To say that 2020 has been a tough year for Singapore — and the world, for that matter — would be an understatement. Going into the nation’s 55th birthday celebrations, we are all too aware that everything will be different. Yet one thing never changes: The spirit of Singapore to overcome tough times and bounce back, no matter the challenges. In this special feature, Options speaks to those in the industries hard-hit by the pandemic, and finds out how they have changed — and are continuing to change — the way they do things to recover, reinvent and reimagine their new realities. 

FITNESS

From working out at the gym to sweating it out at home, the closure of gyms and fitness studios forced many in the industry to go virtual (like conducting group yoga classes over Zoom) to even holding one on one personal training over video. We speak to three fitness instructors and gym owners on how they are coping with the ‘new normal’.

Denise Keller, co-owner Keller Media, TV host, model and yoga instructor

How has the “circuit breaker” changed the way you work and teach?

All my work has gone virtual, from event hosting to moderating panels to teaching yoga. Initially it was quite a shock to adapt so quickly to so many different virtual platforms, but running Keller Media helps because I have all the tools working from home: Cameras, lights, and microphones to make things easier.

Teaching yoga virtually has been great. It’s not the same as teaching group classes, where there is energy and community spirit, but it has made me a sharper teacher in verbal cues, paying way more attention to detail and of course, making sure everyone practices safely at home.

What was most challenging for you and how did you cope?

me, the most challenging thing is feeling “locked up”. I’m very much an outdoors person and the lockdown was brutal for my overall energy. But with all things challenging, you adapt and find ways to be creative and positive about the conditions.

Reimagining reality, to me, is being flexible in our perspectives. If we are stuck in one way of thinking, we won’t be able to adapt and live our lives properly. Sure, it is a little warped now with the overwhelming news in the world, but being able to shift and see a different angle helps me get through some of the hard stuff.

What will the new normal for fitness look like?

I don’t have a crystal ball about the future but I certainly think it’s going to take a very long time to recover from Covid-19 locally and globally. The new normal fitness will be exclusive, limited, semi-isolated and closed for a while. There will be no contact and no hanging around making friends, that’s for sure; but I do believe virtual classes are here to stay even when things return to the way they were before 

 

Will Skinner, CEO of personal training gym UFIT

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted you and your business?

With gyms closed and stay-at-home orders in place, we saw a huge drive towards online fitness. We used this time to think creatively and push the boundaries of what we can deliver in the virtual space. We launched online coaching and live virtual fitness classes, which have both been hugely popular.

Although we expect that Covid-19 will spur a demand for online services, we believe that the biggest impact will be on people’s approach to health and fitness. Globally, people have been forced to assess their own health and this can only be a good thing, as we hope the longer term ramifications of everyone being more informed and able to make healthier life choices will give this industry more stability in the long-term.

How have you adapted to the Covid-19 situation, and what were the biggest challenges you faced?

Alongside launching our virtual fitness offerings, we also looked at alternative ways to engage and strengthen our existing community. We launched several initiatives including our 24-hour virtual run and #1Month1Goal campaign to help keep our clients motivated, engaged and active during the circuit breaker period.

It also allowed us to take a step back and really think about where the opportunities are and how we can better service our clients. What struck me, more than anything else was the uncertainty associated with Covid-19. We had to be very reactive to the changing landscape and adapt quickly through technology, innovation and new products. I feel that we pivoted well during this pandemic and have become stronger and more resilient as a result.

What does reinventing reality mean to you? And what will the new normal look like, going forward?

There has been a great deal of discussion worldwide about how the coronavirus has caused the fitness industry to reinvent itself overnight. There is no doubt that the shift towards digital was already happening, but Covid-19 has propelled the industry forward and brought about a “new normal”.

In the post-pandemic world, facilities including ourselves are taking extra safety precautions, introducing new gym setups, and running smaller classes to keep our clients and staff safe. Many will return to the gym as they have missed the social aspect of exercising together and are looking for that extra motivation and accountability.

But for others, Covid-19 has changed the way they perceive health and fitness; it is becoming more holistic and less restrictive. With this in mind, we predict the biggest change will be corporate well-being. We have been running programmes at UFIT for years and have seen the huge return our partners have had when investing into the wellbeing of their employees, but this evidence is now sitting alongside an increasing demand from employees to be given time and ability to focus on their own health. 

 

Mark Fung, director of spin studio Revolution

How has the circuit breaker been for Revolution?

We were closed for three months during the Covid-19 lockdown, but have since reopened during Phase Two, albeit on less than 30% capacity. We are a CBD located studio, so people traffic in the area is still very low. But the support from within the fitness community was amazing.

Various people from within the industry took the initiative to set up support groups and group chats for sharing of information and general discussion. It would have been a real challenge to get through this period without these community channels open to us.

How have you adapted to the Covid-19 situation?

We re-opened a couple of days after Phase Two was announced and have finetuned our class schedule based on rider demand. We’ll continue to find ways to be more creative and proactive in our customer engagements and studio offerings. But the business as a whole needs to be more agile as the landscape changes post-Covid-19. Our biggest challenges were finding ways to stay in touch with our rider community, keeping up to date on the ever changing Covid-19 landscape and how to plan for a reopening when there was so much uncertainty on timelines and operating restrictions.

How did you cope?

It is about finding ways to continue engaging customers when everyone was homebound for three months. During the circuit breaker, we rented out some of our bikes to customers. With that, we also set up a number of virtual classes for those who rented the bikes to still have a class to follow. We also set up a virtual class to raise funds for charities in need.

