Covid-19: Singapore’s nightlife operators fear collapse of once vibrant industry; at least 45 have shut for good

The nightlife scene operators have been hit hard by the pandemic, with karaoke operators struggling the most . — TODAY pic
The nightlife scene operators have been hit hard by the pandemic, with karaoke operators struggling the most . — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, July 20 — Not everyone breathed a palpable sigh of relief when the Government announced just under a month ago the easing of circuit breaker measures put in place to curb the spread of the Covid-19 disease.

While most businesses have reopened, the lights of many bespoke cocktail joints are still off, the lines of revellers waiting to enter nightclubs are absent and karaoke chains are silent.

These establishments will only be allowed to operate in Phase Three of the circuit breaker exit, and with no sight of when that might be, many operators told TODAY that it has been a struggle to survive.

Out of the 1,800  pubs, night clubs, discotheques, dance clubs and karaoke lounges registered with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority at the end of March, 45 have thrown in the towel between April and June, based on information from the Singapore Department of Statistics.

Singapore’s Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) president Joseph Ong said this number could be much higher, as it only represents companies that have started their formal liquidation proceedings.

“We have seen many more have already retrenched all their staff or started selling their equipment,” he said.

“They are not coming back.”

Swansong for karaoke operators?

Hardest hit are the karaoke operators who have not been able to find an alternate means of income, and remain closed indefinitely.

Mr Ronald Ng, chairman of the Singapore Entertainment Alliance, which has about 100 members such as Party World and Teo Heng Karaoke chains, said tight licensing regulations make it very difficult to apply for new licenses.

Besides, Mr Ng said changing the business concept from a karaoke outlet to a restaurant, for example, would be “a very big risk”.

“There has really been no income. It has been four months, how can we carry on?” said Mr Ng, who is also a partner with both the Kloud Karaoke at Tanjong Katong Road and C [email protected] at Serangoon Road. 

To date, he said, about 16 karaoke operators have ceased business including the Bier Valley Pub and Pub DSoul outfits at River Valley Road and Serangoon Road respectively.

A spokesperson for the K Star karaoke bar, which has several branches including one at Orchard Central and another at Suntec City, pointed out individuals are less at risk catching Covid-19 in a karaoke room compared to coffeeshops and cinemas that draw large crowds.

Businesses, she said, would be able to segregate groups of five in individual rooms where they can sit safely apart. Each room can be sanitised before the next group arrives, she added.

The alliance has yet to approach the Government regarding their plight, said Mr Ng.

“To be frank the Government should know where we are coming from, and recognise the existence of our industry. They should know we need to open,” he said.

“If we have to remain closed for several more months, then I hope the Government can help on our rental at least. I think this is the most important and difficult part for us,” added K Star’s spokesperson, referring to rental rebates that will end in July.

Bars, nightclubs turn to food, virtual events to survive

Bars and nightclubs meanwhile have turned to stopgap measures to help them stay afloat during this period.

Several clubs like Marquee Singapore and Zouk Singapore, have launched virtual-clubbing events as a way to generate some revenue during this period.

While there is no cover charge, tips from party-goers are welcome by some clubs like Retro arcade bar and discotheque Nineteen80.

Meanwhile, nightlife establishments with food licences are turning their establishments into dining concepts to get by. 

Zouk Singapore at Clarke Quay, for example, decided to utilise the unused space where Capital lounge is and turn it into a pop-up restaurant, now called Capital Kitchen.

Capital Kitchen, which seats about 100 customers, has been fully booked on most weekends since it launched at the start of Phase Two, said the club’s chief executive officer Andrew Li

Despite the good response for its new dining concept, the group’s revenue - which includes those from its clubs Zouk, Phuture and Capital, among others - has seen a significant decline, he said without providing figures. 

“At the end of the day, revenue from a nightlife establishment and a restaurant are considerably different,” said Mr Li.

Other nightlife businesses with food licences are making a big shift in their business operations to focus on their food output including retraining staff, opening outlets for weekend lunches and getting on food delivery platforms. 

Mr Glenn Joseph, the operations manager for Verve Restaurant Group, which manages the Wings and Warehouse bars in Clarke Quay, however said that despite all these changes, his revenue has dropped by as much as 60 per cent compared to pre-Covid-19 days.

For bars that do not have a food licence, they have turned to offering alcohol takeaway services or virtual cocktail making lessons.

Founder Colin Chia Nutmeg & Clove cocktail bar at Ann Siang Hill said that while his bottled cocktail takeaway service was fairly popular during the circuit breaker period, with about 100 orders a week, orders have since dropped to around 25 with more people heading out during Phase Two.

“My only target every month has been to pay my rental, my suppliers and my employees,” he said.

The Nineteen80 discotheque is also providing alcohol delivery and in addition, is renting out its space for photoshoots.

“Our activities have been stopgap solutions which are fine for the meantime, however it is unknown how long we have to adapt to the circumstances, or when and how we can move forward with our upcoming plans,” said the discotheque’s co-owner Francesca Way.

She hopes the Government will make it easier for businesses like hers to offer food without having to go through a lengthy licensing application process or for them to be allowed to restart operations with safety measures in place. 

Impending collapse of a vibrant industry

SNBA’s Mr Ong said August will be a challenging month for many businesses as rental waivers announced during the Fortitude Budget cease then.

Businesses also have to wait till October for the final tranche of wage subsidies under the Jobs Support Scheme to be paid out.

While acknowledging that the Government has done a fair bit to help businesses in general, Mr Ong said that he would like the Government to pay more attention to the nightlife sector, or risk the collapse of a vibrant and established industry.

He said that the nightlife industry supports a range of workers from food and beverage staff to entertainers and security guards.

“We are very clear about how much the Government can help but they shouldn’t see it as helping the company, but the people in (the sector),” he said. — TODAY

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