Stickman's Weekly Column November 8th, 2020

The Bar Industry, Post-Covid



Thailand’s border remains closed to visitors. Customers in the bars are expats and the few remaining tourists who have stuck around since the start of the year. As has been reported week after week, with tourists unable to get in to Thailand bar trade isn’t great. It looks like this is how it’s going to be for many months to come. How will the bar industry look when the pandemic is finally behind us?

It all turned to custard in April. Most airlines stopped flying in to Thailand, the border closed and the bar industry was ordered to shut down.

As the months rolled by, it was all doom and gloom. The world economy would crash. Unemployment would soar. People would struggle to pay their mortgage. Putting food on the table would be top priority and international travel would be the last thing on most people’s mind. Life wouldn’t go back to how it was. There would be a so-called new normal which didn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. Some said the bar industry would be toast.

Several months on and there is still plenty of doom and gloom around. But there’s also renewed hope. Various vaccines are promising and we’re told the first of what could be many vaccines isn’t far away. When a vaccine does come, everything can be unwound – borders will reopen, international flights will resume, visitors will flock back to Thailand and the bar industry will take off again – at least this last part is what I reckon will happen. But when will that be?

The timeframe on a vaccine keeps getting pushed out. First they said September. Then it would be before the US election. Not long ago they were saying it would be by the end of the year. Now Q1 of next year looks more likely.

But even when a vaccine is announced it will still be many months before visitors can return to Thailand. Manufacturing of the vaccine has to ramp up. It has to be distributed and administered. With a bit of luck, borders will open …. before the end of next year.

It is critical to the survival of the bar industry as we know it that Thailand’s border opens before the end of 2021.

There will be no high season this year and that’s a problem for the industry because it’s when the bars really cash in, especially smaller bars.

Since being allowed to reopen in July, many bars have limped along. Some defy the odds and continue to stay open with very few customers. Some which reopened have since closed again. Word is that only a few have thrived. With the general consensus that travel restrictions will likely be in place for another year or so, can the bars continue like this for another year?

The big expense for most bar operators is rent. Negotiating a reduction on their rent gives them a chance to get through Covid and come out the other side.

The next big expense is salaries. The structure of salaries means that the girls get paid little to nothing if they do not meet lady drink and barfine quotas i.e. they are not making money for the bar. This means that when times are tough – as they are now – salary costs are greatly reduced.

In some bars girls have agreed to work for a reduced salary. They had little choice – it was either that or the bar would close. In a small number of bars some staff aren’t receiving a salary. The onus is on them to make money from lady drinks and private arrangements.

With discounted rent and a lower salary bill, many bars are viable.

And in the case of Thais running bars, they know how to tighten their belt and get by on little, if need be.

This leaves the one group in the bar industry I do worry about – foreign bar owners.

Foreign bar owners could be the big casualties. Not the big-name, foreigner-owned and run bar groups which I imagine will get through this ok, but the small players – those individuals who have just one bar.

For many of these farang owner-operators, that one bar might be their only source of income. If that income is greatly reduced or worse still, it costs them money to keep the bar open, they may have no choice but to call it quits.

The big casualty of Covid-19 in the bar industry is likely to be the small guys who don’t have the reserves to see it through. There will probably also be some who do have money put aside, but who can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and decide to bail.

This isn’t such an issue in Bangkok, but it shapes up to be a big problem in Pattaya where there are more small, foreigner-owned, owner-operator bars (and other businesses). Expect many to go by the wayside. It’s happening already.

There’s also that question of what to do when a bar is breaking even or running at a small loss – does the owner battle on for what could be another year (or maybe even longer) in the hope that the border reopens and things return to how they once were?

I believe that most who can will stick around.

During good times, there is a lot of money to be made. Those who have been around a while won’t give up the opportunity to experience those good times again. And walking away now means doing that quite literally – it would be very hard to find a buyer for a bar at this time.

What about the girls? With fewer customers about and less opportunity to make money, will they stick around?

As per the industry as a whole, there are girls still doing well – but most have seen a significant drop in income.

There are girls who returned home, soon became bored and before long they returned to the bar. Even if their total income dropped from say 60,000 – 80,000 baht / month to just 20,000 baht, that’s enough for them to get by and still have some left over to send some money home to support family. And perhaps the bottom line is that it’s more than they would make elsewhere, if they were able to find alternative employment.

What about bar customers stuck in Farangland? Thailand’s border could be closed for another 12 months or more and many frequent visitors won’t have stepped foot in Thailand for what could be well over 2 years by the time the border reopens. Will it be a case of out of sight, out of mind – and they forget about Thailand?

