When the government announced that nightlife businesses in Singapore can finally reopen after a two-year hiatus, it almost felt like we could hear all the affected business owners breathing a huge sigh of relief.
“It’s like the light at the end of a tunnel,” said Derek Ong, co-founder of Tipsy Collective.
For about two years now, bars, nightlife and other entertainment venues in Singapore have been forced to cease operations following the government’s COVID-19 advisory.
It’s been an undoubtedly difficult time for these businesses to stay afloat, and the toughest hurdle is uncertainty — they have no idea how long they will be able to survive when there’s no guarantee when they will be able to reopen.
It was only last month that the authorities finally announced that all nightlife businesses in Singapore will be allowed to fully reopen from April 19, with COVID-19 safety measures in place.
Making their foray into the nightlife sector
Founded in March 2018, Tipsy Collective is a multi-concept holding group that offers live entertainment, gourmet food and premium drinks.
According to Derek, he was the first graduate from Republic Polytechnic to be awarded the Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES!) for startups back in 2011. With the S$50,000 seed funding from Spring Singapore, he started his very first business selling fish bak kwa.
The international finance graduate went on to open a few more F&B businesses over the years, including the present-day Tipsy Collective.
“Both myself and my co-founder David are from F&B backgrounds and we met at a time when we were both at a crossroad in our careers, hence the birth of our Tipsy project. It was essentially a distillation of both our lessons learned in the industry, as well as (our vision to build) a great space to get together with friends with good food and drinks (to have) a good time,” said Derek.
However, starting up wasn’t easy. The first challenge he faced was gathering the business capital to start up Tipsy Penguin, the very first F&B brand under Tipsy Collective.
We only had 50 per cent of the capital then. We exhausted every avenue available and even maxed out our credit cards to raise the capital needed to make Tipsy Penguin a reality.
– Derek Ong, co-founder of Tipsy Collective
To add on, the fact that they faced a lot of doubts from naysayers didn’t help ease matters.
“Most people didn’t think much of two youngsters looking to turn a tuition centre in Tampines into a buzzing heartland bar. We’ve also encountered others who would brush us off and shared their views that we weren’t going to survive long. Even pitching to the building management took a lot of hard work,” he lamented.
Today, Tipsy Collective has a string of eight outlets under its helm, including Tipsy Penguin, Tipsy Bird Gastrobar, Tipsy Bunny, Tipsy Panda, Tipsy Flamingo, Lady Wu, Takeshi Noodle Bar and O/T Bar. Out of these eight, four was opened during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, local cocktails bar Hopscotch was founded in 2014 by four former Bar Stories bartenders. Prior to Hopscotch, co-founder Roger Yip ran several pop-up bars and currently also runs a mobile bartending company called Mixes from Mars.
COVID-19 has been the biggest business challenge
“The F&B industry is notoriously tough to crack. It hasn’t been an easy journey maintaining an F&B business (because) there are always so many moving parts involved,” said Derek, who is also the vice president of Singapore Nightlife Business Association.
“To name a few, shortage of manpower is always an ongoing issue F&B businesses face in Singapore. (We also need to be) able to keep up with consumer trends, whilst actively trying to innovate on our own and adapting to COVID-19 restrictions and safe management measures (at the same time).”
For Hopscotch, innovation is also in their DNA. With a strong niche in local-themed drinks, Hopscotch has to continually refresh their drinks menu to keep customers excited. In fact, it has launched a different cocktail menu every year.
Besides the usual business challenges, Derek finds that the COVID-19 pandemic has been the “most daunting” to date.
Nightlife was the first to close and last to reopen, (and) the impact on the whole industry is deep and lasting (as) many are still recovering from the damage. All our outlets faced a host of different challenges, (both) operationally and financially.
– Derek Ong, co-founder of Tipsy Collective
In particular, its rooftop attic bar Lady Wu has been one of the hardest-hit outlets during the pandemic.
“Pre-COVID times, Lady Wu was known for its live music, live DJs, karaoke room and electrifying atmosphere as a rooftop club. The safe management regulations effectively knocked out everything that Lady Wu had become known for. Even our guests who were (largely) the CBD office crowd, worked from home on most days,” he explained.
To ride through the pandemic, Derek deems it crucial to invest in the “right” people to help set a good working culture and healthy working environment, which ultimately aids in ensuring the sustainability of the business.
Beyond that, he made it a point to always provide customers with the best “Tipsy experience”, with an aim to convert every customer into a returning one with top-notch hospitality.
“This has helped greatly in keeping our outlets in business as well as (fuel) our expansions during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Pivoting during business closure
The government first released the advisory for nightlife entertainment venues to cease operations back in March 2020.
That month, which was the same time the circuit breaker took place, Hopscotch quickly established that deliveries for food and drinks won’t be enough to help financially sustain the business.
“We went out to work other part-time jobs for a month to tide through,” shared Roger.
However, when the government announced the extension of the circuit breaker, Hopscotch circled back to its delivery idea and “reboot” it so they could better financially support their staff.
