Madison Rooms private members club opens in Singapore even as memberships wane

Some may call Raj Datwani and Alex Chew bold visionaries. Others might call them crazy. The pair has just opened a private members club, at a time when Singaporeans are tightening their belts.

Private club memberships have long been seen as a form of investment in the small city-state, where land is scarce and, until relatively recently, access to pools, tennis courts and other amenities weren't available at most apartment blocks.

Those memberships did not come cheap, with annual fees ranging from $4,900 to $167,000.

But membership broker and owner of Tee-Up Marketing Enterprises Fion Phua says Singaporeans have started to question the value of exclusive club memberships.

"After the government started to take away land, Singaporeans started to worry," she says. "If I buy this club, what will happen to my club membership? Is it still a form of investment?"

Sentosa Golf Club
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Sentosa Golf Club

There are some 25 private members clubs in Singapore, and industry veterans say that membership fees have dropped by 20-30 percent from the highs of 2000.

"Business has been slow," says Madeline Choo, a membership broker and director of Active Golf. "The economic slowdown has made people more careful in their spending and less people are buying club memberships."

The Singapore Government's 2014 Master Land Plan, which is set to reduce the number of golf clubs in Singapore from 13 to eight, has also thrown the lucrative market for club memberships into disarray. The land for golf and country club properties is often leased from the Singapore Government and if that lease isn't renewed - as in the case of the Keppel Club, which was told in 2014 that its lease won't be renewed when it runs out in 2021 - the value of membership can plummet overnight.

Some commentators, though, are convinced that the ability to mix business with pleasure means there will always be a place for private members clubs. Andrew Johnston, general manager of the Sentosa Golf Club (SGC), is one.

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With a coveted Top 100 listing in Golf Digest - and with the number of golf courses in Singapore set to shrink dramatically - Johnston says he's confident that SGC membership remains a sound investment.

"Our average individual membership right now goes for about $230,000," he tells CNBC. "My guess - and this is just my guess - is that it'll probably reach around $500,000 in six years."

To safeguard those investments, SGC is currently refurbishing its Tanjong golf course.

"When the re-investment in our asset becomes available and everybody sees how special the new golf course is, I think it will naturally grow, Johnston says.

The time-honored tradition of cultivating business contacts over a leisurely game of golf makes up 40 percent of the SGC's weekday trade, and Johnston bets that golf will remain a popular way for business people to network.

"It's a great atmosphere to come and enjoy the golf course because you're with your client for four to five hours playing golf, and you're going to have lunch and then enjoy the day," he says. "It gives you a great opportunity to network."

It's the networking business that Datwani and Chew are counting on. Their new club, Madison Rooms, opened in this month. Membership costs $6,400 for access to amenities including a bar, dining facilities, a partnership with Etihad Airways to provide exclusive flight deals and access to concierge services from Quintessentially Asia.

This compares to the $7,300 cost of joining the well-established Tower Club in the heart of Singapore's central business district for 10 years, or about $1,450 a year, which buys you access to a bar, private dining rooms, and a penthouse gym. That works out to Lifetime membership at the Tower Club comes in at $25,000.

Datwani says Madison Rooms has already attracted about 100 members.

"You want to do business with people that you're comfortable with," he says. "How do you get comfortable with people? It's by being in situations that almost force that - breaking bread, having a drink, watching sports on TV - situations like that create a deeper bond with someone you're doing business with."

The co-owners also have their own carefully-curated network of contacts to give the club a kick start.

"We definitely see a gap in the market," says Chew. "Madison Rooms is not about these four walls, but about what we can achieve for our members to facilitate their business needs."

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