If what many readers are telling me is anything to go by, as soon as the border opens and flights resume there’s going to be a stampede to the airport! Many plan to buy the first available ticket back to Thailand – and they’re going to make up for lost time!

Many fans of the bar scene are dying to get back to Thailand! There will be a surge in bar trade that could last for many, many months as a huge backlog of visitors flood the bars.

But the world economy is in the toilet, unemployment is soaring and no-one will have the money to travel, right?

I don’t buy it.

I can’t talk about what is happening elsewhere but here in New Zealand, the impact of Covid-19 on jobs has not been anywhere near as bad as predicted. Unemployment is up, but at 5.3% it’s not that bad. Drill down in to the numbers and you soon discover that many who have lost their job were employed in jobs that pay poorly. Most people still have a job.

I really believe that the bar industry is going to explode back in to life when borders reopen and we can travel again like we could before Covid, without restrictions.

However, if Thailand’s border does not open before the end of next year and / or it is difficult for visitors to return to their own country then all bets are off. Missing one high season will hurt bar owners terribly. If they were to miss two high seasons, there will be carnage in the industry.

Of course, if a vaccine doesn’t come and / or uptake of the vaccine is low and / or the virus doesn’t just die some sort of natural death then, again, all bets are off. If borders are still closed this time next year with no end in sight, my optimism about the future of the bar industry will prove to be misplaced.

I am not just hopeful, I am confident that many of the bars we know and love will still be there, waiting for us to return. No doubt, the industry will be badly scarred by Covid-19 and there will be casualties – some big-name bars have already gone for good. But I remain convinced that the desire to get back to the bars of Bangkok and Pattaya is strong and the neon will shine bright again.


Billboard Bangkok
 

Mystery Photo

where-pic

Last week’s photo was taken of the menu at Viva Sports Bar & Restaurant in Sukhumvit soi 8. Not one person got it right. This week’s photo was taken this past Friday night. I’ll give you a clue which is actually kind of obvious – it was taken by someone sitting down and having a drink. But precisely where were they sitting?


Nana Plaza
 

Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.

Give me the real thing.

I couldn’t be bothered clicking on the links to view a Pattaya bar live video stream. I hope those who do enjoy it, but I could not think of anything worse. It is the equivalent of this new craze of dining in an A380 business class seat while the plane is parked at Changi Airport, paying $400 for the experience! For goodness sake, I could not think of anything worse!

The original Pattaya streaming bar.

Regarding live streaming from bars, I remember a bar in Pattaya with a name like “Jay’s Bar” or “Jake’s Bar” that did it for a few years, ending around 2016. For people who tuned in to the webcam that was inside the bar (not a gogo, not a beer bar, but a lounge), they could buy shots for the bar maidens who would drink them without using their hands. Sometimes it got messy! But it was fun. There is currently a Jake’s Bar in Pattaya, but I don’t know if it is the same one. Perhaps another reader will remember it better than me.

Thoughts on live-streaming.

Live streaming and getting viewers to pony up cash for lady drinks is as idiotic as the titty bars here in America with lap dances. They started off with a lap dance that was $1 or 2 bucks. Then they went to $5. Today, a lap dance will cost anywhere from $25 – $1,000 dollars! No extras, just a stripper dancing really close and teasing the customer. Oh she may possibly rub up against him briefly but there’s no sex of any kind. Of course, customers can buy the dancers a drink and the choice is often Champagne Split, about the size of a 10 ounce beer, two Champagne glasses for sharing and a tab of $100 – $200 for the thrill. Upscale joints have $1,800 – $3,500 bottles of bubbly in regular size bottles. It isn’t rare for a customer to leave the bar having paid a small fortune for lap dances and Champagne and no “relief” rendered. I can only hope that the live-stream bars will make it clear with posted signage of the streaming in progress so I can avoid them. What makes these idiots think they can improve on a system that for decades was perfect?

Bargirls for breakfast? No, thanks!

You are spot on about the live-streaming. I watched it for the first time this morning, but could only tolerate it for about 15 minutes. While it’s fantastic they are live streaming, the atmosphere and ambience of the bar doesn’t transfer well at 0730 in the morning!

Competition for limited resources.

Thai women and friendships? Try women and friendships…..any women. The two of them will ultimately HATE one another. It’s the old “competition for limited resources” within a limited timeframe paradigm.

Nightmare scenario for an expat.

This week my overseas ATM card stopped working. When I’ve used the card recently my bank has flagged it as a “suspicious transaction”, causing me to contact the bank and let them know it really was me using the card. This is quite frustrating as it’s happened using the same ATM machine with the same baht amount each time. This time after contacting the bank I went back to use the machine and my card was still declined. I called customer service and they said I was good to go. Trying again, the transaction was still denied. I had to wait until the next day for everything to start working again, but it got me wondering what I’d do if my card stopped working for good. I do have a local Thai account, but the balance is slowly draining over time. I usually top it off when I go back to America, but it looks like I need to find another way to transfer money to my Thai bank account.

