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Survival Strategies: How companies find new ways to stay in business
THE PAST FEW months of the coronavirus pandemic have sent both big and small businesses into a tailspin, with many closing down even as others scramble to stay one step ahead of the economic Grim Reaper. For independent businesses, being nimble enough to adapt, innovate and spot new opportunities has helped them stay in the game, and even create new revenue streams in the process. Here, several companies in different lifestyle sectors share some strategies that have helped them through this tough period.
28 HONGKONG STREET
Like most other bars in Singapore, 28 HongKong Street (28HKS) turned to selling takeaway bottled cocktails and bar bites when it had to close due to circuit breaker measures. In April, it hit upon the idea for its 28HKS House Party Experience, priced from S$88 per person, where guests get a selection of cocktails and food, an exclusive music playlist, and a bartender hosting them at an online private party for three hours.
“A large part of what makes 28HKS special is the personalities that call this bar home. What we’ve historically offered is an experience which is so much more than the sum of its parts. We believe it is important to continue providing that,” says general manager Justin Pallack.
“Guests never know how the banter with their bartender will be, but humour can be expected, and a sincere interest in everyone’s interests tends to keep conversations rolling along,” says Mr Pallack. And like at 28HKS, the bartender will occasionally leave the guests alone to their discretion, popping back to chat with them periodically.
The party size ranges from a minimum of six to 15 guests at the most, and spanning across different households. “A set number of guests allows us to reach more clients and drive stronger commercial results. Too few guests and the variety of banter and chat is limited. Too many and the experience feels cluttered,” says Mr Pallack.
The response has been “wildly popular” and there have been repeat guests who book with different groups of friends each time. “We were not hosting during the week when we first launched but we do now,” Mr Pallack says.
“While we wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to be in the business of online bar hosting, it has been a very enjoyable experience. The House Party Experience has been able to keep us afloat commercially.”
SINGAPORE HOME COOKS
Cassandra Xu started out as a hobbyist cook who wanted to reach out to others like her to literally share the joys of cooking at home. In 2013, the former graphic artist turned stay-at-home mum started a Facebook page called Singapore Home Cooks, which exploded into a club of over 200,000 cooking enthusiasts who would post photos of their latest edible accomplishments.
While it was purely a social platform, the pandemic turned her into an unlikely entrepreneur as circuit breaker measures saw more people cooking at home, with a growing appetite for ingredients that they couldn’t go out to buy.
That was how Singapore Home Cooks started working with food suppliers to create what would become one of the hottest Facebook Live group buys in Singapore. Some of its recent hauls include selling out 800 kg of Korean kimchi and 700 live lobsters in five minutes respectively. Ms Xu’s business model is to earn a commission from the sales.
It wasn’t something she planned, though. “I have always seen this as a way of socialising and didn’t expect it to turn into a business. But it has become a full-time career for me now.” Although she started the Facebook group in 2013, the group buys only started during Chinese New Year, when the pandemic was still in its early stages. “The response was overwhelming and many members asked for a wider variety of products. So we started doing them more frequently. Currently, the Facebook Live buys take place every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 8pm and on Saturday at 3pm.”
As she works with partners who have a wide range of products, “we come up with various themes such as Korean or Japan Night, Taco Tuesdays, Singapore Favourites and so on”. The sessions feature cooking demonstrations, with ready-to-cook ingredients being the most popular. “After consolidating the orders, we send them to our partners for fulfilment. Several companies have also contacted us for collaborations.” Besides kimchi and lobsters, the record-breaking live buys include 1200 blocks of French butter and 800 sets of DIY chilli crab within five minutes.
“My focus has always been on building something that is beneficial to the community, and I roped in business partners who are strong in marketing and public relations to create exciting new ideas. We’re in the midst of a crisis and are glad to help solve problems for members of the public and businesses.” In this case, it’s about matchmaking customers looking for unique ingredients they can’t find in regular markets, and suppliers hit by the virus outbreak.
When it comes to identifying opportunities, she says she has learned one important lesson. “All businesses are problem solvers, and the potential for growth is there if we continue to help people solve problems.”
When he started Office Planner in 1997, managing director Gavin Woo had always focused on just that - office furniture. But with working from home becoming the norm, he saw a new business opportunity - selling furniture for the home office.
“Everything I took for granted in doing business changed overnight. Factories had to stop work, we couldn’t meet clients, projects were left uncompleted, and some couldn’t even start,” says Mr Woo. “We didn’t really plan for it but there was no other way to sustain the business and we had to find a new revenue source.”
