The Gathering Spot's Ryan Wilson On His Expansion & The Importance of Community

By Bianca Gracie | May 8, 2024

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Photo by John Walder/Courtesy of The Gathering Spot

Membership social clubs often have a snobbish reputation, but The Gathering Spot puts community first. Co-founders Ryan Wilson and T’Keel “TK” Petersen began in Atlanta and later expanded to Los Angeles and D.C. Here, Wilson (who also serves as the CEO) gives more insight into his vision.

You initially launched The Gathering Spot in 2016. Membership clubs have existed for decades. But what did you think was missing from the scene?

I saw that there were a lot of places where Black folks were tolerated, but not celebrated. I wanted to create a place where we were celebrated at every single touch point—from the moment that you walk into the music that you hear to the food to the artwork right to the programs and the speakers. You see that this is a place where we were intentionally thinking about you. It’s not a place that you could come to, but an experience. I’m Black, so it was personal for me. I wanted to have a place where I felt comfortable. TGS for me is about the people talking about the things of the day that matter but doing it in a way where Black folks are centered in the experience in ways that they’re not in other settings.

Sometimes other social clubs have this air of exclusivity. I would love to know the importance of making or ensuring that your community is heard and is also involved in TGS.

It goes back to that “tolerated versus celebrated” distinction. Most of the time when any of those places are being constructed, they weren't thinking about me. Rather than that being a sad fact, what's more important is what are we going to do about it? We need to create places where we feel very comfortable. If you understand the country club circuit, to be built largely for older white men, that's the demo of the popular population that you're looking at. I'm looking at black folks. I believe that given the things that we need to discuss in our community, we've got to have everybody there. Young people, folks that are much more senior, creative people, folks that work in a corporate context, and political context. We all have to be at that table. You can feel it at TGS from the minute you walk in.

Paint the picture for me, as I haven't visited a location yet. What can I experience?

So I'll talk about this in two ways. One way is kind of the physical aspects of what you see. The other way is the community aspect. So physically, you'll be greeted by a member of our team, kind of a traditional hotel experience when you walk in. Every Gathering Spot has three little three parts of the space. There's restaurant and bar space. So you can come and dine there. We're open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can go to workspace. So that's conference rooms, workstations and private offices. In the event space, we have every type of event that you can imagine— from seated plated dinners to movie screenings to cocktail parties. We hosted the Vice President of the United States in that room yesterday. The congresswoman who represents us here in Georgia was there yesterday. The last time that I saw her was also in that room a couple of weeks ago, where we celebrated 20 years of TI's album, Trap Music. The same person could be in the same space celebrating a legendary album and then a couple of weeks later talk about voting rights with the Vice President of the United States.

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That's just the embodiment of our culture. We have so many layers.

There are people who wear a t-shirt every day, sitting next to people who wear suits every day. My job is to say, “Look, we have to have connectivity and collaboration. There's got to be something here that we can build on with each other.” Post-college. If you think about it, that's really the last environment where there's access to space and access to people who are doing different things in this community. We graduate, and it's like alright, “Where we go next?”

I'm not trying to replicate college, you can't do that. But what I am saying is that people in their 20s 30s 40s 50s 60s and beyond, do need to have spaces where they can see thought leaders come to them on a regular basis, where they can attend social events or talk about things in their professional life or figure out who we're going to vote for. All of those things are who we are.

Since the iteration of TGS, what are some moments that have been most fulfilling to you?

We’ve been fortunate over the years to host many of the giants in our culture, right here at TGS. Vice President Kamala Harris to Tyler Perry to Drake. A lot of people have spent time here. While I appreciate those moments, it’s when I find out that a member met their business partner at TGS.

There’s other moments when I was in the bar one day, and there was a member who was going through a divorce. She stopped me and said, ‘I got a difficult circumstance going on right now. This is one of the only places where I can feel at home despite kind of all the madness that’s going on around me.’ So the stuff that sticks out to me.

Photo by John Walder/Courtesy of The Gathering Spot

Is there a lesson that you hold close to your heart as you’ve gone through this experience as an entrepreneur?

I read a stat when we started this, that most businesses can’t make it to their fifth anniversary. Most businesses actually don’t make it to the first. The fact that we have sustained and grown from the startup stage through a pandemic… there’s just so many obstacles. I’m super proud of that. And look, if it all ended tomorrow, TGS really made an impact on people. I don’t think that there’s a greater gift that you can have as an entrepreneur than the idea that you had was embraced by people and it worked. I guess what that all rolls up to me is that the lesson that I’ve learned is you’ve got to be experienced. This whole thing is about community. And I believe the future genuinely is going to be all about networks, communities, and how you build relationships between people. But we’re a business called The Gathering Spot that survived a pandemic where you couldn’t gather. Not only did we not close, but 98% of our membership stayed as members. I’ve learned that community-based businesses are the fact that I’m having this conversation with you. There’s real real power when a community comes together to accomplish something.

Can you share what members can expect this year?

So our programs don't repeat. But what has always been a part of the ethos here is execution. I want our membership community to have the best possible experience that they can. So when I talk about a revamped restaurant experience, again, this business has made it eight years so it couldn't have been a horrible product for us to have survived. So it's not that we're starting from a deficit. But it's us saying, “I think that there's ways for us to go even further.” There's ways for us to leverage technology in a new way. So what you heard me describe the town hall is a member experience: building new clubs, continuing to elevate the hospitality experience, being competitive with the best brands in the world, and adding some new technology into the mix that helps to connect people better. While we're doing all of that, make sure that we're the most inclusive club in the country. If we're going to solve the issues that are specific to Black folks, everybody within the community has to have a seat at the table.

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Photography by: John Walder/Courtesy of The Gathering Spot