Can Orchard Road’s clubbing scene get its groove back?

Can Orchard Road’s clubbing scene get its groove back?


Industry veteran Dennis Foo is trying to revive it, but scorching rents and fickle crowds are major obstacles


By Shuli Sudderuddin


If you are a clubber, the harvest in the Orchard area these days is poor.


Sure, there is a smattering of clubs in Orchard Towers, but these target clients who come for ladies of the night from Thailand and the Philippines.


In the stretch between Scotts Road and Centrepoint, you can pop into Bar None, Balcony in the Heeren, Brix at the Grand Hyatt and a cluster of small pubs such as the Acid Bar and Alley Bar in Peranakan Place.


But revellers used to party harder, louder and in bigger spaces in Orchard.


Older partygoers recall the three-floor Fire disco in Orchard Plaza, which opened in 1989, and the posh Studebaker club in Pacific Plaza, which was set up in 1992.


In 1993, Sparks opened in Ngee Ann City and was famous for its tea dances for teens. In 1998, Venom opened in Pacific Plaza.


All these feel-good places have since closed.


No wonder, then, that both the owners of pubs and clubs as well as the patrons feel that the party lights have dimmed considerably in Orchard, while rival locations such as Clarke Quay, Dempsey Village and St James Powerhouse rule the night.


Veteran clubber and part-time singer Linda Hamid, 42, lamented: ‘Orchard Road used to be a cool hangout 10 years ago, but now it’s quiet.’


Advertising executive Jewel Tay, 25, said: ‘Ten years ago, places like Sparks were completely packed. There aren’t establishments like them any more.’


But hope was ignited recently when industry veteran Dennis Foo, 55, moved back into the area.


The chief executive of the 10-club St James Power Station acquired Bar None and The Living Room in the Singapore Marriott Hotel last month.


Bar None, a 10-year-old nightspot, was relaunched on May 20 with two bands playing top 40 and classic rock. Mr Foo noted that business in the first week tripled from the levels before the relaunch.


Said the man who managed nine nightclubs in Orchard in the late 1990s, from Ridley’s at the ANA hotel to Xanadu in the Shangri-La: ‘Nightlife in Orchard has gone down as there are new places like Clarke Quay and Dempsey. But Bar None’s performance indicates that Orchard’s still the place to go to.’


One reason that Orchard’s nightlife has gone tame is the rentals.


Mr Deen Shahul, 50, who managed Fire disco and Sparks in Orchard Road during its heyday, feels that the soaring rent hurts the viability of running big clubs.


‘Seven years ago, Fire cost about $60,000 a month in rent. Now, as the landlord, I can collect over $100,000. The industry is not as lucrative as before,’ he said.


The Fire space is now rented out to a disco and a KTV cantopub.


When Sparks opened in 1993, it generated $30 million in sales in its first year. Five years later, when an economic downturn struck, it shared the space with a restaurant to cover the rent.


Ms Tracy Phillips, 30, marketing manager for Zouk, said that clubs in Orchard may fail because of rentals and fickle loyalties.


Mr Sam Nor, 40, a partner at the Cuscaden Patio cafe-pub, noted that, while business had been constant, the Orchard scene was not as lively as customers seldom stayed faithful to a club.


‘Clubs need to be run by people with experience to keep customers coming back and most clubs can’t do that,’ he said.


A spokesman for the Grand Hyatt Singapore, which manages 30-year-old Brix, said: ‘Unless clubs recognise the fundamentals of offering quality in entertainment, food and drinks, business will not be sustained.’


Industry experts suggest that nightlife in Orchard has to shift from big clubs to smaller, cosier establishments.


Mr Mohan Mulani, 48, chief executive of Harry’s Holdings, said: ‘Clubs are going in the direction of large concepts or as parts of clusters. In Orchard, rental increases mean smaller spaces, but those with niche concepts can do well.’


He added that the Harry’s Bar at Orchard Towers has had steady business since it opened in 2005. One big draw is its resident veteran band Tania.


Over at Balcony, Ms Anna Tan, 31, its marketing manager, attributes its staying power to location: ‘It’s centralised and people come here after shopping.’


Ms Ying Ong, director of the Peranakan Place Group, said the family business has taken nothing for granted since 1988.


‘Back then, the clubbing scene was much simpler and rent was a lot lower. The rates today can go up to more than $100 per sq ft. We remain relevant by doing surveys and making trips overseas to look for new concepts,’ she said.


Ms Lynette Pang, director for cluster development, events and entertainment at the Singapore Tourism Board, said: ‘Orchard Road possesses the potential to develop more nightlife buzz.’


And that can also benefit from the $40 million rejuvenation works for the area, which will be completed next year.


Certainly, Mr Foo has high hopes.


‘So many hotels, high-end offices and tourists are located here. Everything is there for Orchard Road to make a comeback,’ he said.


Source: Straits Times

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