And to think that Mr Woo never ventured into the home office market because he didn’t see a demand for it.
Now, within two weeks, his design team came up with a height adjustable table that would suit children and adults. It is modelled after an existing height adjustable table, “but made slightly smaller to suit homes, is low enough for kids to use too, and also comes with castors,” he says.
He sold 250 tables in three weeks and is now expanding the collection to include other items such as a sofa, lights and a coffee table. “These pieces will also be suitable for use in offices. There is a real belief that the lines between the home office and the office landscape will be blurred post-pandemic,” says Mr Woo.
Office Planner has also been busy producing clear plastic dividers for offices. “During the first month of the circuit breaker, many of our clients were already asking if we have any quick-fix solutions for their workspaces once employees return to work in the office.”
While he feels he has managed to pivot successfully, there have been challenges. For one, the traditional way of selling furniture via tenders cannot be applied, as the turnover time has to be quick and sales have to be done online. In the last few months, Office Planner worked on creating an e-commerce platform, as Mr Woo now feels that digitalization is the way to safeguard and future proof any company or business.
He adds, “the pandemic has given me the chance to take a pause and diversify the business.”
MANNA POT CATERING
With group events banned in the wake of the pandemic, it was a scary time for Manna Pot Catering which had built its business on providing food for large gatherings of hundreds of people.
A 180 degree change in its business model was crucial for its survival.
“When gatherings could no longer take place, business came to a complete halt. We had to quickly pivot and find alternative ways of providing food to our customers instead of buffet-style catering,” says Belicia Tan, its business development manager.
When people began working from home, it moved into selling grain bowls to individuals, catering to those who still wanted to have a healthy meal. Manna Pot Catering also began offering set meals which it marketed as small celebratory meals. “Our regular customers were gutted that they were unable to hold events and celebrate occasions such as birthdays, but we realised that we could bring these family meals to them and they could still celebrate at home,” says Ms Tan.
Response to both new initiatives have been good. With more people going back to work, Ms Tan says they now want to shift towards supplying bento boxes to organisations. “This way, we can still sustain the business as it will be a long while before we are able to return to catering for events,” she says.
Before the pandemic hit, weddings made up a large part of their business. That eventually dried up too. But when small solemnisation ceremonies were finally allowed, Ms Tan and her team quickly introduced the “Perfect Minimony” packages, catering to 20 people.
Unlike before, Manna Pot Catering is now working with other partners such as photographers and bridal gown boutiques to offer an inclusive package.
Ms Tan points out that downsizing its scale also has its challenges. For a start, the revenue from a minimony is only a fraction of the standard wedding package. Normally, couples usually book Manna Pot six months ahead, but now they need only give three days’ advance notice. While some couples have chosen to postpone their weddings, others are hoping to go on with it to keep to the auspicious date. But ever-changing regulations have made confirmations difficult. Which is why being nimble is crucial. “Our team has to be equipped to take on the orders on a shorter notice period and adapt to a smaller scale wedding,” says Ms Tan.
SHILIN NIGHT MARKET
Around the world, major festivals and events have been put on hold, but not Shilin Singapore, which takes inspiration from Taiwan’s Shilin Night Market. Unlike last year’s inaugural event which was held at the Singapore Turf Club, this year, Shilin Singapore has gone digital.
Digital Shilin Singapore 2020 opened on June 12, and is running from June 19 to 21, from 12pm to 11pm. Its organiser, Kent Teo, CEO of events company Invade says the option of postponing the event, be it physical or digital, was never considered.
“We started planning for a live Shilin Singapore in January, and in March, when circuit breaker measures were announced we decided to bring it online,” says Mr Teo. “This is our core business, so we had to figure out immediately how to pivot.”
He bit the bullet, despite having no prior experience in running a digital festival. Another challenge was convincing stakeholders that a digital format would work.
Like a live festival, the digital market is only open during certain hours, “so that we can condense all the activities into a fixed period of time,” says Mr Teo.
The website has also been designed differently to make it more appealing, with a map drawn out like the festival ground. Activities and about 100 local and regional merchants are grouped under four categories - Eat, Shop, Play and Fun. “These are the four elements that make up a festival,” Mr Teo explains.
Under Eat and Shop, festival goers are directed to a merchant’s virtual shop. Food, such as fried chicken and bubble tea, will be delivered to the customer within two hours, while their shopping will be delivered within one to three days. Mr Teo says that vendors have a daily inventory cap, so items can be replenished accordingly.
For festival goers, this means not having to stand in line, with the option to order food ahead as well.
