Entertainment venues were one of the first to be affected by COVID-19.
They were suspended since 26 March, 11.59pm, even before Singapore’s circuit breaker period was announced.
And while measures are now slowly easing to let some businesses reopen, Minister Chan Chun Sing has mentioned that “social entertainment outlets” will have to expect a longer wait.
Looking at the current situation, they most likely won’t be back in business yet even after the circuit breaker ends on 1 June.
A prolonged closure makes sense since entertainment venues are places for people to let their hair down and have fun, and most importantly in the company of friends. By that very nature, it’s hardly possible to practice safe distancing.
But how will these businesses survive? We spoke to three owners to find out what they’re doing to stay afloat.
The Toughest Hurdle Is Uncertainty
For each of the businesses we got in touch with, the impact of the virus has been severe.
“Unfortunately, closure meant no income for us, while still having to bear overhead costs,” says Managing Director of Cherry Discotheque, Wayne Chiam.
The popular nightclub used to see a full turnout of about 250 guests “almost every other operating night”. But now, their main concern is to ensure survival without their usual source of revenue.
Wayne tells us they are committed to keeping all employees on payroll, as otherwise, it would be “unfair for the team who have made Cherry [what it is] today”.
However, the struggle is that the current situation leaves a lot of things in the air.
For example, they don’t have a concrete answer on whether rental waivers will be passed on as negotiations are still ongoing with their landlord, who is also unable to operate during this time.
HaveFun Karaoke was hit by the outbreak in the midst of their expansion plans.
“We were doing well enough to embark on an expansion plan to increase our number of outlets from four to at least seven by the end of 2020,” says Jonathan Zhang, Chief Operating Officer of HaveFun Karaoke’s parent company Goodwill Entertainment Holdings.
They don’t intend to drop these plans, as renovations are already underway for three upcoming outlets.
“But the uncertainty of when we can operate makes it challenging for us to plan our resources ahead,” he adds.
Besides having no idea when they will be able to reopen, another unknown is how much consumer behaviour will change by then, and whether people will decide to steer clear of leisurely group activities.
From Party Beats To Online Threads
You might remember that Cherry Discotheque received public backlash for wanting to host a ‘last farewell party’ on the night before closure.
Wayne is not afraid to admit it was a mistake: “We lacked foresight, made misinformed decisions and we bear full responsibility for that.”
Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Cherry quickly called off the event and turned their full focus to preparing for an online strategy.
It was a silver lining that we were able to accelerate future plans and bring them forward.
We have been planning for the launch of our online fashion label — Cherry Online — for awhile now, and this situation allowed us to focus more effort and resources on it.Wayne Chiam, Managing Director of Cherry Discotheque
Cherry Online is completely fresh off its launch on 8 May, starting out with just three streetwear items for the choosing.
But even though their first step is a small one, Wayne shares that the label has been well received and orders have already gone “beyond [their] expectations”.
“So far we’ve been able to curate an organic group of Gen Z and Millennial audience that finds us relatable and actually eggs us on for whatever we plan to dish out,” he adds.
For now, the club’s main aim is to keep fans engaged online and to design more merchandise for the coming months.
Having a fashion line not only gives Cherry a revenue stream to tide them through — it helps them keep customers excited with the promise of free entry to their future events with any purchase.
On top of that, they’ve also taken the opportunity to give back to the community by pledging 10 per cent of Cherry Online’s sales to #SGPAYSITFORWARD, an initiative that donates essential sanitary items to the needy.
Bringing The Fun Straight To Homes And Smartphones
Similar to Cherry Discotheque, the other two businesses we talked to have also turned to ecommerce as an alternative.
HaveFun Karaoke now runs an online on-demand alcohol store called BlackKeg, while arcade chain Cow Play Cow Moo is selling off their stocked-up inventory of toys and prizes on Lazada.
However, they both see a need to provide something more that also allows them to continue entertaining people like they used to.
For HaveFun, Jonathan admits that doing well with just alcohol sales is challenging as the market is “very competitive”.
