The End Of The World As We Know It – And I Feel Fine!
Good column yesterday, and certainly I’d agree that Covid-19 appears to be the biggest threat to the industry since the currency crisis of 97.
However, just like that event, the end of it may be the birth of something better, if not bigger.
The impact of this virus will be brief but it will be deep. How brief? Reports say the number of new cases per day in China is now down to the single figures, and quarantine and self-isolation periods there are effectively over. Indeed, health measures in China are now focused on preventing people from outside the country arriving and bringing in perhaps new strains of the illness.
Given China had about 6 weeks headstart on the rest of the world for this virus, but without any of the warnings and preparations that other countries have had, I’d say they are about a month ahead of western countries on the epidemiological curve. So if they find themselves largely on the mend by mid-March, I’d expect western countries and Thailand to be well on top of the virus before the end of April. It will take some time after that for the tourism industry to kick back into gear – the airlines are severely cutting back operations which will take a while to reverse, and the public will be understandably wary of international travel for some time also.
So the next few months will be an almost total write-off tourism wise, but I reckon by the next Thai high season the numbers will be comparable to normal. That’s the good news. The bad news is that plenty of businesses cannot afford to pay rents and staff through such a long fallow period and many will shut down. While regular hospitality businesses like hotels and restaurants may reopen or new businesses emerge, the bar industry – where returns were already marginal and the business model bordering on unsustainable – may never return to the scale we have seen in recent times. How many will bother reopening? If all the bars closed tomorrow, how many would be in a situation where they would be willing and able to reopen in, say, October? A quarter? A third? Half? And without tenants, the owners and leaseholders are going to be looking for other uses for their property.
The industry needs rationalisation to improve, given declining staff numbers and quality. Finally, the trigger to make it happen may have arrived. Maybe we won’t have to idly speculate any longer about how a Bangkok with one bar area would look, or Pattaya with the same. Less choice for sure, but better bars brimming with quality girls? Perhaps. But I see a different scenario emerging which is more in sync with the realities of the current day.
The days of meeting a girl in a bar with whom you could strike up a rapport, and spend a few nights with during your holiday were the best of times, and the industry lived off the fumes of that era for many years after it had disappeared. The bars kept selling the appearance that things were still the same, but the reality gradually emerged – gogos are now strictly for eye candy, staffed by uninterested agency / coyote girls, hardcore crazies or KFC addicts. Instead, the girls like you used to meet in days of yore have gone online, as they have the financial resources to stay ‘off the pole’ but still want or need some extra bucks from time to time. The reason the whole scene hasn’t moved online is that punters still want a drink and a night out, and not so spend their holiday cooped up in a hotel room chatting online and maybe getting nowhere. And let’s face it, guys are much more likely to want some company only after they’ve had a few beers. So how do we bring together the ladies who need to only work occasionally with guys who want a night out for some beers and skirt? The model I see is one in which outdoor or lounge-style bars where the girls are paid per shift but are free to work as many or as few as they please, and one where punters are welcome to come in just to have some drinks, or to pick up if they feel so inclined with a barfine paid. Think Biergarten meets the old artist bars of 33. Goodbye to clock-watching coyotes, to ticket-clipping mamasans, to set pricing, to 300 baht lady drinks that buy 60 seconds of her time. Hello again to girls who are approaching normal, who can at least give the illusion of a connection.
The demand is not waning, but the current model cannot survive, so a new one will emerge.
The author of this article cannot be contacted.