Inside NYC's Most Elite Club

Photo: Courtesy of CORE: Club.
At the Dangene - The Institute of Skinovation on the sixth floor of 66 East 55th Street, clients receive LED-light treatments — a service that Robert Schaltenbrand claims will make you look five years younger. "I've gotten it half a dozen times," he explains. We make our way downstairs through the Paul Labrecque salon, a dining terrace where a bunch of suits are holding a meeting, and finally to the library on the third floor. Welcome to CORE: club, a self-described "real-time snapshot of the zeitgeist" with an off-the-record clientele that would blow your mind.
Schaltenbrand's role at CORE: is technically director of marketing and communications. But, he's more of a cultural curator — the man who decides what and who are worth knowing for the club's members. The atmosphere at CORE: is surprising; we sat among books on art and architecture while Katy Perry's latest track played over the sound system. Everyone on staff greets you and hopes you're having the Best Day Ever — but you're not left with the forced-cheer feeling you get from, say, the cashier at Trader Joe's.
Perhaps that's because everything about CORE: is handpicked and distilled for its elite membership. Yet, the club manages to exist not as a celebration of itself, but as the epicenter of all things interesting. “We always talked about what really differentiates this place from other clubs or institutions out there, and I think the answer’s always twofold. It’s the community, and it’s the content," Schaltenbrand explained. Ahead, find out what's inside New York's most exclusive club, and meet the man behind the magic.
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Photo: Courtesy of CORE: Club.
What does it mean to be a “living snapshot of the zeitgeist"? What are the hallmarks of the zeitgeist right now?
“It certainly depends, and it varies day to day. I’m sure that you could say there’s a framework and you apply that framework, but I think [economically] and technologically, in this day and age, to sort of hold yourself to a foundation that you’re not willing to smash the false teeth out of, you’re doing a disservice to yourself, your core values, and to the members as well. We do say that [the zeitgeist] is living and it changes on a day-to-day basis.

"We’ve got to be mindful in terms of what’s happening out there, what we’re hearing from our members, and what we’re sensing. That sounds a bit altruistic in terms of sensing and feeling, the touchy and feely, but it’s a combination of those elements.”

What makes a program worth sharing or a person worth knowing?
“Our members are often inundated with unedited culture. It’s just coming at them from all directions. Our role is to be somewhat of a filter, if you will. Some of the things we think about are, ‘Does it pique the curiosity? Does it entertain them?’ And, ultimately, ‘When they walk away, do they feel different?’ Whether it’s something emotional [or] something...intellectual, is it the form of a new relationship? Is it insight or otherwise?

“From that, we just look at all the various topics, from arts to sports to fashion to geopolitical themes to business matters to evolution of technology. [If] it makes them feel better or do something as a result of that interaction, then we think it’s a success and worth exploring. The worst thing would be if they walked away feeling ‘Eh' or impartial... Ideally, it’s the old saying of ‘surprising and delighting.’ [If] we can do that 200-some-odd times a year, then we must be doing something right...we’re scheduled to do over 230 experiences this year…no rest for the weary.”

You call them “experiences” rather than “events.”
“I just think it’s more about the experience. When people go into something, again, they feel something. An event is just so forgettable — a forgettable, clinical term.”
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Photo: Courtesy of CORE: Club.
You describe the audience at the CORE: experiences as “blended.” What does that mean?
“Very diverse. So, when I was talking about the membership community, we’re very careful — much like [with] the architecture [of the club] — to curate...because we want to make sure it doesn’t over-index and become the blue-blood, old-boys club of the financial elite. When I say ‘blended,’ at least relative to the community, [I mean] a combination of business backgrounds, demographic impositions, or age limits, just to keep it really dynamic. It creates a moment of curiosity, because when our members come to these events, while they’re being sort of intellectually titillated by the subject matter on the stage or the salon environment, they’re also...significantly inspired and motivated by the people in the audience."

How many current members are there?
“Just over about 1,500. We have, if I’m not mistaken, about 13 business categories...down to — which to me is the most exciting — the young leaders program. These are the well-under-40 entrepreneurs, the people that are sort of the next generation... That has been a really strong category.”

