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The Evolution of the Private Vacation Club

When it comes to the getaways that travel titan Michael Meldman has built, membership certainly has its privileges.

By Christopher MasonPublished: Oct 17, 2016

For generations private resort clubs have been a slice of paradise and cachet for those blessed with the funds and connections to be accepted for membership. Just as summer towns like St.-Tropez and Southampton have long attracted the world's most affluent beach bums, private resorts have offered destination getaways for the most discerning—and richest—vacationers on the planet. This is more than apparent at Baker's Bay Golf & Ocean Club, a laid-back 585-acre private island community surrounded by the waters of Great Guana Cay in the Bahamas. On a recent visit I exchanged friendly waves with two perfect strangers, basketball legend Michael Jordan and billionaire Netscape founder Jim Clark, as our golf carts passed.

Discovery Land properties draw such high-profile guests as Michael Jordan, Justin Timberlake, Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, and Bill Gates

The rise of far-flung private beach clubs started in the 1950s, thanks in part to the novelty of jet travel. Destinations like Round Hill in Jamaica and Lyford Cay in the Bahamas drew Hollywood stars, business tycoons, and titled Europeans because of the allure of relaxing in espadrilles amid similarly privileged like-minded souls in a sublime setting. Although today's top-tier private clubs share DNA with their fancy forebears, there's no disputing that, at the highest levels, these retreats are marvelously contemporary.

This is largely due to Michael S. Meldman, the 57-year-old developer who founded Baker's Bay in 2005 and is leading the charge in the rarefied world of private residential clubs. The idea of visiting a members-only resort might seem like one of the most traditional trips possible for well-heeled travelers, but Meldman is anything but traditional.

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Two decades ago Meldman, a divorced father of two boys, came up with an ingenious plan to enhance family time without the hassles of planning a vacation. The Stanford alumnus, who dealt blackjack before finding his metier in real estate, founded the Arizona-based Discovery Land Company in 1994 with a seemingly quixotic goal: creating exclusive residential resort clubs dedicated to champion-level golf courses, sports, adventure, and plenty of supervised activities for children. "As a single dad," he says, "I wanted it to be fun with as little stress as possible."

Meldman, left, with George Clooney and Rande Gerber

Those paternal instincts have made him a rich man. More than 20 years later Meldman—when he founded his company he had never belonged to a country club and didn't play golf—oversees a portfolio of 19 members-only Discovery Land resort clubs with annual sales of around $2 billion. The company's business model—high prices and a strong emphasis on exclusivity and privacy—sets it apart from other luxury resorts. Meldman's clubs are gated residential communities where membership is contingent on buying a home or a plot of land. Guests are welcome, but only when the member is in residence.

The average price to build a house at a Discovery club is $4 million but can cost up to $22 million. At the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Montana—touted by Discovery as the world's only private golf and ski club—membership requires an initiation fee of $300,000 and annual dues of $37,500. By contrast, membership at the Lyford Cay club in the Bahamas costs $150,000 in initiation fees for adults over 40 and $16,000 in annual dues. Members, who enjoy unparalleled privacy and old-school perks like house accounts, are not required to own a property at Lyford Cay; the clubhouse functions as a hotel, and anyone so inclined can reserve a room.

In an era in which travelers can book a castle via Airbnb, Discovery clubs' costs may seem extravagant, but Meldman has no shortage of buyers. "My places have done so well because our members become invested emotionally and financially," he says. "Our clubs become a big part of their lives."

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In addition to the high price points and restricted access, Discovery clubs offer singular settings and amenities. The Yellowstone Club, for example, occupies 13,600 acres of wilderness surrounded by Rocky Mountain peaks and is known for its abundance of "private powder." No tickets are required for the 15 ski lifts that give access to more than 60 trails for snowboarding and skiing. And Discovery's emphasis on exclusivity has attracted a who's who of high-net-worth travelers, which at Yellowstone is said to include Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt, Justin Timberlake, and Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen. (Even Meldman's detractors have boldfaced names; recently Alec Baldwin came out swinging against the Hills, a 118-home community that Meldman is planning in East Quogue, Long Island.)

