Bangkok Bars Today
Responding to some of the points raised in this week’s column, notably whether girls are being more flexible on rates due to a big drop off in custom, the short answer is no. If anything, Thai logic remains strong and prices have increased. Barfines increased with the latest rent rise, with bar bosses opting to claw back minimal profit margins this way instead of increasing the cost of booze which, let’s face it, is at an unsustainable level – roughly 400% mark up on shop prices – with punters seriously questioning its value. Any further rate increase coupled with a rumoured 11% nationwide sales tax will push many businesses under.
Punters don’t appreciate near 1,000 baht short-time barfines and many refuse to pay. Girls increasingly make their own arrangements outside of work, or service guys in the dark corners of bars and the bar bosses lose out. Obviously girls don’t care about the business side of operations, have no loyalty to their place of work and ask the equivalent price of a Gucci handbag for going through the motions. But regular customers are able to negotiate much better rates than single visitors, leaving some bars with a poor reputation as a tourist clip joint.
The problem directly relates to the arrival of 2 new bar bosses to the scene roughly 4 years ago who seemed to be in competition with each other and self indulged in smashing wage structures in an attempt to outdo each other’s bar and claim the #1 spot. This made girls both lazy and greedy. Able to command a handsome salary for simply dancing, they no longer need a customer to live comfortably. In turn their prices have increased and this has killed off the traditional working class visitor to Bangkok. Whilst some point to currency exchange rates as a reason for a drop off in custom, there’s actually a shift to a minority of cash rich punters mainly of Asian descent. Meanwhile, girls are increasing prices with no understanding of global economics nor value for money services. When you see visitors from Japan, Korea and the like “doing a farang” and negotiating rates you know there’s a bubble that’s about to go pop.
The double drink scam that became policy of 2 bars hasn’t affected business, neither has the persistent hassle of their mamasans meaning you cannot sit in comfort observing goings on without being told to buy girls drinks and barfine whether you want to or not. It’s no longer an enjoyable experience and many Nana regulars avoid these bars. It’s not quite reached the old school scam proportions of Patpong and Arab-owned bars of Soi Cowboy but it’s not far off. Why should this make a difference to other bars in the complex? Well simply because girls and bosses hear what other bars charge and follow suit. So a sub-standard, bikini-clad burger muncher is now asking the same rate as the top looking girls. And so the better lookers put their prices up further. It’s a vicious cycle that you’d hope or expect mamasans and bar managers to be on top of, however both are blinded by short-term profit margins and the customer comes last.
I overheard abar boss loudly proclaiming that her girls charge 3,500 baht short time, so obviously that’s 7,000 baht long-time. Err.. hello? Maybe she considers Las Vegas rates as standard, but when you can get serviced in Amsterdam, Czech Republic, Hamburg and London’s Soho for much less, that shows a lack of experience of Thailand and knowledge of the wider world. Tourists came to Thailand because it was cheap and you forgave poor service as you got value. Now the business element appears to think Thailand is like Hong Kong or Singapore, when it does not offer either service level nor facilities. You can’t transform a working class venue in to an upper middle class venue without improving the basics. Some will learn the hard way. Sensibly managed bars have kept their prices in place for a few years, knowing the greed of others will naturally benefit them as word gets round that X bar is so much cheaper offering similar standard girls. Clever mamasans who understand business keep their girls updated on current rates and customer feeling and they benefit as the average punter will spend the equivalent amount in less expensive bars as they perceive to be getting value. That’s when it becomes less about spend and more about principle.
There are still many tourists in Bangkok, they’re just choosing not to frequent the 3 traditional naughty boys zones, heading for out of the way Thai joints where prices are still considered reasonable. Or front loading on booze in average priced bars, touring the gogos while watching their wallets, then picking up a street walker for often less than half the price being quoted in some gogos. There are girls in some gogos claiming they’ve not had a barfine in months, then you enquire further and hear it’s 1,000+ baht barfine, 3,500 baht ST, 400 baht ST hotel, plus drinks and you can’t have any sympathy. Agency girls appear programmed to ask certain rates but often the agency kingpin takes their slice, mamasan needs her cut, the girl’s Tom minder needs a payoff. How much the girl makes is questionable. All have protection, be it boyfriend, girlfriend, tomboy minder or even a policeman to protect their interests – and they all need a payout. Many girls have migrated from tourist zones to more local venues or the internet as customers decrease and money becomes harder to make. Oddly the same girls charge less in local venues or on the internet than they do in the tourist bars, illustrating the protection racket that goes hand in hand with bar work.
For bar bosses, remaining competitive is important in maintaining and sustaining a business. This short term profit driven business model will fail eventually and take others down with it. By which time it’ll be too late to reverse trends, as prices once set never ever decrease.