When it's time for a girls' night out in Dallas, Alexa Kapioltas doesn't waste a minute barhopping. She rallies her friends and whisks them to the Candle Room, an exclusive lounge voted the "best place you can't get into" by a local city guide. "Some of my friends think it's too hoity-toity, but many of them like the fact that it's a cool spot and that people can't normally get in," says Kapioltas, 29, a marketing executive in an architecture firm.
As more professionals try to maximize their leisure time, many are searching for communities of like-minded people. It's the velvet-rope phenomenon stretched to encompass an entire lifestyle. In the past year, exclusive clubs and gyms have been cropping up from Manhattan to Tokyo, offering state-of-the-art design, personal service and a multitude of social-networking opportunities to a handpicked number of members all for a price (and the right connections), of course.
The Equinox gym in the new Time Warner Center in New York City inaugurated E, a posh $24,000-a-year facility for 200 invitation-only guests; Casa Casuarina formerly Gianni Versace's home in South Beach is set to become a members-only club; the British concierge service Quintessentially is opening an outpost in Miami following its recent launches in South Africa and Beijing; and in Tokyo individuals with assets of more than $920,000 can hire celebrity sushi chefs and geishas for private parties through Club Concierge. In a competitive social and economic environment, trading up whether it's paying a premium so you can breeze past the bouncers or ponying up big bucks so you can cruise around in a Rolls-Royce Phantom makes you look and feel like a player.
Holly Dunlap, founder of Hollywould shoes, has just joined Frederick's, another new club in Manhattan, where the members-only lounge is accessible by fingerprint scanning. "I think this is going to be the new cool place," says Dunlap, who, according to the club, will be joined by Harvey Weinstein and Dylan Lauren. "It's also good for my business that I can bring people to a place that isn't going to be a mob scene."
The travel industry is cashing in on the trend too. For a one-time deposit of $375,000 and annual fees of up to $25,000, Exclusive Resorts launched in 2002 and 50% owned by former AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case invites members to vacation in multimillion-dollar homes in more than 25 destinations around the world. The response has been tremendous: in the past year, the number of members has gone from fewer than 100 to more than 700.
Most people balk at the cost of these memberships, but for the exceptionally wealthy it's spare change. "What are people going to do with their money?" asks Bill Fischer, founder of Fischer Travel in New York City (the agency is so select that its telephone number is available only by word of mouth). "They have the houses, they've got the fancy cars and drivers. The next things are luxury and privacy and they're willing to pay for them."