How does CORE: appeal to this younger demographic, a group that feels largely as though they're being priced out of their own city?
"At CORE:, young members have access to thought leaders and accomplished individuals, which is like a mentoring 2.0 program, where they can interact with and learn from these individuals...and in turn they can inspire [them]. Also, the cultural programming at CORE: informs, educates, and entertains younger members."

You’re curating cultural experiences, weeding out the rest. What does that mean if that’s available only to 1,500 people?
“How do we memorialize this moment in time and share it with others? I think it’s probably at some point similar to the problem that TED had. And, so, what we’re doing is putting the infrastructure in place [so] that we can take this information, memorialize it, archive it, like a library, and then be able to distribute it out — offer it, rather — and make it available to others so it doesn’t exist in a single moment in time within a smaller audience. Especially if we come across a point of view or an insight that really is mind-altering and life-altering. Culturally altering. I think that’s a pretty damn good answer to a tough question.”

In terms of the services and amenities, what’s important to the members when they come in? What do they care about?
“This may sound ridiculous, but I know this only from spending so much time with the members... I’ve heard [about] this being a sort of oasis. [Members are] able to come off the street and into an environment of comfort, intimacy, and familiarity. So, what I think is something that’s really important is the relationships we have with our members, knowing them sort of intimately, understanding their needs and desires, and so forth.

“They’re looking for that connection; they expect it, and more importantly...they don’t take advantage of it. They’re just as honored to have a relationship with us as we are with them. What they’re looking for on the amenities and food side goes back to the curiosity and not being complacent, coming back with something different... Our chef, Bernard, who’s a master chef from France — he’s amazing. Not only from a knowledge standpoint, just overall, his mannerisms, presentation — he’s like a big bear, you just want to hug the guy. And, he makes incredible food. [He changes] the menu not just for seasonal reasons...he's honestly out there talking to the members and listening. Very much like we curate the programs, he’s looking out there, [at] the trends that are occurring, sort of future-casting what’s next.

“We have a lot of incredible relationships with distilleries [and] wine producers. [We provide] a test-bed to try different things, [like], 'Let’s have an intimate dinner and do a tasting. As a matter of fact, let’s not only do a tasting of the product, but let’s have our chef take that bourbon — as an example — and infuse it into four different courses. We’ll have the master distiller there [to] take us on a journey.' I think that’s what they’re looking for.”

To simultaneously be understood and surprised.
“May I steal that? That’s good.”
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Photo: Courtesy of CORE: Club.
Is it fair to say that, as far as your members are concerned, nothing is too great an ask?
“I think the limits are really put into place by them. They understand what limitations we may have... If they make an ask, we’ll certainly do our best to accommodate, on a variety of different levels... We’ll be honest with you; we’ll say, ‘100% we’d love to do that for you,’ or ‘Are you out of your mind? No way. There aren’t enough hours or resources or time in the day.’”

That’s surprising to hear.
“I think the descriptive sort of publicist-driven answer is ‘There’s no limitation at all.’ But, as I mentioned, based on the relationships we have, we acknowledge that we’re all human, and as a human being there are limitations, but we’ll put in the effort.”

I was reading a 2011 piece in The New York Times that it was a space for “the wealthy to gather together and meet others of the same disparate tribe.” Do you think that’s still true?
“To use wealth as a modifier or filter is tacky, more than anything else. We don’t apply that philosophy when we look at a prospective member. We look at who they are, their accomplishments, their network of individuals, their passion and desire to be a part of this community... To say we’re only looking at wealth, that’s like paint-by-number, and there’s nothing interesting about that. I think it’s something that’s a little bit more intangible.

“When you sit down with somebody, you want to get to know who they are. When you look at, to use this people into the family. There is a courting process and a dating process and getting to understand who these people are. Not having the guy with the biggest car and biggest house, who’s flouncing up to your home, and going, ‘That’s the guy I want to marry my daughter. I want to know who this guy is.’ The wealth thing, at least for me, gets under my skin. I find it a cheap and obvious way to describe it.”

