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Friday October 19, 2012

The man behind Zouk KL talks about the challenges in the business of providing fun

Still going strong: Ng says that he has big plans ahead for Zouk. Still going strong: Ng says that he has big plans ahead for Zouk.

WHENEVER we think of clubs, we think of venues where people gather to drink and to dance. Not much thought, however, is given to the goings-on behind these establishments.

So, for Power Lunch this week, we decided to take you beyond the velvet ropes of clubland. We sat down with Cher Ng, the executive director and one of the founders of Zouk Club KL Sdn Bhd, to find out what it takes to run a successful club.

For eight years now, Zouk Club KL has been a cornerstone of our capital’s nightlife scene and averages 10,000 to 12,000 people going through their doors every week.

Zouk Club KL opened along Jalan Ampang in Kuala Lumpur in March 2004. It costs RM16mil to build this monster party playground of 30,000 sq ft.

So how did the man behind Zouk Club KL get started out in the music scene?

“I was a deejay playing progressive house music (in Singapore) for about 10 years. In 1999, I set up my own promotions and events company and handled a lot of outdoor events in Singapore. There, I was the co-founder and producer for the first two instalments of ZoukOut.

“In Malaysia, I was actively involved in a lot of outdoor events as well. I think it’s a natural progression in my line of work. It helps to be able to get to the management level of things.

“It set the groundwork for my moving to a club. If I hadn’t gone through the event management stage, I probably wouldn’t be able to run a club,” Ng said.

Having had control of the decks for a decade, I wondered if he ever felt tempted to revive his spinning days. Ng burst out laughing as he admitted his indulgence, saying: “I once took up a night in Velvet for old-times sake. I did not promote my name but just went out and took control of the decks! It was fun trying to relive my glorious moments!”

Building a club

Besides talking candidly about his deejaying, Ng also recalled the early days of setting up Zouk Club KL.

“The planning stages started in 2000. The process took about two years — planning, looking for a site and designing and building it from scratch. We officially opened in March 2004 and we are now in our eighth year.

“Back then, there was the Zouk Mainroom, Velvet, The Loft and the Terrace Bar. It was pretty much modelled after the Singapore concept. We took the synergy and brought it here, but with some modifications,” Ng said.

Avid Zouk fans would have been overjoyed when Zouk marked its fifth anniversary in 2009 with a complete makeover costing RM4mil and the creation of brand new rooms.

But, from a business perspective, this took place during an economic recession in late 2008, so I asked Ng if it was a risky move?

Ng agreed that under normal circumstances, things like that are usually not done. However, the planning was already underway and running with it proved to be a lucrative choice.

“To be frank, it was planned before the financial crisis kicked in and we made a collective decision to go ahead with it because we felt during such times you need to improve your product.

“What we did was a major revamp, so that there was a renewal of appeal to patrons. The other thing we worked on was price-competitive packages. So, we were able to retain our existing regulars and also attract new customers. In 2009, we registered our highest sales ever. And, this was during a financial crisis. So, we have been quite blessed.”

I asked Ng his views on the opening of more clubs. Is he worried about the impact it will have on his business?

Ng said he favours the competition, as it will help boost the overall nightlife scene.

“I think the market is big enough to sustain competition. And, competition is a good thing. We have our target audience, our own loyal customers. Our Facebook database stands at 160,000 and we have a physical database of 70,000. And, we engage our database all the time.

“We have a steady stream of customers that come in to support us on the weekends and even on the weekdays. We also have 20% of the tourists, which is very important — they walk into Zouk because of the brandl.”

When asked his management style, Ng said that maturity had brought a change to his approach.

“I used to be very hands-on, and paid attention to all the details in my younger days. I would get my hands dirty up to the point that I looked like a staff member myself.

“As you grow older and more mature, you want to let your team manage it, so you fall back and take a macro view. If something is not right, I get on the phone at 3am and advise them to change it. My approach, I would say, is more reserved. I let my team run the show, but if I feel something is not right, I will still point it out.”

New events

In April, Zouk organised the outdoor Zouk@Sepang event and Ng hopes it will be a revival of sorts for outdoor parties.

“We are slowly trying to move in that direction. But, it all depends. You can plan far ahead, but you could have your licensed revoked at the last minute. There is a lot of uncertainty.

“Over the past two years, I have seen a consistent number of events happening in various places, so I think the timing was just about right. Our first show in Sepang attracted 9,000 people.

“We may also take things to a higher level, like Zoukfest that we organised in Genting Highlands in 2005.

“However, it is not that easy to get an outdoor permit. There is an amount of uncertainty as you have to invest a lot of money for an outdoor event. We are hoping to organise another one or two more within the next eight months. A medium-scale production like Sepang costs about RM800,000 and a bigger event like ZoukFest, can cost about RM2mil.”

Local talents

I also wondered whether foreign deejays play a major role in Zouk, and whether local DJs are side-lined.

“That’s a good question. If you look at our nights on the weekends, in the different rooms that we have, the most successful rooms are the rooms with the local deejays. Some of the foreign deejays are not necessarily packing the room.

“Malaysian deejays have cultivated their own followings and have a sound that appeals to the audience. We have over the years nurtured new deejays and recruited them to be a part of our team. We give them the exposure to play in some of those big rooms.

“One of the most successful creations that we have would be Blink & Goldfish, who have been growing with us since day one. And, these boys are undoubtedly the top deejays in Malaysia right now, if I may say.

“We don’t really focus so much on foreign deejays. When they come in, it is more like an add-on but we still fall back heavily on our local deejays.”

In fact, DJ Blink is now Zouk’s booking manager. And, both DJ Blink and DJ Goldfish are regulars on Thursday and Saturday nights in Zouk.

“When they play, the room is packed,” Ng said with obvious pride.

Alongside the success of their deejays, Zouk has had great success over the years. This is an industry that has seen multiple large clubs open and close, nearly overnight, yet, Zouk remains strong in the fast-changing industry. What does Ng attribute this longevity to?

“I will break it down to a few components. Marketing — constant creativity in coming out with new ideas and new events. And, new ways to engage consumers, like our Facebook page. That was done in 2007, and since then, we have been actively engaging our Facebook fanbase.

“On the operations front, in terms of service and security, we have been able to consistently produce a good level of support and service for our patrons. And, more importantly, the regulars. It’s part of operational support, we have managed to successfully engage our pool of regulars over the years and also draw in new regulars.

“Within our operations team, we have a pool of managers that have different clientele, and every weekend these regulars are able to make their table reservations. And, because of the service that we provide at the operations level, a lot of these customers choose to come back to the club because it is like home.

“Consistency also matters. If I keep changing my staff, our customers won’t be able to engage them and we may lose a certain number of customers. Retaining your core workforce is one of the key points. Deep down, I knew we could do it. But, I also knew it would come down to overcomingchallenges. We’ve been very blessed to have a very good core team. They are the same team since day one. They’ve been great. They’re like family to the company now. Everyone does their part.”

Rumours have circulated that Zouk is gearing up for yet another huge change, considering that next year marks their 10th year. Ng acknowledged that Zouk will be moving to a new location in 2014. While he is excited, he os choosing not to reveal too much.

“I have bigger plans for Zouk. I’m already working on the new Zouk. It is a very exciting project and will be much bigger than the current version.”