Everything’s rosy

Private family club Maggie & Rose is putting the posh into play. Carolynne Dear asks co-founder Maggie Bolger how she has found success in a territory strewn with exclusive members-only venues

Maggie & Rose co-founder Maggie Bolger

There are playgroups, and then there are playgroups. Experiences with my own brood involved a dusty village hall, a couple of old dears from the local church group proffering chipped cups of tea and stale cake for us beleaguered mums, a roster for the craft activity (seriously, sleepless nights for this non-creative mother) and a bunch of noisy two and three years olds clutching jam sandwiches and clambering all over the plastic climbing frame – the money for which had been raised through a time-consuming, parent-sponsored quiz night the previous spring.

And then there is Maggie & Rose. Occupying a generous-sized venue with sweeping views over Repulse Bay, this chic beach-side private family club with its brasserie and coffee shop and slick soft-play puts the yummy back into being a mummy. So I was intrigued to meet the London-based co-founder Maggie Bolger while she was in Hong Kong last month.

I’d heard a lot about the club, originally started in London and with ensuing rumours in the British press that none other than the Duchess of Cambridge had signed up (Bolger will neither confirm nor deny these stories, the details of club members are private, as she quite rightly points out). But the dusty village hall scenario is one she can relate to and was indeed the spark for the business.

“I’m a Kiwi, so I was in London with three young children (she now has four, aged from seven through to 17) and desperately trying to get out with the kids and make friends with other mums. And it just seemed that I’d slipped from Soho House-type splendour in my pre-baby days to these really quite grubby venues where we were expected to clap along to some nursery rhyme or other with an out-of-work actress banging on a tambourine. And I just thought, where have all the nice bits of my life gone?”

As she quickly discovered, there were no “nice” clubs catering for families that focused on the children. And it turned out she wasn’t the only mum feeling this way.

“I kept thinking, hey, in a minute someone will set something up. But they never did.”

So she set up her own classes covering cooking, art, dance and music in the lounge room of her Kensington home and word spread, and then she found herself renting a small commercial space in the upmarket west London suburb.

“I was keen that the kids got properly involved, so I held art classes where the parents and helpers were made to stand back, and the kids rolled up their sleeves and really went for it. I had found that so many “kids craft” lessons were completely formulaic, with the adults basically completing the craft project on behalf of the child.”

With astute observation, Bolger decided to theme the classes around real artists, rather than “inane” nursery rhymes and princess stories. She encouraged make believe and dress ups, messy play and story time, upended furniture for games and basically ‘got down’ with the children. From observing her own young children, she also tailored the classes with realistic time frameworks depending on the age group. The ethos has remained the same to this day.

It was at this point that Maggie met Rose (Astor, which is where the royal connection comes in – Astor is the mother to one of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s bridesmaids), who herself was running workshops for older children. So they got together, the dynamic seemed to work, and the rest, as they say, is history. Maggie & Rose in Kensington was the first private, members-only family club to open in the UK.

So popular did it become, word continued to spread and the pair eventually opened a second space in Chiswick.

“This was the biggest challenge,” admits Bolger of the Essex Place Square venue, which is approximately three times bigger than Kensington.

Infectiously enthusiastic and brimming with imagination when it comes to entertaining children, she says the administrative side of the set-up was a steep learning curve – at one meeting she was referred to as the “CEO of Maggie & Rose” – “and I had to go outside and google what CEO meant, seriously I was that green when it came to running a business.”

Astor then made the difficult decision to move out of London to the Cotswolds in the UK’s rural southwest after the birth of her daughter Grace, and Bolger remained as the hands-on side of the partnership, still firmly based in Kensington.

The Hong Kong venue came about two years ago following demand from expat London mothers who had moved over. In a meeting of moments, The Pulse opened at about the time Bolger was searching for a venue – “finding the right venue is the toughest thing,” she admits – and she rented the top two floors of the building, including a roof space with play area and shaded tables which she plans to open as a BBQ-style restaurant for both members and non-members this autumn. Downstairs is a fabulous soft play area – all pale, Scandi-style woods and pastel colours – a cafe serving suitably nutritious child and adult-friendly meals and snacks (and of course good coffee), as well as individual classrooms for the workshops. After class, the kids can get stuck into the soft play, or enjoy lunch or dinner (the classes run until 6pm) with parents.

“The idea is that members log on and book their classes in blocks, as we tend to work around a theme which we build on each week. Some of our families exclusively use Maggie & Rose, some marry our classes with other preschools or kindies.”

Staff are all “Maggie & Rose” trained – Bolger admits to preferring non-formally trained teachers as she likes staff to embrace a more creative approach to learning. “Back in the UK I’m actually setting up an official Maggie & Rose accredited training programme,” she adds. Weekend classes are also on the cards, but at the moment the venue tends to be booked out for birthday parties come the end of the week. In school holidays there are a variety of camps for children from four to eight years. There is also a lively evening workshop scene tailored for parents.

And it seems word has again spread. Bolger is currently on another venue-seeking mission, this time around the Mid-levels and Central areas.

“We always intended to set up three clubs here, one beachside, one city and one country club, so once we’ve established ourselves in the city, I’ll probably start looking at the New Territories.”

As I tour the venue I find myself thinking a) why on earth didn’t I think of this?, and b) if only my children had been born ten years earlier. There’s a lot to be said for community playgroups, but there’s also a lot to be said for decent coffee, clean equipment and well-thought through professionally managed kids workshops. Money may not be able to buy you love, but it can certainly buy you a better class of playdate.

Maggie & Rose, 301 3rd Floor, The Pulse, 28 Beach Road, Repulse Bay, maggieandrose.com