To keep things fun, there will also be live performances, online games with prizes to be won, Instagram filters to use and even digital photo booths. “We had already considered digitising Shilin, but the pandemic simply fast-tracked our intentions,” says Mr Teo.
ODE TO ART
For art gallery owner Jazz Chong, the warning signs began in March, when foot traffic to Ode to Art in Raffles City began slowing to a trickle due to social distancing and travel restrictions. “European artists who were supposed to visit us for exhibitions could not travel to Asia, so we had to cancel them,” she says. Exhibitions are important because “they enable collectors to meet and connect with the artists”. It became clear that they had to find another way to connect with their collectors, and even more so once Circuit Breaker set in on April 7.
They had to move online and do it fast. “We have a digital team that has already been building up our social media and e-commerce presence, but in April we had to step up.” Its first initiative was a charity auction, which they had already planned to do before Circuit Breaker, but instead pulled together an online version in just a few days after April 7.
“The auction was held on our website for a week, and culminated in a Facebook Live on the last day. Over 20 artworks were donated to the auction, and all the proceeds were donated to a charity helping low-income families affected by COVID-19. The response was really impressive: several hundred people from all over the world bid online, and we raised over S$60,000!”
The success led to Facebook Live sessions with their artists. “We held a painting session with Scottish artist Ronnie Ford in April, an online exhibition with Chinese artist Wu Qiong in May, and we are visiting three artists’ studios in June,” says Ms Chong. Besides its usual collectors and followers, she noticed a number of new art enthusiasts joining in too, not just from Singapore but Hong Kong and the US as well.
While other galleries and museums also conduct sessions with artists, “we try to bring variety to our programmes, such as live painting sessions and virtual studio visits”. Such sessions allows collectors and enthusiasts to discover new works which in turn drives sales, says Ms Chong.
Technology will play a key role in the business even as they prepare to reopen in phase two, she adds. “The gallery experience will be very different from before, so we have to adapt. We need to set high standards in the quality of our content to attract a quality audience, and we have certainly confirmed this during this crisis.”
BLUE SKY ESCAPES
For boutique travel operator Blue Sky Escapes, 2019 was a great year, says its founder Krystal Tan. It had grown from offering just five destinations at the start of the year to 25 and “we were invited to join the exclusive Virtuoso network which comprises the top two per cent of travel brands in the world”. Bookings for 2020 were off to a promising start and “we expanded our office and launched our cruise offerings in February.”
With Yunnan, China, being one of its top destinations, Ms Tan felt the hit even before the first wave of the virus outbreak in Singapore. By February, she and her team were grappling with cancellations plus the burden of taking on a new lease for a larger office space.
By March, when Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO, Ms Tan was quick to pivot from outbound travel - the mainstay of Blue Sky Escapes - to focus on staycations in Singapore, particularly with a wellness slant. “We pulled together our black book of curated, safety-screened properties and wellness personalities, and within a week, launched the offering.”
But even though they received a multitude of requests for their curated staycations in the likes of Raffles Hotel and Capella, it was short-lived once circuit breaker measures were implemented.
With travel on an indefinite hold pattern, it was clear that she would face a devastating drop in revenue, “but rather than worry about our predicament, I saw this as a chance for us to evolve and get creative”.
By end-April, she launched Blue Sky Escapes Live, a series of virtual wellness workshops led by experts in different fields. “We had morning grounding rituals and meditation sessions with yoga practitioners (Kristin Khor and Stephanie Bovis), a conscious eating session with a mindfulness expert (Sha-En Yeo) and personal growth workshops with thought leaders like Crystal Lim-Lange and Rachel Lim. To date, we have hosted 19 virtual sessions and touched over 3,100 participants.”
Restarting the outbound business is also in the works as borders slowly reopen, along with travel bubbles. As Singapore moves into phase two, “we are also starting to promote our staycation exclusives again”.
The virtual workshops are currently free, but participants have been forthcoming with donations, for which she is thankful. Some 30 per cent of the proceeds go towards the support of migrant workers, while the rest helps to keep the business afloat, supporting the speakers and also in keeping her operations running.
The virtual programmes will continue, while they’re already seeing interest and bookings for upcoming staycations. “We’re hopeful that this alternative revenue stream will help us weather this storm.”
She’s confident of recovery, thanks to being a nimble lean startup with a business continuity plan and reserves set aside. She also predicts more demand for bespoke travel specialists as travellers naturally veer away from mass tours. “Bespoke specialists will need to spend time understanding the modified profile of the post-COVID traveller and ensuring we’ve got every step of their journey covered.”