From good times to recession – how Manila’s club scene is coping

Published by rudy Date posted on March 22, 2009

IN GOOD TIMES or bad, people go out to drink, either to celebrate or get totally wasted. Either way, club and bar owners have always had it good.

However, that seems to be not the case this time. Since the economic downturn, revenues have dropped by 10-20 percent, according to the gatekeepers of Manila’s nightlife.

“There are so many places and the market is so small,” says Louie Ysmael wryly. “And so many are opening… Clubs have only certain nights when they do well because the market is too small to fill all these places in one night.”

Ysmael is regarded as the king of Manila nightlife. He began his career managing clubs and discos in 1980, so he knows how the city’s club scene has evolved, running or owning (or both) some of the most popular night haunts in the last three decades: Stargazer, Louie Y’s, Euphoria, Venezia, V Bar—all having had a good run before they finally closed. The last few years, he’s had Nuvo at Greenbelt 2, a fine-dining restaurant and bar.

“We’ve dropped [revenues] by 20 percent, me and others I’ve spoken to,” he says. “I know that the hotel bars, except for a few, aren’t doing so well… Nuvo is steady—well, only down a bit—because of the expats. They’re not affected; they’re paid in euros and dollars… I’m not affected by expats per se, but by the number of expats who had to leave the country because of the economy.”

New bars

Erik Cua, the aggressive entrepreneur behind Embassy Super Club, Temple Bar and the newly opened Manor in Eastwood City, also says sales have been affected the past months by about 10 percent, but says this had more to do with the timing. “There were exams so not a lot of people were going out. But it’s graduation time and it’s picking up again.”

With Ysmael and other partners, Cua recently opened the members-only bar-lounge called Members Only next to Embassy, where another high-end restaurant-bar-lounge called The Establishment also opened just two weeks ago.

It’s, however, too soon to tell how all these new places will do, Cua says. Right now, they are full “because people are checking them out.” But he believes it would boil down to the “survival of the fittest. The weaker brands will have a harder time because people will choose [only where they want to go]. It’s more challenging because there are more players.”

“I had a very easy time in the last recession because I was the only one [running clubs],” says Ysmael. The formula for a successful joint, he says, hasn’t changed since the ’80s: “good location, good service and good PR so you’re assured you’re getting the right people. You must be consistent. You shouldn’t fail because people have many alternatives.”

Ysmael adds that even places that are initially billed as resto-lounges eventually turn into bars as owners realize “they can’t just make money on food.” He once wrote in the Inquirer that the club business is 95 percent booze and only 5 percent food.

Provocative

Louie Cruz, a main fixture of the night scene since the ’70s, presents an even more provocative analysis of how a club succeeds or fails.

“Drugs play a major role,” he says. “When partygoers are taking Ecstasy, they don’t drink alcohol, so you don’t sell. They just drink water or juice. Ecstasy isn’t a social drug. You do it alone. You dance on your own to the thump of the music. It’s not like marijuana where you want to be close and talk to people, therefore you drink.”

With the drugs comes the music, he says. The former dictates the latter. “If I were a bar owner, I would make sure only 10 percent Ecstasy users come to my club,” Cruz says, laughing at such a high goal. “Ecstasy users are usually the younger ones… Then there are the cocaine users, who have more money. They don’t want to mix with Ecstasy users because they have a different kind of music. They’re different heads… What the night scene does is sell insanity, where people can let their hair down and be with their own kind.”

Cyberspace may have also helped diminish the party crowd—at least compared to his time, Cruz says. “Going out needs preparation. You dress up and go to a bar to meet someone [for sex]. They’re pick-up joints. A bar is the stage, the setup for the event.” With cyberspace, people can meet people without actual face time. “When you meet someone on the Internet, that’s the only time you go out. It’s cheaper than going to a bar. I would’ve done the same had there been cyberspace in my time. But then we had to go out and look for the bone!”

Successful bars usually have a good cross-section of the market, Cruz notes, citing Giraffe, a famous bar-lounge in Makati in the ’90s. Bouncers’ role, he adds, is to control the mix of guests: 60 percent women, 30 percent men and 10 percent gays. If there are too few women, men leave.

“The recession should be good,” Cruz adds with a laugh. “When we’re happy, we celebrate and go out. But even when things go bad, we drink. People will always have money to drown their sorrows!” –Cheche Moral, Philippine Daily Inquirer

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