The pandemic should have been a disaster for 67 Pall Mall. When the first lockdown struck, London became a ghost town. The idea of people gathering together to carouse and socialise was inconceivable. For a central London members’ club with a focus on wine and a business model built on attracting members and getting them through the door to drink, dine and generally make merry, the situation seemed nothing short of calamitous. Losing revenue from its restaurant dining was one thing, but if working from home was to become the new normal, why would Surrey commuters, at a time of economic uncertainty, renew their £1,750 annual memberships?
How, then – 18 months later, with the industry still in the throes of retrenchment – is 67 embarking on a massive expansion, including a huge new cellar and TV studio at its St James’s premises, along with plans to open in a string of cities around the world?
The obvious answer is because of what the club did during lockdown. In one of the most consummate cases of ‘pivoting’, 67 laid on a mind-boggling series of online tastings in which wine experts and producers presented webinars to an increasingly engaged audience around the world. There were over 1,000 such events, many with at-home tasting kits, bottled on a hastily assembled production line at the club, which gained 600 ‘virtual members’, as well as some welcome revenue. (Although the wine is sold at cost, a £48 ticket includes a £25 profit.) More importantly, it gained a global profile, as well as serious kudos and goodwill with both the consumers watching and the producers starring.
Such was the success of the venture that the club has since launched 67TV, an online TV channel featuring regular, slicker content. It is, to say the least, ambitious: six hours of fresh programming each day, filmed both in London and at wineries and vineyards around the world, with a 15-strong professional team and a stream of renowned wine commentators. ‘Doing the Zoom tastings gave us the confidence to do the full TV,’ says the club’s founder and CEO Grant Ashton. ‘That’s why I feel positive about it. What we did in lockdown was innovative, but it’s not patentable; anyone can do it – and they have done. So we decided to go a step further and do it bigger and better. Zoom is 30 frames a second; we’re now shooting on 4K with a two camera set-up, drone cameras, the lot. It makes it a lot less tiring to watch.’
He’ll need it to be. The enterprise is funded by advertising, with luxury lifestyle brands spanning yachts, private jets and fashion already on board, along with wine access system Coravin and, apparently, several wine merchants lined up. ‘We’ve got the perfect audience for them: proven, affluent wine lovers. Brands will pay a premium to reach these people.’ Maybe so, but can 67 maintain the raft of content, and will they get the viewing figures to make it work? A year ago, with everyone stuck at home and nothing better to do, the idea of tuning in to see Jasper Morris analysing the soils of Pommard was rather appealing – and novel. But as the world reopens, will wine lovers have better things to do?
‘It comes down to the quality, not quantity, of viewers,’ says Ashton. ‘But I’m constantly amazed how many wine lovers there are in the world. And don’t forget, it’s all free.’ (Though viewers need to sign up for a £10-a-month virtual membership to be able to purchase the tasting kits.)
‘The world wine industry is worth $450bn a year, but it doesn’t have a TV channel. Why not?’ Ashton asks, incredulously. Cynics would say it’s because wine is a dry subject that is notoriously difficult to enliven on screen, but Ashton is not among them: ‘Look at the amount of food shows there are.’ He’s keen to move the content the same way. ‘In time, we’ll do more lifestyle-type stuff – road trips in Tuscany and Napa Valley, that sort of thing. It’s dramatically cheaper to do than it would have been five years ago. You don’t need a guy hanging out of a helicopter anymore.’
Ashton is in the enviable position where all parties want to work with him. Be it presenters or producers, most are grateful of the airtime after a period when such profile has been hard to come by. It’s a collaborative approach that also plays out in the club’s more significant ambitions – international growth. Later this year, the first overseas 67 Pall Mall will open in Singapore, followed in the next three years by outposts in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Berlin. Thereafter, there is talk of everywhere from Tokyo and Melbourne to New York and San Francisco. None of this will be funded by selling a few TV ads. And herein lies the real answer to the question of how they are doing this: the ambition of the founder.
