Inside the secretive Qantas Chairman's Lounge, Australia's most exclusive club

The Chairman’s Lounge in Melbourne. Image: Supplied.

Australia’s most exclusive club, the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge, doesn’t accept applications for membership, doesn’t charge a fee and its entrance doesn’t have a sign. It’s been around almost 30 years but many haven’t even heard its name.

Membership – and the personal service, seat upgrades and fine dining options that come with it – is by invitation only. But the process is secretive, and no-one really knows for sure how members are selected.

The lounge could well be the most exclusive in the world. There are plenty of invitation-only clubs offering membership for a steep fee. But we haven’t found another club which is invite only and no fee that provides such luxurious benefits.

It’s possible to find the lounges, if you know where to look. Go to a Qantas terminal, head in the direction of the Qantas business class lounge and follow the signs saying “Private” to a smoked glass sliding door without any signage.

At the Sydney domestic terminal, that door is between the Business Lounge and the Qantas Club. In Canberra it’s a hard left at the top of the escalators.

Getting inside is another matter. A black card, similar to other tiers of Qantas frequent flyers except for the colour, is needed.

If you hang about the security scanning lines at an Australia airport you will occasionally see someone flash a black card and get ushered through the priority lane. These are Chairman’s Lounge members. Their luggage also has black tags from Qantas.

The way to the Chairman’s Lounge. Image: Chris Pash

The other perks are pretty good, including a private, comfortable lounge with an la carte menu and table service. No waiting in line for a cup of coffee like at the Qantas Club.

Those who run the lounge know the members very well. They will call when they see a flight booking in the system and see what the member needs that day. A massage? A meal?

Qantas won’t say how it selects the people it gives membership to and nor will it say how many members there are.

No amount of frequent flyer points will get you through the door. Points build frequent flyer status, from Silver to Platinum One, but won’t open the Chairman’s Lounge.

And no sum of money will work. The value is far more than the $510 a year Qantas Club fee. Access to the Chairman’s Lounges in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth can’t be bought.

Those in the know say the lounges are different in each city. “The one in Melbourne is quite funky, very modern in design,” one member told Business Insider. “The one on Sydney is different again. A bit more aged in Brisbane. And Perth looks like a smaller version of Sydney. Adelaide is funky.”

Who gets in

We can take a reasonable guess as to who gets invited. They are captains of industry with significant spend by their companies on travel, federal Members of Parliament, and some with sporting or academic celebrity.

Astronomer Brian P. Schmidt, the vice-chancellor of the Australian National University and a Nobel Prize winner, is a member. He’s also a Companion of the Order of Australia, the current highest level in the Australian honours.

He confirmed his membership but wouldn’t say anymore about the lounge. We’re not sure which of his considerable achievements won him membership — the Nobel Prize, the vice-chancellorship or the honour. Perhaps each on their own qualifies him.

A few members we contacted for this story wouldn’t comment. They didn’t want to do anything to put their membership at risk. Some agreed to speak as long as they weren’t quoted.

“It’s so good, you feel a little guilty,” one member said.

The Melbourne Chairman’s Lounge. Image: Supplied.

All love the lounge access, the comfort and facilities and the personal attention which makes travelling more comfortable. They spoke highly of the personalised style of service from the Qantas staff, who work hard to recognise members at a glance, and of the atmosphere in the lounge.

Some say the networking is excellent, with a revolving door of Australia’s heads of industry and government. However, others urged caution and to avoid being too pushy when making contacts through the lounge.

Our sources explained that other benefits included always-available meeting rooms, and the ability to invite non-member companions inside.

“It’s private and you get to catch up with people that you know and it’s a good opportunity to bump into people you may not have spoken to for a while,” one member told Business Insider.

“They all tend to be successful people in there and they all have their own version of civility.

“It’s more like a retreat than anything else. You get out of the airport environment and there aren’t a lot of people like at the Qantas Club. It’s very quiet. It’s a good place to get some work done.

“They don’t call the flights. They come up and say your flight’s ready. They will find you in the lounge. It’s a very personal service.

“It’s like a private club without the old world stuffiness. The food is pretty good as so is the wine list.”

Tim Hughes, a travel industry veteran and currently vice president of business development at online travel agency Agoda, has never been in the Chairman’s Lounge.

