Before the pandemic, Nhu Ngoc, a 22-year-old student, and her friends used to pile into a karaoke room at ICOOL, one of the most famous karaoke chains for young people in Ho Chi Minh City, and sing the nights away. For her, “it used to be our favorite activity while we’re hanging out.”
But for more than eight months, all 500 karaoke businesses in the city were closed after the government began imposing restrictions on businesses in March 2021.
Last weekend, Ngoc and her fellow crooners were back.
“I really miss singing karaoke with my friends,” Ngoc said, stepping inside ICOOL on Phan Xich Long street. “Now we’re all vaccinated, so I think it’s safe to go as long as you do 5K.”
Some ICOOL karaoke parlors were fully booked on the first day of reopening, Jan. 10. To draw their customers back, the company is using promotions and gifts for patrons and will be operating throughout Tet. In the first week, ICOOL’s business was comparable to January last year and about 80-90% of pre-COVID levels, said Ms. Thuy Duong, head of Sales of ICOOL.
“After four days of reopening, we are very happy and glad to receive so much support from our customers,” she said.
The incessant din of motorbike traffic and beeping horns have become the trademark sounds of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, but the warbling of karaoke has to be a close second. Appearing in Vietnam around 30 years ago, karaoke has not only become an ultimate form of entertainment to Vietnamese people, but also an indelible part of the night-time economy and a cultural charm of Vietnam.
Karaoke industry on the brink of extinction
However, being the first to close and the final to open whenever there’s a new wave of coronavirus, the karaoke business, along with nightclubs and massage parlors, is one of the hardest-hit sectors in Vietnam. Eventually, some didn’t make it and had to close permanently.
Even the big karaoke chains were severely distressed. ICOOL operated for only 1.5 months in 2021, said Duong, but it still had to keep up payments including rent, maintenance and security at its 20 locations.
“There was a team who cleaned the entire store every three days to make sure that we can open right away when it’s allowed to,” she said. “For technical maintenance, it is twice per week and facilities maintenance once per week.”
Rent is the company’s biggest expense, but it received support from landlords, Duong said. The company had to innovate to stay afloat by selling takeaway food from some locations and renting out karaoke equipment. And it had to borrow money from creditors to pay its 600 employees a “support” salary, “because we didn’t want to cut off anyone,” said Duong.
Nnice Karaoke wasn't so lucky. The chain had to close two of their most important branches on Dien Bien Phu and Quang Trung street. “It was really heart-breaking to close the stores that have a steady stream of customers, but neither could we afford to pay the rent anymore nor to negotiate with the landlords,” Mr. Dinh Truc, representative of Nnice Karaoke, told Vietcetera.
In October last year, ICOOL had to send a request to the Department of Culture and Sports to urgently resume the service. In the request, they emphasized: "The ability to pay suppliers, landlords, and bank loans is no longer available. Support costs for more than 600 employees and the community are no longer available. If the closure lasts for a long time, our chain of 20 stores will fall into a state of financial exhaustion. ICOOL will eventually have to close down." It wasn’t long until Nnice sent the same request in December.
Adapting to the new normal
On January 4, karaoke, dance clubs, and massage businesses received good news as the HCMC People's Committee issued a decision allowing them to reopen from January 10.
Karaoke businesses are required to thoroughly disinfect their parlors, including using microphone wraps and mic disinfection machines, and must set aside a temporary isolation room in case a COVID case appears.
Customer safety is now at the forefront of a new mindset for businesses. “What I can assure is that we’ve prepared the necessities throughout the stores so that customers will feel safe singing at ICOOL — only when they feel safe that the business can operate sustainability,” Duong said. “This will be our main message in every upcoming social campaign.”
Nnice has invested more heavily in disinfection activities, Truc said, and all theater rooms and equipment at its eight locations are disinfected three times per day.
After a long period of closure, some singing rooms needed renovations to deal with the neglect. “Fixing and replacing them is one of our efforts to maintain our professionalism and so that the customers don't feel any post-COVID degradation,” Truc said.
Excitement and concerns towards the reopening
The reopening was not the only good news. On January 8, the HCMC People's Committee announced that with the number of cases falling, the alert level for the city was reduced to level 1 “green zone” for the first time. Mentally, that meant people like Duc Tri could feel more comfortable engaging in social activities. Tri was joining Ngoc for a night of singing at ICOOL. “I don’t think there will be any problem, because we’re all vaccinated and we all know each other.”
Even so, uncertainty and challenges loom for karaoke businesses.
Businesses are wary about how long they can operate without being interrupted. They were forced to close down in November, just two days after the city’s decision to resume karaoke activities. “Our hope is that the government will accompany us along the way, and there will be no sudden closure like the last time," said Duong.
Hiring this month is difficult, Truc said, because those who already have jobs will often work until the end of the year to receive Tet bonuses, while those who are unemployed have returned to their hometowns, waiting to return to HCMC after Lunar New Year.
But their existing staff is fully vaccinated and excited to be back at work, he said, because “we’ve been waiting for this moment for almost a year.”
The same can be said for the demand of customers. “The pandemic limits people's ability to consume entertainment services and even though everything seems fine right now, some people are still cautious about the virus, so demand will certainly not be as high as before,” said Truc.
“Even so, we are happy because we can create jobs again for our employees so they can raise their families and contribute to the country's economic recovery,” he said.