REMEMBER THAT THING people used to call a “dance floor”? An enclosed space where everyone is invited to step into, shed their inhibitions and let the music guide them? What happens to it now that Covid-19 makes close contact with strangers risky? What happens to nightclubs, one of the first to be ordered shut and possibly one of the last to be allowed to open?

These are questions that have kept Andrew Li, CEO of Singapore’s iconic nightclub company Zouk Group, awake at night. As the F&B industry finds its feet again, the nightlife sector remains moribund. As malls see the return of crowds, bars and club operators still can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Mr Li is not giving up, of course. Recently he and his team handed Singapore Tourism Board a playbook on how to allow nightlife to resume. It includes suggestions such as turning nightclubs into lounges where groups of friends can assemble in designated seating areas, but not socialise with other groups. Drink orders can be made via an app to minimise contact with bartenders. And everyone must drink from their own cups and not share bottles.

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As for the dance floor, it will have to be an object of nostalgia for now.  Mr Li is no stranger to challenges: After graduating from Durham University in 2003, the London native worked as a room service waiter at boutique hotel Como Metropolitan London, before working his way up to become the business development manager of the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong.

How has Zouk been hit? What do the figures look like?

When the Dorscon level was raised to orange, our revenue dropped by 35 per cent. When the authorities reduced our maximum capacity to 250 people, our revenue dropped by 50 per cent. And when the circuit breaker began, our revenue dropped by over 90 per cent. It’s been hard to re-strategise because everything is fluid and we don’t know for how long the industry will be closed and how much cash we need to conserve till bars and clubs are allowed to open again.

We’ve had to make some difficult decisions of transitioning some staff, and there’ve been varying degrees of salary adjustments. It’s obviously heartbreaking because we see ourselves as a family and we have several people who’ve worked here for 20 years or more. Unfortunately this pandemic works against everything that our industry is about, which is social interaction. So all our revenue streams, from our clubs in Singapore and Malaysia, to our operations on the cruise ships, have been affected.

But you’re pivoting…

In the past few months, we’ve come up with bottled cocktails and we’re about to launch our canned cocktails in supermarkets. We’ve gone into digital programming in a big way, offering everything from fitness videos and cocktail classes, to live DJ streams and interviews. We’re pushing our merchandise online. And we’re offering Zoom party packages where we organise the food, drinks and music – you just have to show up online.

We did a massive zoom party with the Singapore Tourism Board where we had 1,000 people over three different days and we had the likes of DJ Diplo coming in… We’ve definitely had to innovate a lot more and push ourselves into the digital sphere, basically doing anything to tide us through this period. What’s doing really well, though, is our Five Guys F&B joint in Plaza Singapura. Even during the circuit breaker our takeaway and delivery models have been very well received. We’ve also just turned Zouk’s Capital lounge into an eatery and that’s picking up.

Prior to the pandemic, Zouk had extensive plans to expand beyond the regional nightlife scene to become a global lifestyle group. How much of that is intact? 

We are still very much part of the US$4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas project, which is scheduled to open in the middle of 2021. And construction is still going on for that. We’re bringing our expertise to the table to create different concepts in over 100,000 square feet of space. It’s going to be a landmark project that brings a Singaporean brand to one of the biggest entertainment capitals of the world.

How do you see the nightlife scene unfolding in the months ahead? 

Until there’s a vaccine, it’s going to be hard to socially distance, especially for the bigger clubs that can accommodate at least 500 people or so a night. So it might be that we have to go back to some of the earlier models of nightlife where there were many more tables inside a club, so it looks more like a lounge concept. The beginning months are going to be very tough because this is an industry where critical mass is important just because of the high overheads.

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There needs to be a balance between the number of people that we’re allowed to bring in and our business needs. If a club with a capacity of 1,000 can only allow 100 people in, there’s no way we can be a sustainable business model. There’s also the factor of guest experience: If you’re partying with 50 people in a space that can accommodate 1,000, then you’ll have a vastly different experience than if you were partying with 1,000. So all these need to kind of bounce off each other – though obviously the overarching factor is safety for all the guests and staff. But I hope that when we do open, the public can support the different initiatives that nightlife has worked towards in keeping things going and everyone safe.

How are you personally taking all of this? 

It’s been quite tough on me, to be honest. I have to admit that, in the beginning, I was feeling very helpless. The virus puts you at a level where you just feel like you’re not in control anymore. I can manage the company very well the way I normally am, and I have a lot of drive. But there’s so much uncertainty about where this will take us that it’s been very hard to make plans. I’ve been in the industry for about 15 years and this is the biggest challenge I’ve had to face. I’ve actually taken up meditation in a big way and that helps me a lot in terms of getting headspace. I also got a new puppy at the beginning of 2020 and that puppy makes me really, really happy.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times