 

Girl Of The Week

Lear, #8, Playskool Erotica, Nana Plaza

Lear is 26 years old and tall for a Thai at 166 cm.
She has done some modelling and would like to learn more about the food business. 

 

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leear-1

 

 

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Spankys Nana Plaza Bangkok
 

 

friendship-bar-sukhimvit-road

Friendship Bar, newly opened on Sukhumvit Road, opposite Thermae.

 

Friendship bar has opened on Sukhumvit Road between sois 10 and 12. It has a pool table and a handful of friendly ladies. It is located directly across Sukhumvit from Thermae.

A clever reader translated the sign in various Asian language scripts on the wall outside the new bar being fitted out in Nana Plaza that was previously Casanova. He tells me that it translates in to English as Club 69 – not a bad name for a Nana Plaza bar.

The big news this week from Nana Plaza is that Billboard and Butterflies will be closing Sundays and Mondays starting this week. Why? This is what the owners had to say:

As anyone who has ever been to Nana Plaza knows, every night is a party at Billboard and Butterflies. But as every party animal knows, it’s hard to keep it up seven days a week!

We really bang it on the weekends – Fridays and Saturdays – and, given the changes Bangkok and Thailand have seen during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve realized good health, both physical and mental, is so important.

So, starting this November, we’re going to be taking Sunday and Monday to “recharge” the batteries so we can keep the volume turned up to 11 and create the best party vibe possible Tuesdays through Saturdays.

With the country’s borders still virtually closed, Bangkok’s party scene has changed. The foreign expats who live and work here can’t party every night and tend to focus their socializing on the end of the week and weekends. We want to make that experience the best for them.

Likewise, the pandemic and resulting recession has been hard on everyone. Guys retired here or with investments in Thai businesses have less cash to splash and only go where they can have the best experience.

Billboard and Butterflies wants to give you that. Working seven nights a week is hard. It’s hard to keep up the energy level and enthusiasm. It’s hard to maintain the same vibe every night. It’s why many of our dancers and hostesses take time off.

Rather than have the ladies working sporadically, disappointing some guys who come to see them, we’re setting Sundays and Mondays as days off and have the ladies work a steady schedule.

By opening on Tuesdays through Saturdays, Billboard and Butterflies can keep it fresh. The days off will give the staff more time to recover from a crazy weekend and really pump up the volume every night.

It will make for a better experience for customers and boost the health and morale of the staff. Everybody wins.

This is not Billboard and Butterflies cutting back. Just the opposite, in fact. We’ll be using the extra off days to continue to upgrade our interiors, with some high-tech magic planned for Butterflies.

We also just vastly expanded our top-shelf liquor selection, adding dozens of new premium bottles and showcasing them on all-new lighted shelves on the wall behind each bar.

Both go-gos will soon be introducing new drink and bottle specials focused on Tuesdays through Thursdays, as well, so stay tuned!

 

random-nana-plaza

New signage went up this week in Nana Plaza for Random A Gogo.

 

Erotica Playskool has made the best beer deal in Nana Plaza even better. The bar already offers Tiger draft half-pints for 90 baht all night, every night. Now you can get Tiger in pitchers all night for just 249 baht. Each jug holds the equivalent of three mugs, so that brings the price per glass down to 83 baht. AND when you buy two pitchers you get a free Tiger hat.

Speaking of Tiger, the Random A Gogo bar sign went up on Thursday afternoon. What’s interesting about the sign is the large Tiger beer logo atop it. Hmm, is that allowed under present liquor-promotion laws?

In addition to putting up her new sign, Elle, the majority owner of Random, reopened both Diamonds and Straps last weekend.

Sukhumvit Soi 8 is said to have been ticking over nicely this week. There are at least 3 bars with friendly ladies in close proximity – Red Hog Bar, Today Bar and the new 8 Bar.

Next Saturday, November 14th, Glamour in Patpong soi 2 will throw a ping pong show party. There will be 3 shows: at 11 PM, midnight and 1 AM with each show lasting around 15 minutes.

While photos of the bar areas show things to be much quieter than they were pre-Covid (check out the shot of Nana Plaza on Saturday night at the very end of this week’s edition), various people have told me that once you’re inside a bar, the vibe is much the same as it was pre-Covid and there’s a good time to be had. Just because some bars are hurting financially doesn’t mean punters aren’t enjoying themselves. It mightn’t be quite the same in outdoor bars where much of the atmosphere comes from what is happening outside the bar. But inside the gogo bars and the discos, I’m told it’s still a lot of fun.