Meldman, a genial Midwesterner with a boyish smile and a California tan, comes across as relaxed, astute, and confident. He clearly relishes his role as an impresario of playgrounds for the superrich. The Silo Ridge Field Club—his first realized project on the East Coast, set to open in 2017—is designed to expand Discovery's focus on sports, family experiences, and luxurious services in a more varied climate. Silo Ridge is a private 850-acre residential community near Millbrook, New York, in the Hudson Valley, a picturesque region famous for landscapes reminiscent of the English countryside as well as for hunting, shooting, and fishing.

Discovery clubs are generally in far-flung locations, but Silo Ridge is only a 90-minute drive from Manhattan. With the guidance of local environmentalists, Meldman has developed a scheme for 245 luxury residential properties in five distinct neighborhoods, all designed to offer bucolic views. Prices for empty lots and apartments at Silo Ridge range from $2 million to $10 million, and the minimum investment to build a house is $3 million.

Adding a notably luxurious touch to what Meldman calls "the great exhale"—the transition from urban stress to rural bliss—the club plans to provide a private train carriage on weekends, leaving Grand Central Station on Fridays and returning Sunday evenings, serving cocktails and food, to transport Silo Ridge members in style. Upon request, Silo Ridge staff will stock refrigerators for guests' arrivals, unpack or pack their luggage, and arrange for a private chef. It's this attention that Meldman says sets his properties apart. "When you arrive at one of my clubs, the staff knows you and your family," he says. "The level of service is so high because it's more intimate."

An aerial photo of Silo Ridge in upstate New York

When the first houses at Silo Ridge are completed next year, members and their guests will have access to an 18-hole golf course designed by Tom Fazio. A mountaintop clubhouse, conceived as the hub of the community, will feature personal training, a sybaritic spa and a medical spa, and a dining room that will serve dishes made with ingredients from Silo Ridge's organic farms. At the equestrian center guests can enjoy dressage, show, vault, or western programs, and the Field House will have year-round access to racquet courts, baseball fields, and an indoor pool. The Big Family Barn, overlooking a lake with canoes, paddleboards, and kayaks, will have a kids camp, a bowling alley, and a theater. (Its proximity to tony boarding schools including Hotchkiss, Millbrook, and Kent is no coincidence.)

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Above all, Silo Ridge will offer what Meldman calls "casual elegance." He ascribes this informality to lessons learned while raising his older sons, Hunter and Will (now 28 and 26), at Discovery clubs. When the boys were very young, he took them to Estancia, his first golf course. "We were in Arizona, and it was 100 degrees, and my pro said, 'They need a collared shirt,' and I thought, That's a silly rule." None of his clubs has had a dress code since. The corollary effect is an unfettered atmosphere that appeals to kids and aging tycoons alike. "If they're wearing shorts," Meldman says with a chuckle, "they think they're getting away with something."

When it comes to real estate, many of them are, as homes at Discovery clubs tend to escalate in value. Oceanfront lots at Baker's Bay bought for $3 million in 2008 are now worth $9 million. Lots at El Dorado, overlooking the Sea of Cortez, that sold for $3 million a decade ago are now fetching $12 million to $18 million.

'My places have done so well because our members become invested emotionally and financially,' Meldman says. 'Our clubs become a big part of their lives.'

But it's more than an investment that draws the one percent to the properties. Another benefit is the camaraderie that can develop among like-minded neighbors. It was at El Dorado that Meldman, George Clooney, and nightclub impresario Rande Gerber founded the tequila company Casamigos. Of course, it's no accident that a group of such high achievers ended up living side by side. A quiet vetting process determines eligibility for membership at all of Meldman's clubs. "Our members are successful, nice, smart people," Meldman says. "If they do not follow the rules of the club, which include being respectful to the staff, we will take the appropriate disciplinary procedures against them." Have there been any unseemly repercussions? "So far, no," he says. "In the infrequent occurrences, we have made sure we are firmly in the right before taking any action."

Anyway, it's the remaining members about whom he's most concerned. As Discovery's ringmaster, Meldman negotiates all of the big deals, sets company policy, and has the benefit of two decades of experience to conjure up resorts that will continue to thrive. "Anyone can build a golf course," he says. "Creating a community is the great challenge."

This story appeared in the Fall/Winter 2016 Travel Issue.


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