A tale of two cities - Private residence clubs in San Francisco and London
Fractional Life editor George Sell visits two contrasting residence clubs.
Forgive me for taking liberties with Dickens' masterpiece but I am going to substitute San Francisco for Paris in this article, and compare two private residence clubs operated by the same company, in these two very different cities.
The luxury end of the fractional market, particularly in the US has endured the worst of times recently, but there are signs – and growing optimism in the industry – that a return to the best of times may be on the horizon.
So let's take a look at 47 Park Street, in London's Mayfair, and the Ritz-Carlton Residence Club on Market Street in San Francisco, and examine the two properties' similarities and differences.
47 Park Street is badged under the Grand Residences by Marriott brand, and is described by the company as “an innovative concept in residential club membership, designed to be an alternative to second home ownership. It provides frequent travellers to London with a luxurious Mayfair residence, to be used at their convenience and at a fraction of the cost. 47 Park Street London is a full service luxury shared ownership property.”
The building itself is a handsome red brick Edwardian townhouse, built in 1927 for the first Baron Milford, and set back one street from Hyde Park. It is within walking distance of some of London's best restaurants (and even has its own entrance into Michel Roux Jr's famed Le Gavroche), classiest shops and most exclusive galleries.
Having been a hotel for many years, in 2002 the building was converted into 49 one- and two-bedroom residences, all with bathrooms and kitchens. Due to the nature of the original building, these come in a range of sizes and specifications.
On arrival at the property, which has recently been refurbished, there is an immediately reassuring sense of understated luxury. The décor in the lobby and lounge features lots of warm wood and gentle natural tones and fabrics, while an interesting array of paintings and antiques ensure the neo-classical and Regency styles are very appropriate for this exclusive part of London.
The rooms continue this theme – high quality fabrics, furniture and fittings in each, but all reflecting the understated feel. While the interiors of the residences are similar in décor, each has individual touches, in the form of paintings, prints and even flowers from the property's in-house florist. Even the elevator doors still have their original art deco flourishes, adding to the sense of permanence and quiet opulence. In short, the building feels like it has a history.
The one-bedroom units are sold three in price brackets - deluxe, premium and executive in descending order, while the two bedroom residences are available in deluxe and premium. Interestingly, the two-bedroom deluxe has proven to be the most popular option, as well as the most expensive. Units range in size from 549 to 1,023 square feet.
Prices range from £111,000 to £260,000 for 21-day increments. This is not a deeded interest, as Marriott currently holds the lease on the building – which is owned by the Duke of Westminster, the richest living Englishman – until 2050.
Sales at 47 Park Street have been good, holding up throughout the recession and picking up pace late last year and into 2010. Of the 637 potential memberships for sale, around 65 per cent have been bought.
The membership is made up of well travelled, high-net worth individuals, often with an entrepreneurial streak. They usually have several homes around the world, are generally aged over 50 and need to travel to London several times a year, either for business or pleasure, or a combination of both.
Although members are a thoroughly international bunch, US and UK buyers make up the majority of purchasers, with a recent rise in enquiries from Australia and South Africa. Several have bought more than one fraction, and use them to entertain friends and family when they are not in town. One of the attractions of Park Street is the service – the head concierge has worked at the property for 26 years, so members are sure to get the inside information on the latest places to eat and the best shows, as well as having all arrangements handled for them.
Another popular service is the rental pool. If members' circumstances change and they don't need to spend so much time in London, they can put their unused nights into the pool, or swap them for stays at other properties in the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton portfolio.
Over on the west coast of the US, the Ritz-Carlton Club and Residences on Market Street is a very different proposition. Although the actual building – San Francisco's first ever skyscraper, and originally the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle – is considerably older than 47 Park Street, having been built in 1890, this property still feels like a new conversion.
And it is not dedicated purely to residences. The building contains 44 deeded fractional ownership club residences, with prices ranging from $159,000 to $349,000 for 21 nights in perpetuity, as well as 57 private ownership units, including two-level penthouse with stunning views of the city and an equally dizzying $5 million price tag. Several of the whole ownership buyers have also bough fractions for use by their friends and family.
The buyers have a similar age and professional demographic to Park Street, but whereas the London property has significant proportion of European buyers, here that is replaced by owners from Asia, who complement the majority of US owners. Again, the buyers make regular use of the company's exchange programme to swap some of their time for other destinations.
The residences here are considerably bigger than those in London, but there is evidence of a company ethos that pervades both properties. The style here is more modern, but still classy and understated, with residences furnished in a similar fashion, with some very attractive art and fittings used for differentiation. Furniture and wall finishings are subtle in shade, with flashes of colour being provided by cushions and other soft furnishings, and vivid paintings. Rich, dark wooden flooring contrasts nicely with the Italian marble flooring of the bathrooms.
The interior architecture here is very open-plan, with large contemporary kitchens incorporated in to the living areas – a marked contrast with 47 Park Street where the small kitchens are located off the hallways. These units are certainly well-equipped for entertaining, should the members wish to do so, whereas in London the majority of members head out for dinner.
The San Francisco property also offers more in the way of amenities, offering two-car valet parking, a boardroom, wine storage and a huge – though eerily silent when we visited – fitness centre.
The general feel around the property is that it is waiting to spring into action, and to establish a community of members, who visit regularly and get to know the staff well. It does feel different from Park Street which has a well-established buzz about it.
Not that the San Francisco club isn't pulling out all the stops to entice members to return regularly, hosting regular events such as wine tastings and fashion shows as part of its “Taste of the City” programme.
So two properties operated by the same company on different sides of the world have very different characters and atmospheres, but both are recognisably linked by a common thread in terms of company values, services and finish.