I reported in last week’s column that down in Pattaya, many bars are getting in to streaming. Amongst them are 13 of the Nightwish Group’s bars concentrated on Pattaya’s soi 6. With this streaming and the girls begging for lady drinks online, some now refer to soi 6 as Soi Pay Pal. Brilliant!

 

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There’s always something going on in Thailand which is a big part of what makes it such a fun and exciting place to visit but boy oh boy, have you ever thought what it’s like to be a business owner in Bangkok? An old friend who runs a restaurant in downtown Bangkok said this to me recently, “We have survived nationwide floods, 2 coups, 3 city-wide protests, live gunfire, bombs, terrorist attacks, the death of HM King, moving location and most recently a global pandemic. And that’s only in the last 15 years. There were many years of Thai chaos prior to that! Fingers crossed we get through this too.”

Speaking of the protests, I note that the student-led protest movement that has been big news in Bangkok in recent weeks went conspicuously quiet this past week. With some of the leaders arrested, what will be the next move?

I can remember when it cost just 20 baht to enter Wat Po. It’s not that long ago, perhaps 12 or 13 years ago or so, at a guess. I read this week that it now costs 200 baht. OK, so it’s not that much in terms of the big picture – and Wat Po most certainly is worth visiting at that price – but at the same time I do wonder about these huge price increases (in percentage terms) over the last decade or so.

Despite that gripe, most things in Thailand are much cheaper than back home – and you don’t have to look hard to find great deals. The prices below were posted outside a few massage houses on Ko Samui this week. Bargain!

 

cheap-massage-bangkok

 

For those who fly a lot, Bangkok Air is offering unlimited domestic travel for one year for 100,000 baht. I wonder how many people will take that offer up?

Speaking of airlines, the big worry in the Thai community here in New Zealand is how Thais will get back to their homeland if they have to do so in a hurry. Thais who wish to return to Thailand can only do so by getting a seat on an embassy-organised flight. The Thai embassy in Wellington announced that the next Thai Airways flight from Auckland to Bangkok is tentatively planned for December 10th. For this flight to take place there must be at least 200 people willing to take it. To make matters worse, it really is a one-way ticket. Returning to New Zealand would mean waiting for the next flight from Bangkok to Auckland which might not be for a month or two. You would have to pay through the nose for the ticket. And you would also have to pay for managed isolation on return to New Zealand at $3,500 per person. This is no doubt a great concern in Thai communities all around the world. I see that Thai Airways is operating weekly flights between Bangkok and some countries where there is a large Thai contingent like London, but here at the bottom of the planet it is more like one flight every 6 or 8 weeks.

And I hear there is similar concern over in Australia where the other half tells me the Facebook groups for Thais in Kangarooland are full of stories about Thais who have had a family member pass away back home but they are stuck in Australia and unable to get to Thailand for the funeral. Getting back to Australia is a nightmare with the country limiting the number of passengers flying in at something like 32 per flight.

 

This Week’s News-Feed / Thailand-Related News Articles

Reader’s story of the week comes from Jimmy, My Early Years In Bangkok Part 1.

Vice.com takes a look at the history of Patpong.

Will Thailand really track tourists with a wristband?

A Frenchman thought he might be forced to leave Thailand after making some contentious Facebook posts.

As it does every year, the horrendous pollution in Bangkok is about to get a whole lot worse.

A young American in Pattaya turns a gun on himself and pulls the trigger.

Thais have come out and protested against a ban on PornHub and other porn websites.

Thank God someone is willing to speak some sense on the absurdity of mask-wearing in a country where there’s no community spread of Covid.

Thai Airways expects to run out of cash next month.

A Phuket expat runs through the exhaustive process of what is needed to return to Thailand.

 

nana-plaza-november-7-2020

Nana Plaza, a little after 10:30 PM last night. Looks quiet, but is said to still be fun inside the bars.

One gripe some bargoers have had in recent years is that many bars feel much the same. The reason is that many bars are owned by the same people with the bar industry dominated by a few large groups. In the past you could visit a number of bars in a night and each felt rather different and had its own unique style and vibe. This caused some to lament the old days when many bars were owned by one guy who was passionate about his venue and often there overseeing things night after night. But given the struggles of the bar industry today with fewer punters about, it’s no bad thing that so many of the bars are part of big groups. These groups have the financial wherewithal to get through the pandemic. If the industry was predominately made up of owner operator venues – who seem to be dropping like flies – I wonder what would be left of the industry when the border reopens.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]