepreneurs, intellectuals, leaders and creatives to get together and inspire one another.

Having lived in various countries – including London, Indonesia, Cyprus and the Netherlands – the one experience he wants to recreate from his formative years in Montreal is the gathering of opinionated individuals over dinner, which his bohemian-minded parents used to organise. 

He would be the first to admit that 1880’s star designer Timothy Oulton may have “overshot” his brief in creating such a sleek and luxurious space. Mr Nicholson would have preferred a more casual feel where people were so at home, they’d feel free to take off their shoes, put their feet up and speak candidly. As if to demonstrate this, Mr Nicholson takes off his shoes, sits cross-legged on the premium leather sofa, and begins the interview. 

1880 was launched in late 2017 as a private members’ club for interesting individuals to get together and talk. Two years on, how successful is it in creating these opportunities – especially in a country where many people can be quite cautious on certain topics?

The idea is to create discourse, and I don’t think that people here are cautious with their opinions. I think it's a little more difficult to draw those conversations out in certain social settings. And I do think the demand for those conversations is not met by supply here… That is why we created 1880 as a place to maximise the opportunities of meeting somebody and having a great exchange in the first place. We have three or four events taking place everyday, such as talks, forums, book clubs and secret suppers. At the last secret supper, for instance, we invited 17 people and hid questions under their plates. Sometime during dinner, we asked them to lift up their plates and read their questions. The question could be something funny or provocative or profound, but it gives the person an opportunity to reveal herself – or else force the question on someone else... By the end of the night, people who had never met before were hugging each other because of the bond and intimacy those exchanges had created.

The membership joining fee is S$5,000 per person or S$7,000 per couple, and then there’s an annual fee of about $2,000. That’s a low entry price for a beautifully-designed, centrally-located private members’ club. How does the business model work?

We’re looking to attract a maximum of 2,000 members and so far we’ve attracted over 1,800. A sufficient base of members who come frequently, use the facilities and bring their guests will keep us profitable. We have seven business units in the club – the restaurant, bar, spa, co-working space and so on. And if each of these is profitable, turning a 10 per cent or so, that can cover the rent, cost of goods sold, staff wages and so on.  If the business model is done right, the contributions of the joining fee and the monthly or annual fee can go into a separate bank account. There are some clubs around the world that follow this model exceptionally well. The American Club in Singapore, for one, is highly profitable and efficiently run… Right now there’s an explosion of private members’ clubs around the world. There'll be 20 new clubs opening next year in North America alone and another 20 the year after. London is also a mecca for private clubs with many openings. So it’s a very, very competitive market.

Nonetheless, you’re looking to expand…

We want to build a network of clubs around the region. And right now Jakarta is extremely high on that list. But we’re also looking at Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Manila and so on. Ultimately, we’d love to get into the accommodation business where we are combining, say, the concept of the club, the co-working space and a place to stay all-in-one…. Ultimately, though, this is an incredibly high touch business. You don't just sit back and go: This should operate pretty well on its own. We’re very involved and spend a lot of time engaging with the members, whether through the events or just on a social level. We do between 100 and 150 events a month, most of which are designed to bring the members together and engage with each other.

Is there anything that surprises you in these past two years, in terms of what worked and what hasn’t?

We set the objective of having a 50 percent male and 50 percent female membership. But the proportion now is almost 60-40 in favour of men. I think the typical reputation of a private club is not necessarily female-friendly. Many of the traditional clubs were men's clubs before changing and begrudgingly allowing women to join… But I want this club to be one where a woman can sit alone at the bar without anyone judging her; a club where a woman can and should feel safe coming into a known environment where the staff all know and respect her… So we started a women's forum with about 80 professional women ranging in age from 22 to over 60. They meet on a regular basis to discuss various issues and challenges they face, from career struggles to parenting issues. You know, if you're running a business, whether you’re male or female, it’s actually a fairly lonely occupation. So the women’s forum – among other activities – gives women a chance to share their experiences with other professional women. 

What do you think people expect from the club experience today?

I think there is this great wave sweeping the world right now, which is asking people to commit to making the world a slightly better place than it is. And what we're trying to do in 1880 is offer people the opportunity to connect with other people who are doing awesome things, and hopefully that connection can give birth to other awesome ideas to improve the world.