‘The reality is very simple,’ says the plain-speaking 54-year-old. ‘I used to run a trading floor for a bank. In my mind, you’ve got to either buy or sell. A club is a footprint. If you’ve got a bigger footprint, you can have more clubs, more members, you’re worth more – and you’ve got more to offer members. Having spent all my life trying to buy low and sell high, you tend to spot opportunities and act on them.’ So in London, where, as Ashton points out, office space is cheap right now, he has been able to snap up an additional site opposite the main club at a third of the going rate. Having initially been looking for an 800-sq-ft TV studio, he ended up leasing 6,000 sq ft, which he is renting out to members looking for a two-day-a-week London base, for a profit. ‘And then they come into the club for a glass or two when they’re here,’ he says.
In this game, if you’re not constantly opening and innovating, people think you’ve fallen flat
The overseas plans are even more wide-ranging. The Singapore branch has already signed up over 2,000 members, while its 20,000-strong order for Zalto glasses is taking the manufacturer three months to complete. Now Ashton has bought a 250-year-old merchant house in the middle of Beaune (200 yards from the famous Hospice) for its next opening. ‘We managed to scuttle into France during lockdown, saw it once, and bought it,’ he says. ‘Was I planning to go to Beaune next? No. But it came up. And places like this come up once every 30 to 40 years.’ The property will have a public bar and restaurant, as well as private areas for members. London members will be enrolled for free.
In London, 10–15% of the 4,000-strong membership are in the wine trade. Ashton expects – and needs – this figure to rise in France. In Bordeaux, where he is negotiating terms on a venue in the city centre (‘The landlord is going to lose its tenant so is prepared to do a deal’), his shareholders include a who’s who of the region’s château owners. For them it is not just an investment (though ‘I will make them money’, says Ashton); it’s an expansion of their footprint. ‘Say you’ve got a beautiful château in the Médoc, but it’s an hour up the D2, and you live in Bordeaux. You want a place you can go to eat, drink, entertain, store some of your wine to open with cheap corkage, and show it off in prime condition at tastings and events,’ Ashton outlines. ‘If you’re meeting customers, they may not have time to head to the Médoc, especially if they also need to meet producers from St-Emilion and Sauternes. Plus we’ll have one of biggest lists in Bordeaux: wines from 50 countries, which is very unusual in France. In Bordeaux, around 60,000 people work in the wine business, and they’re inquisitive. So we can have a great by-the-glass list, because we’ll get through it. And older wines, too.’ In short, producers will use the club as a showcase for their wines, and their custom becomes a showcase for the club. ‘And they can do a quick interview for 67TV while they’re there,’ he says. ‘Well why wouldn’t they?’
Ready-made marketing aside, the benefit of the shareholder model is that it avoids accruing too much debt. The club has €6m of equity in the Beaune property and ‘probably twice that in Bordeaux’. On the flipside, it only owns 51% of the club, ‘but that’s enough’, says Ashton. Especially when the other 49% are members who are, literally, invested in its success and will be its loudest cheerleaders. The club has 190 shareholders in London, 85 in Singapore, 150 in Beaune and another 150 in Bordeaux.
Ashton’s initial idea when he founded the club a decade ago, having been fired from his job in the City, was to open ‘a little wine bar’ in Marylebone to sell his wine inventory, which had got ‘out of hand’. Having failed to find the sort of property he was looking for, he chanced upon the then ramshackle 67 Pall Mall, which, despite its grand address, was a touch unloved. ‘It had been empty for 10 years and needed a lot of work, so it was cheap,’ recalls Ashton. ‘We thought we’d do a wine-centric restaurant: put in some tables and chairs, offer some charcuterie and cheese, and have a nice wine list. Nothing dramatic. But more bits of the building kept coming up, and it grew and grew.’ And after Westminster Council rejected his application for a restaurant, he decided to turn it into a club.
‘You have to adapt as you go along in this game. If you’re not constantly opening, innovating, driving the business, people think you’ve fallen flat. Look at Soho House: they’re constantly doing more, opening more places. You’ve got to.’ If the comparison with the 28-strong, uber-cool, celebrity-friendly global empire doesn’t tell you all you need to know about Ashton’s ambition, nothing will.