Singapore Nightlife operators face uphill task to adapt and survive in Covid-19 new normal

Clarke Quay, one of Singapore's once-vibrant nightlife precincts, during its heyday. — TODAY pic
Clarke Quay, one of Singapore's once-vibrant nightlife precincts, during its heyday. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Oct 22 — Some nightlife operators said they are aware there is an urgent need for them to pivot their business models in order to survive the Covid-19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc on global economies, but many told TODAY that it is easier said than done.

Aside from having to invest more money to rebrand their business — a tough ask when some are relying on savings to survive — they said there is also the red tape to contend with.

Their comments yester came a day after the authorities announced that nightlife venues such as bars, karaoke lounges and nightclubs are set to remain closed even after Singapore enters Phase Three of its reopening — contrary to some earlier indications.

On Tuesday, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said some pilot trials may be held in Phase Three at selected nightlife venues to explore ways they might be able to reopen, with strict Covid-19 measures in place.

Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry Covid-19 task force, also said the government intends to offer assistance packages to help any business operators wishing to exit the industry to pivot to new areas, though the details will be announced at a later stage.

Nightlife establishments have not been allowed to operate since March 26 due to government imposed safe distancing measures.

Wong explained on Tuesday that the nature of the activity at nightlife venues, be it singing, dancing or patrons speaking loudly, puts people at a higher risk of infection.

Pivoting not economical

Roy Tan, the business development manager of Club Illusion, in Clarke Quay, was among several who expressed their disappointment with the announcement.

“We have continued to hold on to our staff for this Phase Three, but it seems like retrenchment is unavoidable now,” said Tan.

While the club is exploring reinventing its business into a bistro or restaurant, he stressed that it will be a whole new investment which will not be economical.

This was a sentiment shared by two other operators.

Steven Ng, the owner of K Voice Karaoke, in Clementi, pointed out that if he wanted to convert his business into a food and beverage outlet, it would be costly for him to tear down the individual karaoke booths and renovate the premises into an appropriate layout.

One owner of a KTV (karaoke television) bar along Neil Road, who declined to be named, agreed.

With depleting savings, she said the prospect of building a full fledged kitchen is a daunting one.

“Business is already so tough,” she said. “We are trying to stay afloat where are we going to find extra money to invest and redo the whole place?”

Licensing roadblocks

Putting money aside, just getting the licence to convert their businesses has been a challenge, said the operators.

Nineteen80's co-owner Francesca Way said she and her partners have also been trying to turn their Tanjong Pagar Road club into a restaurant.

It has not been an easy task, she said.

“You have to prove that you are transitioning into another business,” said Way, who added that they are in the midst of trying to install a kitchen.

Furthermore, the landlord will need to apply for a change of use of the space.

Way said this is a cause for concern as some nightclub owners worry that once the application goes through, they will not be able to get permission to revert to being a discotheque in the future.

As for Club Illusion’s Tan, he said they have been speaking to the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Singapore Food Agency for permission to convert their business.

However, they have yet to receive the go-ahead, he said.

K Voice’s Ng said asking operators to make the transition towards another business model is not something that can happen overnight, and not something everyone would have the expertise to do.

“If I asked you to set up a chicken rice stall tomorrow, it is not easy right?”

Waiting for final plans

The Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) said it has positioned itself to start helping industry players to either make a business transition or to exit altogether.

They are awaiting final plans from the Ministry of Trade and Industry to move things along, said SNBA’s president Joseph Ong.

Ong said if operators know the details of these support measures, such as the amount of financial aid or even if business consultants will be made available, then it will be much easier for some operators to make the transition.

Not all nightlife operators have found it a struggle to switch up their business model. The Zouk Group has introduced two initiatives to diversify its business.

Zouk’s Main Room is now a spin studio that offers indoor cycling classes daily.

It also has plans to run a cinema club four nights a week, though more details have yet to be announced.

In August, Zouk transformed its Capital lounge space into a pop-up restaurant named Capital Kitchen.

However, Tan pointed out that Zouk has the advantage of having a much larger space, which not all clubs have.

TODAY has sought comment from the group.

Industry veteran Dennis Foo believes that the pilot trials proposed by the authorities would be a good approach to reopen some nightlife venues.

Wong said on Tuesday that the trials could involve subjecting selected venues to more stringent measures, including pre-entry Covid-19 testing or even closed-circuit television cameras to ensure that patrons comply with safe management measures at all times.

Foo, who is also an adviser to the SNBA, said this could be applied on a precinct level as they would have a central management in place.

What this means, he said, is that they have resources and ability to comply with the safe management measures that are equal, if not better, than cruise ship companies that will be back in operations soon.

This, in turn, will allow them to control the entry points to the precinct, and monitor the flow of people into the area.

He added that it would help if the precinct has underutilised outdoor space that could be used to spread people out and create a safer environment for everyone too.

Whatever the case, Way hopes something can be done soon.

“With every day that we can’t open, we’re going to a sure, slow death. It’s quite disheartening,” she said. — TODAY

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