Want to meet the creatives? Join the club

One of Britain's leading 'members-only' establishments is opening a 'walled garden' website for those who make the grade. Ian Burrell learns its first rule: no 'suits' social networking the hospital
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Those countless office hours spent by Britain's media workers usefully "contact building" on Facebook and MySpace may be coming to an end – for another social networking platform is being constructed in Covent Garden that claims to be tailor-made for all their needs.

And seeing as it's being organised by the Hospital Club, which is accustomed to seeing such names as Sienna Miller, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger pass through its portals, who knows who you might get to poke or befriend?

The Hospital is where The Who came to launch their new album and Radiohead chose to record theirs. It's where the comedian Catherine Tate and Atonement's director Joe Wright became mentors to young members after being given awards for their creative work. And it's where a recent exhibition juxtaposed the art of Banksy and Andy Warhol and apparently led to the guerrilla graffiti artist spray-painting a stencil of Marilyn Monroe on the pavement outside the club, hiding under the cover of his baseball cap.

The difference between the Hospital Club Online and the likes of Facebook is that the former is what the club's CEO, Will Turner, terms "a walled garden": in order to join up you either have to be a member of the club (at a cost of £600 a year), or you have to be signed in by a member, each of whom is allowed up to four invitees. Members are advised to make every attempt to avoid inviting the dreaded "suits", according to Turner.

"We want to ensure that people who join are the right people, that they are in the creative industries and that they are truly creative. This is not about adding hundreds of thousands of people each day, it's about adding tens of people who we have checked out," he says. The site, he says, will allow media people the "opportunity to promote yourself and your services to a community of your peers".

To many outside of the industry, the idea of being in an enclosed space with a mob of media types would probably be appalling. But according to Turner, whose own background is in the television and film industries, there are many suits out there who would relish the kudos of Hospital membership. "People are allowed in on recommendation, but if they turn out to be, say, the financial director of a large telecoms firm, then they will be found out. We have to be careful to make sure we don't become full of suits," he says, acknowledging that he is wearing a suit himself, though it's an orange-checked number that would cause panic in an accounts department.

A certain elitism is necessary, Turner believes, to preserve the creative energy of the club. The paradox is that the ethos of the Hospital is to encourage its members not to stand aloof but to put something back into the creative industries, particularly by mentoring Britain's up-and-coming talent. So the social networking site, which will also be home to some 30 blogs divulging gossip on all sectors of the creative industries, is designed to allow members under 30 (who get half-price subscription) and other young invitees to target the more well-known and successful in their sector and to seek from them "insight and intelligence".

Turner, 39, says: "We don't want to be for people who are sitting there smugly having made their fortune. We want people who are actively engaged, who are excited about hanging out and interacting with people who have yet to make it, and who are younger, frankly."

This week is one of the biggest in the Hospital Club calendar, when it distributes its annual awards to those deemed to have made the biggest contributions in television, publishing, journalism, interactive media, advertising, film, art, design, theatre and fashion. The judges include the actress Thandie Newton, the fashion designer Tom Ford and the journalist Jon Snow. The event is being hosted on Thursday by Mariella Frostrup. Turner says: "We say to the winners, 'If you are going to say "yes" to winning this award, then you have to commit to spend some time mentoring during the year.' I have been pleasantly surprised that everyone so far has agreed."

The mentoring commitment is part of what Turner sees as the "philanthropic" element of the club's philosophy. "It can sound worthy but it's supposed to be celebratory and fun. We see no contradiction between being commercially run by a private-equity company out of Seattle and being philanthropic. There's a virtuous circle with these two elements." The club's owner is Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who runs it through his private equity firm Vulcan Inc.

Based on musician Dave Stewart's vision for a creative melting pot in the heart of London, the club had something of a traumatic start. Opening in 2003 in a seven-storey former Victorian maternity hospital, it ran up debts and soon became in need of intensive care itself. Turner, a former head of Sky Pictures who later became BSkyB's head of content strategy, joined as CEO in September 2005 with the task of resuscitating it.

The club, which played host at this year's Hay-on-Wye and Glastonbury festivals, is now expanding overseas, with a new outpost set to open in the fashionable Hackescher Markt district of Berlin. Further Hospital clubs are being planned in New York, where it will rival Soho House as a home-from-home for British ex-pats, and Shanghai. These overseas clubs will not simply replicate the mothership but will attempt to champion the local creative industries.

To outsiders, the Hospital might be just another one of London's private members's clubs, a newcomer to rival the Groucho, Soho House and the rest. Turner, though, insists that exclusivity is not the point. "We don't view ourselves as a private members club," he says. "We are a club for creative entrepreneurs. We are for people who make stuff and people that make stuff happen." Just leave the whistle and flute in the wardrobe.

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