Singapore’s nightlife: then and now

Remember the good old days of hand-signing to Bananarama’s “Love in the First Degree” at Zouk during Mambo nights on Wednesdays?

Those were practically the highlights of my university days, and it was deemed the cool place to hang out on these three essential days – Wednesday (ladies night!), Friday (TGIF!) and Saturday (a drink or two for the impending end of the weekend).

The night-life scene in Singapore has definitely undergone a dramatic change since the early 90s, where we only had a handful of nightclubs like Zouk, Sparks, and Fire discos. Today, in Clarke Quay alone, clubbers are spoilt for choice – from Attica, China One, Shanghai Dolly, The Arena, to name but a few.

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But even with so many choices at hand it seems as though these changes can’t keep up with our fickleness, especially since us local party people get bored pretty easily.

Just look at how clubs like Zirca and Rebel had to close doors earlier this year to go through rebranding exercises to refresh their concepts!

Tough operating environment? You bet! Mr Mike Lim, who manages The Arena, can certainly attest to that. He spoke of a need for club operators to refresh their brands, “especially at a time when there are many clubs and many clubbers who are spoiled for choice”.

It certainly seems like the clubbing trend now is skewed towards offering patrons rich pickings.

Pangaea and Mink, for instance, charge hefty cover charges (especially for men!) but are still packed full on Fridays and Saturdays. On multiple occasions, I’ve had to wait up to 30 minutes in line despite being on the guest list!

And the spending doesn’t just end there.

Singapore is full of uber-rich folks who don’t mind splurging a couple of thousands on fancy drinks like gold flake champagne, sparklers magnum bottles of alcohol, or – get this – a S$32,000 cocktail!

 The way I see it, this is just another way of making things “exclusive”.

This free-for-all of outrageous prices and gimmicks is basically a clever marketing strategy to get people to think “Hey, if I’m mingling with people who can afford S$32,000 cocktails, then I’m just as special as they are”.

This is a natural evolution of the “exclusivity” factor, as the old model definitely had its flaws.

Filter, which closed its doors in March this year, was positioned as a members-only nightclub which allowed guests on an invitation-only basis. The fundamental flaw of this business model was that operators sacrificed the possibility of attracting new patrons only to make existing members feel special, a model that was much too dependent on members who could – and did – end up hopping to other clubs once they got bored.

Who knows what the clubbing scene will be like further down the road, especially with high overhead costs (rent, electricity, alcohol, etc.) and the increasing difficulty in employing manpower (foreign labour restrictions, highly specialised jobs, etc.)?

Most recently, regulations like shortened liquor licensing hours for tenants in Clarke Quay following reports of increased drunken behaviour in the area add on the list of challenges faced by businesses.

Industry players now have to be even more nimble than before with these changes taking effect.

For starters, the Singapore Nightlife Business Association was recently formed to represent a collective voice for operators – not just on regulatory issues, but also to improve service standards and introduce an accreditation framework for nightlife business owners.

This is definitely a good headway to make sure the needs and opinions of these professionals are being considered.

Unfortunately, the problem of manpower shortage is not one that is likely to ease in the years ahead. In order to make it more attractive for job seekers, employers can offer (to varying degrees) elements of job redesigning to increase productivity and employee motivation.

For example, getting the bartender to also do cashiering duties, or sending them on a mixology course and getting them on board to create bespoke cocktails.

Of course, this also requires the employers to be willing to provide a pay raise with the increased productivity and/or broadened job scope, as with the basis of progressive wages.

Part-timers are also an essential part of the business due to the cyclical demand of the industry.

Incentives such as providing flexible work schedule or offering scholarships for those still in school can be attractive ways to expand the pool of part-time workers. SPRING Singapore also has a Part-Time Pool Programme (PTP) introduced to help companies with the problem of labour shortage.

Frequent club rebranding and newcomers joining in the party scene certainly spice Singapore’s nightlife for clubbers, but from a business perspective this means club owners are going to need to continue pushing the envelope to keep patrons interested and entertained.

What will they come up with next?

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