August 28, 2022

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‘Revenge’ partygoers spur Manila’s nightlife revival

By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

TIM NG reopened Mow’s, an “underground” bar near Manila, the Philippine capital in July after two years of being shuttered amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The bar, located in the basement of a family-owned building — the Kowloon House in Quezon City — resumed business months after the industry was allowed to operate again as infections eased.

Manila’s nightlife appears to have come to life again, thanks to “revenge” partygoers eager to spend more on food and booze.

In 2020, the combined sales of cafés and bars in the Philippines reached $1.1 billion, significantly lower than before the coronavirus pandemic hit, according to Statista.

“A number of bars started reopening months before, but we wanted to wait until cases really went down,” Mr. Ng said in an e-mail. “We reopened a couple of weeks after the government allowed 100% occupancy rates for establishments.”

Booze joints in the National Capital Region (NCR) were closed to contain the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which in many parts of the world including the United States spurred a rapid spread in infections in 2020.

Lockdowns covered both old and young people, including those aged 21 and younger, who enjoy partying.

In Quezon City where Mow’s is located, liquor bans and curfews were enforced at the start of a Luzon-wide lockdown in March 2020 and sporadically months later during infection surges.

The glamorous Palace Manila club complex in Bonifacio Global City in Taguig — one of the top party destinations in the Philippines with five nightclubs — was also forced to shut during the pandemic.

“The Palace complex was forced to close for almost two years to minimize our overhead expenses and tide us through,” Palace Manila co-owners JM Rodriguez and Alexandra Habaluyas said in an e-mail.

The bohemians in Mow’s and the fashionistas at Palace Manila face the same problems in the post-pandemic world, including spiraling prices.

“All industries were heavily affected by the pandemic but as the world was slowly getting used to living with the virus, the nightlife industry was in the back of the line due to important aspects such as government guidelines,” its owners said.

“Many businesses had to close because they didn’t have savings to keep them afloat,” they said. “We pivoted to doing online shows to preserve the clubbing culture and remain relevant in people’s minds but nothing beats experiencing it live.”

In January 2021, they tried opening The Island — one of the nightclubs under their umbrella — that had a swimming pool. “It didn’t really work because the government had very strict guidelines and people were still fearful of the virus. Everyone was still treading carefully because no one knew how it was going to pan out,” they said.

They reopened The Island later that year, when the government had eased the lockdown level in the NCR to Alert Level 3.

“Our patrons were more receptive,” they noted. Xylo, their flagship club, was only allowed to open when Metro Manila had transitioned to Alert Level 2.

“We reopened Xylo’s doors in February and it just blew up from there. We eventually decided to open Revel last April when we saw that more and more people were comfortable going out.”

The two nightclubs only accept vaccinated patrons, who must wear masks as mandated by the government.

At Xylo, security officers check the temperature of each guest before entry, while Mow’s regularly sanitize the bar and test its staff for the coronavirus.

“We’ve also had to put caps on attendance to avoid overcrowding,” said Mr. Ng. At Palace Manila, reservations are kept at half its occupancy rate.

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Both nightclubs cited a return to pre-pandemic sales numbers.

“We’ve definitely surpassed our older numbers,” Mr. Ng said. “It may be because we just reopened but they’re higher than what we expected given the pandemic and higher prices.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Rodriguez and Ms. Habaluyas said they have become more profitable amid restrictions and despite operating at 50% capacity.

“Gigs start and end earlier,” Mr. Ng said. “We have more customers coming in earlier to have dinner before the gig. The crowd always had their masks on and the smokers comply with the one-meter social distancing at the designated smoking area.”

Some vocalists also bring their own mics to gigs. Surprisingly, people order more food and drinks these days, according to the owners of both night clubs.

“Now that it’s less packed, people tend to order more and service isn’t sacrificed,” Mr. Rodriguez and Ms. Habaluyas said. “People are on a mission to make up for lost time and ‘revenge’ party.”

The Palace Manila ensures that each patron’s visit becomes an enjoyable but safe experience.

People’s behavior seems to have changed. Those who used to go out before the pandemic have graduated from partying.

“You see a lot of new faces — teens who have grown up and introverts who are tired of staying at home. People now also go out earlier and drink more, so nights are extended.”

“One of the most important lessons we learned is to strike while the iron is hot,” the Palace Manila owners said. “Being at the forefront of the local nightlife scene, we always strive to outperform ourselves by being updated with relevant trends and making sure guests have a great time.”

Bar owners have learned a lot during the pandemic and are still learning as they go along. “Nothing is certain given that our industry heavily depends on the government’s guidelines.”

Meanwhile, supply chain and labor issues overseas have also entered the party scene. But suppliers have prioritized the Palace Manila given its sheer size and big volume requirements.

It has raised prices, though its clients didn’t seem to mind, its owners said.

Mow’s, which gets its food from Kowloon House, also had to raise its prices.

Mr. Ng remains cautiously optimistic. “With how careful the gig scene has been, we’re feeling a bit optimistic,” he said. “There have also been a couple of big concerts and festivals lately so the industry doesn’t seem like it’ll slow down any time soon. Because of how bad the economy is too; businesses will want to remain open.”

“We are definitely on our toes because of how volatile it is nowadays, so we’re prepared to make the necessary adjustments.”