Well, wealth has never indicated class.

How do you select members? What’s the process?
“The fact of the matter is, most of our members end up through referrals. It’s sort of judged by the company you keep. At that point, you just sort of have a conversation with somebody in the membership group; then you can go [through] the formality application.

“It’s a real vetting process...if you introduce somebody without forethought and consideration — I guess consideration is the theme here — if you did that, it would run counter [to] who we are. Remember, the architecture is very considered, the library’s very considered, and the same thing applies to membership. I don’t want to say ‘membership recruitment,’ because that’s such a tacky word, too.”

Let’s say I was referred and I went through this process. How does the membership fee function? Are there certain requirements of the member?
“The requirements work in terms of what they want from the club. Are they here truly for the community? Are they looking at it as a place with four walls and a roof in Midtown? Are they looking at it for a cultural programming element? Or, is it a culmination of all those? That’s really how we look at it... Regarding the dues structure, it’s not a monthly; you’re essentially paying up-front for the year. There’s an initiation fee and then your annual dues.

“As far as contribution, it’s just being an active participant. Being here. Taking advantage of what the club has to offer. If you’re never here and you aren’t meeting and utilizing the environment, we may not be best for you. We may not be the place for you. But, if you’re here and you’re meeting new people...if you’re being inspired by the type of programming we do, if you’re delighting from an epicurean standpoint in what we offer, that’s great. That’s awesome. That’s your contribution, just being part of the family. Being present. Not being the 12-year-old brat that shows up to the dinner table [and] when asked, ‘How was your day?’ doesn’t say anything. Be part of the family. Contribute. 'How was your day? What craziness did you see? What did you learn? Stop playing with your sister’s hair.'”

Do you know all of your members’ names?
“I’m slowly learning members’ names. I’ve been here since August 2013, so it’s day by day. That’s the beauty of this place. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel like a student and a teacher.

“We’re not this pompous enclave...we really keep it on a family-sort-of-intimacy level. We say, ‘How are you? How did that thing go?’ It’s great. When you walk in the doors, you feel like ‘I’ve left home, but I’m really walking into my home away from home.’ It’s sort of like showing up on a holiday and seeing your extended family at your aunt’s house. You drove from your house 10 miles down the road, and now you’re seeing the whole collective family.”

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Photo: Courtesy of CORE: Club.
You said you had overnight suites. What’s that like?
“These are our suites that almost feel like a small apartment and home. Our members — we have a lot of national and international members — come into town and they use these suites just like they would a hotel... But, it’s a little bit more residential in feel. We think about somebody’s home and the things that they would probably keep in their home...the right food, the right drink, artwork as well...all the way down to the amenities at the sink... There may be a certain wine that Sam really enjoys, or there may be an incredible chocolate that Nicolette desires. That’s there, sort of unprompted. We just know that they’ll like it. That’s a little bit of the delight aspect: They open up the door, they go in there, they’re probably tired. ‘How nice. There’s my favorite chocolate.’ Or, ‘That’s what I wanted.’ Or, ‘Somebody remembered that I’m just a ravenous hog when it comes to these potato chips.'”

So, what’s the next big thing?
"It changes day by day. Some institutions are probably locking in their calendars a year or six months out, [but] we’ve got a line of sight of maybe three weeks...because we know that things can pivot on a dime. In some ways it’s like technology; [stuff] becomes outdated. So, it would be naïve of us to make some form of an investment 12 months out. It wouldn’t make sense.

"We’ve had Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google. We brought in Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook... I think we have the type of relationships and also a mindful eye forward that will capture [the next big thing] and put it in front of [the community] well in advance... Some things that are outlandish, too. For example: Jenna Jameson. She’s got a new book coming out; it could be very interesting. This is a woman who’s clearly had a cultural impact, being impartial and not critical of what she’s done. She’s sort of reinvented herself in a variety of ways...we’ll be doing something with her at the club.