What helps them differentiate themselves now is their karaoke delivery service — customers can rent their proprietary portable KBar System and wireless microphones, and belt to their hearts’ content at home.
The company was quick to start offering this in February once they started feeling the early impacts of the outbreak. It has allowed them to continue actively serving customers during the circuit breaker period.
We have seen 20 to 40 bookings every month. There was a 100 per cent increase from February to March, and 50 per cent from March to April.Jonathan Zhang, COO of Goodwill Entertainment
“It’s definitely not enough to cushion our loss of revenues, but we are doing our best to serve our patrons during the circuit breaker and to stay visible,” Jonathan says.
While HaveFun brings the karaoke experience to people’s homes, Cow Play Cow Moo is working on an app to bring some arcade fun to smartphones.
Claw machines have exploded as a trend in the past year, and the craze has even extended to online toy catcher games.
Lao Jiwei, founder of Cow Play Cow Moo, shares that they are currently in the midst of developing their own iteration.
When it’s ready, customers will be able to buy tokens to play online and control a claw machine through the app. If they manage to drop a toy down the prize chute, it will be shipped to their address.
Hoping For More Government Support
While he understands the importance of the closures to minimise the risk of infection, Jonathan hopes there will be additional assistance for businesses that cannot reopen after the circuit breaker.
He feels that wage support for the entertainment industry should “ideally” be on par with the aviation and tourism sector, or “minimally” with food services.
Under the Jobs Support Scheme, aviation and tourism companies receive 75 per cent of the first $4,600 of monthly wages per employee, while food services get 50 per cent, and all other businesses get 25 per cent.
He also hopes that more financial assistance will be granted to help entertainment venues ease their cash flow and foreign worker levies for an extended time.
This could possibly come to pass, as Minister Chan Chun Sing said the multi-ministry task force is looking at help schemes for sectors that have to reopen later than others.
Taking Greater Precautions When Business Resumes
When entertainment venues eventually get to reopen, things are going to be quite different. Spacing out seats and taking temperatures before entry will become the normal practice for cinemas, for example.
Despite the uncertainties they face, businesses are making plans ahead and preparing to step up on measures to keep customers safe.
On top of wearing masks, providing hand sanitisers and practicing safe distancing, Cow Play Cow Moo has a list of additional measures they’re looking forward to discussing with the authorities.
This includes placing transparent dividers between each arcade machine, applying antiviral coating every three days (the same one used in our HDB lifts, says Jiwei), and using a disinfectant fogger every hour.
This is our own initiative as we want to do it right. It will come out of our own pocket, and it might cost quite a bit. But we reckon that if all the additional measures are implemented, [it will stamp out] chances of transmission.Lao Jiwei, Founder of Cow Play Cow Moo
He references Shanghai Disneyland’s recent successful reopening as an encouraging example. The theme park implemented many changes in order to protect visitors, such as limiting and staggering visitor numbers, doing temperature checks and suspending indoor attractions.
With proper care, Jiwei is confident that entertainment venues like arcades can also welcome guests while keeping their health protected.
HaveFun Karaoke also intends to proceed with opening their new outlets, and will employ more digital methods to reduce contact between customers and staff.
Jonathan shares that when they reopen, they will shift to an online booking system and enable self check-ins, starting with one of their upcoming outlets at NEX.
Likewise, Wayne acknowledges that the entertainment industry must be ready to operate under different conditions in the future.
“Definitely, post circuit breaker Singapore will be on a different spectrum as to what we’ve been dealing with before. Operations protocols will have to be revised in compliance with future social distancing measures,” he says.
However, he emphasises that they will be waiting for the right time to execute plans.
We are cautious about the outlook of the industry. As much as we hope things will pick up soon enough, the priority is still the wellness of our community — we definitely don’t want to rush back into things.
What we can do now is to continue planning for when the entertainment industry resumes to some form of normalcy, and deliver even more exciting and engaging experiences then.Wayne Chiam, Managing Director of Cherry Discotheque
Featured Image Credit: Colossal Photos, Cow Play Cow Moo