When Emma Cullen joined the Capital Club as general manager in March last year, she knew that eight months down the line an announcement might send the fortunes of the city she loves soaring. This, of course, was which contender would win the Expo 2020 bid.
In what many considered a bit of a gamble, she decided almost immediately to throw a party on the night of the announcement at the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) private members’ club.
“Everyone said ‘You’re nuts’,” she recalls. “But when I joined the club I thought: ‘Expo 2020 is going to be a successful win and will assist Dubai [in its recovery] from the recession and the pain that’s happened in the DIFC’.”
So she forged ahead. Two months before the announcement she secured the backing of Mark Beer, the DIFC Courts’ registrar and head of the club’s events committee, and knew she was good to go.
However, until 5pm on the day of the announcement it looked like Dubai would lose the bid because of last-minute vote trading.
“I got the phone call [warning of imminent failure] and said: ‘We’re here to celebrate Dubai; whether we win or lose we still celebrate Dubai.’”
About 15 of the club’s board members — all prominent business people — as well as numerous media representatives were there for the moment of reckoning. The place was pumping.
“It worked in our favour,” she says of Dubai’s win. “It was a magical night; the pinnacle of my career.”
The party went on until 3am.
Ms Cullen, a native of Melbourne in Australia, arrived in Dubai a decade ago and spent six years working for Better Homes real estate company. When the recession hit, she quit to do consultancy work. One of those jobs was with Signature Clubs, the owner of the Capital Club, whose management then offered her the permanent position of general manager at the DIFC venue.
“I thought: ‘Oh goodness, I’ve never been a general manager’ but I’m quite a bossy boots,” she jokes. She was able to draw on her previous experience as marketing director for Australia at ClubCorp, the largest private club owner globally.
Dubai is not a “clubby city” like London or New York, which are known for their wealth of private members’ clubs. Moreover, people there tend to join clubs for the social opportunities they offer, whereas in Dubai the focus is more firmly on business networking. Dubai is also a transient place, which means membership is constantly shifting. The Capital Club also suffered badly from member resignations during the global financial crisis.
Things have now picked up again, even if they are not back to pre-2008 levels, according to Ms Cullen, who also predicts that Dubai will become less transient as people stay put “to see the fruits of their labour” in the build-up to Expo 2020.
There is one-off fee to join the club and annual membership dues on top. Currently there are 1,500 members and 800 spouse members. Men make up 92 per cent of the members.
“We’ve worked hard to bring in more female members,” she says. “But we still haven’t grown that. It’s probably just the nature of the DIFC community.”
The age demographic, however, is changing, with more younger members joining — 10 per cent of members are now in the 35 to 45 age range. Some of these are founders of new businesses who join the Capital Club to connect with Dubai’s old school chief executives, Ms Cullen says.
“There is a whole mentoring system just taking place naturally here,” she adds.
Given the transient nature of the members, Ms Cullen’s biggest challenge is keeping them engaged. The club puts on industry-specific networking events. This month’s focus is SMEs; in February the theme will be commodities and in the run-up to the summer there will be seminars on business travel.
A private members’ club offers a discreet venue to hold meetings rather than, say, Costa Coffee or Zuma.
Ms Cullen says she has increased the use of technology since she took over to make things “better and more efficient” and to keep track of members’ preferences.
“Profiling members is a really important point for us,” she explains. “Understanding what they want when they arrive makes us different to a hotel lobby.”
As well as being more “hands on” than previous general managers, Ms Cullen likes to add a bit of pizzazz. The next event on the social calendar is the club’s anniversary party. Last year’s theme was the Oscars, this year it’s “speakeasy”. Guest have been told to “dress prohibitively”.
“It’s one of the most famous parties in Dubai,” she says of the event.