"We’re working with different fashion labels and brands. How can we take a label and pair it with a film partner and create a simple, monthly series? Bring out Vera Wang or Donna Karan. Especially for our young leaders, they want to understand what makes people tick. If you sit down and talk to someone who’s established and say, ‘What were your inspirations from film, business, and everything in between?' That, to me, is exciting. It’s sort of nurturing and developing the next generation. That’s the teacher element of our daily lives here... There’s not a dull moment. It’s a good thing and a bad thing, because that means 14-hour days and not eating, and some days it’s good conversation, meeting interesting people, and being inspired [by them].”
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Photo: Courtesy of CORE: Club.
How did you arrive at CORE:? I know you worked with Microsoft in the past.
“Let me step back and reflect; there’s got to be a thread that connects it all. I grew up as a sponsored skateboarder, I played in bands, I worked on the agency side, I worked at Nike on the Converse brand, I worked at Microsoft, but the theme that carried through — the curiosity, of course, never being complacent — but also, there was a cultural thread. I think that, to me, was the consistent.

“When I came here, to be frank, I got tired of selling stuff to may sound a bit altruistic, but people have enough stuff right now, especially with technology lowering the playing field. You’re able to use 3-D printers to make stuff at home. Coming here was more about the service, the hospitality, making people feel good. At least in some ways, probably a lot of [the same] reasons people go into teaching professions. You want to sort of do the deeds of great men, as Ben Franklin would say.

“I think that was really the catalyst of coming here... This was the first step or the first page or the next chapter in the book of my life. It’s almost like meeting your potential significant other, and you say, ‘Where have you been my whole life? What have I been missing? I’ve been battling demons, and then you show up walking on clouds with a halo behind you.’”

That’s the definition of a dream job.
“It really is... 'Do what you love to do and you’ll never fail.’ These are these sort of affirmations that we hear...from critics and folks who are looking to pen a new business insight book. [They’ll] essentially take an old theory or monolith penned hundreds of thousands of years ago and put a modern spin on it — but there are truisms there that just sort of carry the test of time. Anyway, I digress.”

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Photo: Courtesy of CORE: Club.
Is there a curriculum or set of experiences specific to New York City that you promote here?
“You know, the honest — some might say, ‘bullshit’ — answer [is we] hope that there’s some universality to what we’re doing. I think when it comes to some of our partnerships...there are certain things that happen here, specifically in New York, that [don't] occur anywhere [else]. So, you can say that those are the sort of regional-specific [for] our curriculum, there are sort of universal themes, interests, and elements that are applicable across the board. But, again, what’s the saying? ‘There’s no golden calf so that you can slaughter it.’ That might change tomorrow, if you ask me again. I might say, ‘You know what? Not only are we all about New York, but we’re all about Midtown, specifically. We’re focusing on what happens on 55th street, and that’s it.’”

Could CORE: club exist anywhere else?
“I think, if you’ve seen the way our logo is presented, it’s ‘CORE' colon. CORE: sort of modifies our other expressions. ‘Club’ is an example. I think — and I’m not bullshitting this — what we do here is universally applicable to everywhere, whether it’s in the U.K. [or] the Far East. There are certain themes and elements, especially what I said about cultural programming, that you can apply anywhere.”

What’s the one thing you’d want a non-member to know about CORE: club?
“We’re an eclectic group of curious mavericks that just enjoy life and all it has to offer. There’s no difference between work life and personal life — in this day and age it’s just life. So, that’s really what we want people to know. And, it’s getting that message out there, too. In every walk of life, there’s the perception versus the reality. You’ve been conditioned whether through direct contact with others or through what you read [to believe] what you think you know this place is about. When I worked at Microsoft I thought, Here are a bunch of weirdo coders who are so out of touch. Never again will I walk with a biased mindset and judge a book by its cover. It’s more about getting that story out there versus ‘It’s an enclave for the 1%.’ That’s not the case. It’s really not the case... We hope we’re doing the right things and that people will recognize it and form their own conclusion of who we are... It’s about getting back to our core values, who we are as a people, what made us great, what made us accomplished, and just rebuilding from the ground up again…Getting back to the roots... Are you a good person? Who are you? Do we want to know one another? It’s not ‘I’m an opportunist, this is a celebrity of note, I wanna be all over them.’ That’s tacky.”