“I’ve been a platinum frequent flyer for about 15 of the last 17 years,” he says.

“The first class lounge at Qantas in Sydney is a world beater. But the Chairman’s is not picked on miles flown, it’s really high profile and I’ve never made that list.

“It’s an amazing world of loyalty and rewards. There’s always one curtain more. You get to platinum and the first class lounge and then there’s the Chairman’s Lounge but I’ve never been lucky enough to get that one.”

The politicians

The Parliamentary Register of Members’ Interests in Canberra shows which MPs have Chairman’s Lounge membership and, by default, those who don’t.

It’s probably a fair bet to say most or all MPs — 226 in the combined Senate and House of Representatives — are invited, but not all accept.

We asked Qantas if all federal MPs are invited to join, but a spokesman would only say: “The lounge membership is by invitation only so we don’t comment on specific groups.”

From the register, Labor’s Anthony Albanese isn’t listed as a member but Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is. On the government side there is a long list including foreign minister Julie Bishop.

Adam Bandt from the Greens is a member and so is his leader Richard Di Natale in the Senate.

On the cross benches, Nick Xenophon from South Australia isn’t a member. He doesn’t travel business class like most MPs. He books discount economy.

For the business traveller, the lounge is an important tool.

Steve Wood lives on the road as vice president, Asia Pacific, at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. He is a former chief executive officer of Tennis Australia.

Inside the Lounge

His business card has no address and the Chairman’s Lounge is his default office.

“The food’s really good,” he tells Business Insider. “It’s a relaxing environment. You can do your own thing, talk on the phone, do your email, read a magazine or just relax without being approached by other people.”

A few unspoken rules govern behaviour.

“A lot of people in the lounge know each other but it’s a situation where everybody knows that you don’t want to have a meeting with someone you’ve just run into in the lounge,” he says.

“You just say hello and keep moving most of the time.

“It’s just a general respect of one another’s space. There are a lot of politicians, a lot of captains of industry.”

He says Qantas has to be competitive on fares and sometimes he doesn’t travel with them but still he gets access to the lounge.

“They really understand Australian businessmen, who are helping this country run, and who they are,” he says.

“You’ll go in to the lounge and every time you will see someone you know. It’s people in business very similar to you.”

Get to the lounge early

Wood often goes to the lounge early, hours before his next flight. He can get work done and relax a bit if he has to.

“It’s great for our business because it makes me more productive,” he says.

The Chairman’s Lounge in Melbourne. Image: Supplied.

“Being a road warrior is tough on your personal life and your body.

“You’re on 24/7. I am always online and working. In these lounges it’s important to be able to connect and talk. Get your computers going, downloads done and presentations ready.”

The lounge staff ring him before arrival and say: “We know you are travelling tomorrow – would you like us to pre-check you in?”

Wood enjoys this the most. They know what he’s doing they engage with him and his wife, who gets a partner membership. They ask what time they are going to arrive and how many bags they will be bringing.

“When you arrive in the lounge they ask if you would like a massage or a spa, or if you’d like to book a meal,” he says.

“I generally go straight through to the dining and wait to be seated. I look for one near the window with the best light so I can read easily and I get into my business mode of what I have to do before I fly.”

His favourite meal, and the all-time most popular according to Qantas sources, is the calamari salt and pepper with the hot green sauce.

“I look around, always watching what other people are eating before I choose,” he says. “At breakfast time I will get one of the omelets.”

Wood isn’t sure how Qantas selects members but believe CEOs are a target.

“I don’t remember when I got the first invite but I was president of Nortel,” he says.

“I think you can say I am a big fan of the Chairman’s Lounge. Obviously there’s a cost to Qantas to put that altogether. I don’t know what that is but I see value in buying the tickets and flying with them.”

Wood remembers well being between jobs and that Qantas kept looking after him. “I did stop flying with them for a while because I was in between job roles, between the Australian Open and entering back into technology,” he says. “I still remained a member and I was invited back in even though I was barely travelling.”

The Melbourne Chairman’s Lounge. Image: Supplied.

So how much does this generosity cost Qantas shareholders? It’s impossible to say because — in yet another indication of the operation’s secrecy — the Chairman’s Lounge doesn’t get a mention in the Qantas annual report.

Qantas says the cost of running the lounge is “commercial in confidence”, an indication on how important the airline sees the lounges to building and maintaining its business.

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