This club in the Netherlands offers a much-needed break from technology

Most people are at least a little addicted to their phones. In the Netherlands, three young Dutchmen came up with an idea to counteract that. It’s called the Offline Club, where attendees pay for the opportunity to spend an evening phone-free.

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Saliha Gündüz, a PhD student from Turkey, has just handed over her smartphone to one of the founders of The Offline Club in Amsterdam, who places it carefully in a “phone hotel” — essentially a locker with dividers that holds up to 60 phones.

Phones are placed in a “phone hotel,” or a locker with dividers, as people try to disconnect from technology at The Offline Club.Orla Barry/The World

Gündüz said she doesn’t feel apprehensive yet — and she settled down to a cup of herbal tea at the New Yoga School cafe in the center of Amsterdam.

“The withdrawal symptoms will kick in later,” she said. “But maybe a withdrawal is what’s needed if I’m going to cure myself of my addiction.”

Gündüz estimates she spends up to six hours a day on her phone.

“I just want to get a hit of dopamine but then it wears off, and I want the same thing again. It’s an endless cycle.”

Gündüz is among 20 people of all ages and nationalities who turned up at The Offline Club on a wet Friday evening in May to see if they could wean themselves off of their addiction.

Disconnecting

The club’s founders — Ilya Kneppelhout, Valentijn Klok and Jordy van Bennekom — started the venture in 2022 with a plan to host offline weekend getaways. Kneppelhout said, at the time, each of the co-founders felt their phones had been dominating their lives.

Earlier that year, he took a short trip to the north of the Netherlands on his own with “some books, a journal and myself.”

No phone. He said something shifted over those four days.

“I felt so much creativity and, at the same time, a sense of peace.”

Van Bennekom did the same and loved it. They began organizing weekend getaways with groups in a house in the countryside. Everyone was required to hand over their phones upon arrival. The three-day events were a hit. But Kneppelhout said that not everyone can afford to pay a few hundred dollars for the experience. So, the idea of The Offline Club was born.

People chat with each other while they disconnect from their phones for a couple of hours at The Offline Club.Courtesy of The Offline Club

Each attendee at the club pays around $8 at the door. The events and venues differ each time. At the New Yoga School in Amsterdam, van Bennekom lays out the rules for the evening.

First, there’s 45 minutes of quiet time, then a 30-minute break to chat, then a further 30 minutes of time to yourself. Most people bring books to read. Soft music plays in the background as van Bennekom lays out coloring books and markers for anyone who wants to draw or doodle.

People read, knit, play games and partake in other activities while trying to disconnect from technology at The Offline Club.Courtesy of The Offline Club

On that rainy Friday, three men from Puglia in Italy were huddled in one corner drinking tea. Two of them were visiting their friend Pietro Maggi who lives in Amsterdam. Maggi, who works for electric carmaker Tesla, said the evening was his idea and that he persuaded his two visitors to join him.

“Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed by technology,” Maggi said. “After a full workday, a lot of us just go back home and start streaming movies or scrolling through our phones and I think, in a way, we are detaching from ourselves and from our thoughts.”

People drink tea or have other refreshments while they’re disconnecting at The Offline Club.Courtesy of The Offline Club

His friend, Damiano Caforio, said he was curious about the event. Maggi joked that Caforio might find the evening useful. Caforio shook his head at the suggestion that he might have a mild smartphone addiction: “I don’t have any social media accounts except Facebook. I don’t have Instagram, I don’t even have LinkedIn.”

But then, he admitted that there might be some truth to Maggi’s accusation.

“I keep looking at the news constantly, checking to see what’s going on in the world, or, more specifically, with my job.”

He works at the Italian Chamber of Commerce.

Phones are locked away in containers while people unplug from technology for a couple of hours at The Offline Club in the Netherlands.Courtesy of The Offline Club

“I need to know what’s going on, I feel I need to control the environment.”

Even on the flight over, Caforio said, he downloaded wifi so he could message his friends on WhatsApp even while he was in the air.

“Actually, I desperately need this experience tonight,” he laughed.

It wasn’t long before they said they felt more relaxed and grounded. The friends started reminiscing about the days before smartphones — when every phone call cost money.  When they were teenagers, Caforio, said they had a special code to let girls know they were thinking of them.

You would call her and then hang up before she answered to avoid being charged, he said. Then she’d know she was on your mind. And if you really liked her, you would leave several missed calls. If she did the same back, Caforio said there was no feeling in the world quite like it.

Some people read books while they’re at The Offline Club.Courtesy of The Offline Club

Offline activities

Leah Davies from Wales said she spotted a post about The Offline Club on Instagram.

“I saw people reading books and knitting and playing piano,” she said. “And I just loved the idea of being able to go somewhere where you’re not checking your phone all night.”

Ilya Kneppelhout is one of the founders of The Offline Club in The Netherlands.Orla Barry/The World

Davies attended while she was on a weekend break with her partner. She agreed that it’s not the first thing that comes to mind for most visitors to Amsterdam.

“But this is our first night, we have three other nights for all the debauchery,” she joked.

Davies said she would like to see phones restricted at other events too, like concerts and nightclubs, “so people can just dance or talk like you did in the ‘90s.”

Phone-free music events are already happening elsewhere in the Netherlands. In Tilburg, a city in the south of the country, another group, Off the Radar, organizes music gigs where attendees are expected to hand in their devices at the door.

There isn’t anything quintessentially Dutch about the desire to have smartphone-free events, said Ilya Kneppelhout, co-founder of The Offline Club. But work-life balance is an important aspect of life in the Netherlands.

“We work to live here, not the other way around,” he said.

A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found only 0.3% of employees in the Netherlands work very long hours in paid work, the lowest rate in the OECD, where the average is 10%. In January, smartphones were banned in secondary schools across the country under government guidelines.

A similar ban is set to be introduced in Dutch primary schools in the 2024-25 school year. A study last month by Radboud University in the Netherlands found that students were generally positive about the change, saying breaks were more enjoyable and there was less bullying during school hours.

Plans to expand

The Offline Club’s founders are hoping to expand the concept to other cities worldwide. Right now, the trio operates events in six different cities across the Netherlands. Kneppelhout said the sudden success of the venture took them by surprise.

Some people like to draw or color while they’re at The Offline Club.Courtesy of The Offline Club

In February, they posted a couple of reels on Instagram after their first club event. The videos gained millions of views and their feed was filled with requests asking them to hold similar events abroad.

It was all a bit overwhelming, Kneppelhout said, but in a good way. He said he also sees the irony of an Instagram post about a club that advocates for an offline lifestyle going viral. Ultimately, Kneppelhout said, I would like to delete all our social media apps and for the initiative to still be a success.

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