“Fortunately, there was the announcement of the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) as well, [and] our landlord, Singapore Land Authority (SLA), was also kind enough to grant us two months of free rent. Because of these measures, we were able to tide through 2020 quite smoothly.”
Besides repositioning some of their food items for delivery, Hopscotch also pivoted towards doing bottled cocktails.
“Unfortunately, neither of them really gained much ground. We have some regulars and friends supporting us by ordering, but we understand that it’s not sustainable. Our cocktails are better geared to be physically enjoyed as a group together with family or friends. (Packaging it) in a bottle entirely omits that interactivity,” reasoned Roger.
The year 2021 however, posed a whole new set of challenges with multiple lockdowns and the emergence of Delta and Omicron variants.
The struggles also felt “prolonged”, as restrictions on dining capacity and the playing of music in outlets stretched for over almost half a year before they were finally lifted in end-November.
When these restrictions were lifted, business visibly improved, according to the two entrepreneurs.
It gets really awkward without any music (playing) in the background and at our Capitol outlet, you could hear conversations (happening at) another table. It didn’t help that it was during the two-person phase, which made it all the more awkward.
The change in seating capacity (also) changed things. What was most observable was that people were ordering more drinks. With changes to group sizes increasing, people seem to be taking that opportunity to gather as a large group again after a prolonged period of time, and that seemed to have induced more drinking and merry making.
– Roger Yip, co-founder of Hopscotch
As such, it’s not surprising that December turned out to be a “really good month” for them, performing twice as well as they did in November. This is a testament that such restrictions have heavily impacted their business revenue.
Similarly, Derek feels that live music has been a “core part” of its business pre-COVID. When it was suspended for the last two years, they made an effort to ensure that its outlets was able to create the necessary engagement with guests while keeping in line with the safety management measures.
Regardless, a “fall in revenue was inevitable,” he lamented. “There were certain periods where the outlets were more hard hit than others over the last two and a half years. I would say that most outlets experienced between a 30 to 50 per cent decrease in revenue, and about 90 per cent decrease during the lockdown.”
With the fall in revenue, Derek had no choice but to also pivot the business. When the COVID-19 news first surfaced, they were already planning to roll out a takeaway food service called Hadouken, which began operations on the first day of circuit breaker in 2020.
He also ventured into several non-F&B ventures under the Tipsy Collective, such as a singing and DJ-ing school called Tipsy Live Academy that serves as an “incubator for live local music talents”, as well as an e-sports team.
Green light to finally “reopen” after two long years
When Roger first heard the news on the government giving the green light for nightlife businesses to resume operations as usual from April 19, he had mixed reactions about it.
“We know that business will surely be affected due to the presence of more competition, but we’re equally excited about it due to the resuming of travel, which would mean the return of some tourist crowd,” he expressed.
Ahead of the reopening, all nightlife establishments are subjected to the safe management measures imposed on food and beverage outlets, retail liquor establishments and live performances where applicable.
According to the authorities, for nightlife businesses where dancing among patrons is one of the intended activities — such as nightclubs and discotheques — patrons have to produce a negative antigen rapid test (ART) before entering the premises.
The ART has to be supervised by a test provider approved by the Ministry of Health, either in-person or remotely, and will be valid for 24 hours from the time of the test result.
Nightlife businesses are also required to observe other rules, such as mandatory mask-wearing indoors and capacity limits of 75 per cent for large settings/events with more than 1,000 people.
Roger expressed relief that most COVID-19 measures have been lifted such as group size limitations, which would mean a higher seating capacity for his bar. In anticipation of this, he has adjusted their opening hours to 12am on Fridays and Saturdays, instead of the usual 10.30pm.
As for Derek, while he too felt a sense of relief and excitement when he first heard the news, it was quickly followed by a lot of hard work to get all the outlets ready.
There were a lot of logistical work (that needs) to be done in preparation for the “reopening”, such as arranging of schedule for their old bands, talent scouting of new bands to fill out the lineup due to their expansion, ensuring all our sound systems were ready, and arranging for the manpower to cope with the expected increase in footfall.
– Derek Ong, co-founder of Tipsy Collective
Since the reopening day, Roger and Derek both said that the turnout rate has been great so far, with many friends and regular customers showing their support.
“While we do expect (the crowd) to normalise after some time, we look forward to this period in welcoming and enjoying this significant boom of celebrating with (everyone) on the return of live music and reunion of gatherings,” said Derek.
Ultimately, he is beyond grateful that Tipsy Collective has managed to stay operational and even expanded amid these tough times. With the industry progressively reopening this year, he aims to double their numbers from last year to recoup the losses.
He added that Tipsy Collective is far from done and is very much focused on growing its footprint for now. Moving forward, he has some “exciting plans” for the future, which includes the launch of four new projects in the year ahead.
Likewise, Roger hopes to “operate different concepts, or even open more outlets” once circumstances are more favourable. For now, they are in the midst of revamping their food and drinks menu, which he highly anticipates to be a hit.
“Just being able to operate with some semblance of live before COVID-19 has already felt like a very big change from the last two and a half years,” summed up Derek.
Featured Image Credit: Tipsy Collective