Overall, we didn’t reinvent the business, but found small ways to keep people entertained and engaged. Going forward, everyone will need to operate on a leaner and more agile business model. We will need to be able to adapt to change quickly.

Some studios will go virtual, but that’s not for everyone and works better for some types of fitness activities and not for others. Nothing beats being in the studio for a class, that can’t be replicated in a virtual class. There’s still a lot of uncertainty in the industry for now and it will be in flux for the foreseeable future. 

F&B

Empty chairs at empty tables, that was the reality for many dining establishments after the circuit breaker was announced. Local F&B was hard-hit by the restrictions to dining in, and despite delivery still being an option, many struggled to get by. We speak to F&B owners on what they are doing to bounce back. 

Belinda Lim, partner, The Wine Company

How did you overcome the the circuit breaker and the uncertainty going forward?

We were forced to change to adapt to the unpredictable situations. We quickly developed a new takeaway menu and an online system and found new ways of engaging with our customers. We had to battle with less business but I would not say it was totally unfavourable. There is a silver lining in every situation. I have always been very, very particular about a certain style of operations and now, I can finally implement my strict safety and hygiene standard operating procedures effortlessly.

What are you doing differently now in Phase Two?

During the circuit breaker, we kept our entire team, as we are like one big family, with many long-time staff. One of the things we did was to do a lot of research and development in the kitchen. I have always wanted us to create a dim sum menu, so we did our own siew mai (steamed dumplings), baos (steamed buns) and carrot cake.

We baked our own soft rolls with pork floss, which we sold and also gave away to customers. We also made bubble tea from scratch and introduced our own version of “rum and truffle” dessert.

At the end of circuit breaker, we had a full dim sum menu and dishes such as dong po rou (braised pork belly), that offered our customers new ways of pairing their wines. We were ready for Phase Two before it started. What will you do differently going forward? I will continue to pay attention to the details and ensure the strictest standards of hygiene. We will also constantly innovate, introduce new dishes, wines, drinks and experiences that are affordable and value for money, whatever the economy.

How will F & B owners have to reinvent their businesses to survive?

It is the survival of the fittest. F&B owners have got to be hands-on, from cost to operations, meaning all of us have to be “octopus-like” [multi-tasking]. There are no short-cuts. And luckily for me and my team, we are used to it. At The Wine Company, we make everything from scratch as much as we can. We even make our own bread, scones and jam. 

 

Vadim Korob, Operations Manager, Zafferano

How has the circuit breaker affected Zafferano?

Overall, our sales from February to July have decreased by 60% compared to the same period last year. Our clientele was mostly corporate, and due to the pandemic, corporate entertainment has dropped drastically. We are a large restaurant with spacious dining rooms, and a fantastic view of the Marina Waterfront, and so we were one of the preferred locations in Singapore for big private events, which are currently not allowed.

It definitely has affected our team spirit and morale — some of team members expressed their worries on job stability when the government announced the circuit breaker. While we are fortunate to retain all local employees after the circuit breaker period, some of our team were unable to return to us due to border closures.

Hence, manpower has been very tight for us. The smaller service team has to take on more responsibilities in taking care of our guests, as well as keeping to all safety measures.

What were some of the ways you tackled the hardships of the period?

During the initial phase of the Covid-19 outbreak, the restaurant experienced declining dine-in rate and event cancellations. To counter the decrease in revenue, we resumed our delivery services through online food delivery platforms and started an in-house delivery service to reach out to consumers who are working from home. But we decided to temporarily halt operations during the circuit breaker period as operational costs such as rental and manpower were too high to continue to operate only for delivery and takeaway.

Furthermore, we hoped to reduce the exposure of our staff when they commute to the restaurant at this time. We advised all our team members to stay at home and to comply with the measures implemented by the authorities during this period. As a restaurant located in the CBD, busy weekdays and quiet weekends were the norm for us.

Now, the usually bustling weekdays have quietened down, and weekends started to get busy. So we have shifted to adapt to this: we opened up for guests on Sundays due to demand, and our rest day has shifted to Mondays for now. We’ve also come up with different promotions to cater to the demand during weekends.

How will the F&B industry change from here on, and how will you stay on top of these changes?

In order to survive this pandemic, it is imperative to be versatile in our business models and be quick to adapt and cater to the changing situation. We will continue to observe consumer behaviour and will adjust our offers to align with what our guests are looking for. 

 

ARTS

If being stuck at home has taught us something, it is that the arts — now more than ever — is definitely an essential (contrary to what surveys would have us believe). From free online screenings of famous plays from across the globe, to arts festivals going virtual, the creative spirit of the arts can never be dimmed. So long as there is imagination, these arts doyens will continue to innovate and find new ways of bringing joy and beauty into our lives. 

Rupert Thomson, Head of Venue Programming, Arts House Limited

How has it been dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic?

It’s been a very strange experience, but not unique to us by any means. But there’s been much to enjoy as well, working from home and spending more time with [family]. For me, personally, I feel it’s worth pausing to acknowledge what’s been lost as well; that experience of coming together, to breathe the same air!

It means so much to human beings to share the same space and to respond in all the ways it’s possible to do in the live experience that you just can’t do online. There is a kind of grief there, almost. Before we consider all the new normal and things we can do now, I think by pausing to acknowledge that sense of loss we’ll get a more informed sense of what we actually want to do going forward.

And how has the Arts House been doing that?

Despite the challenging circumstances, there are forms of artistic consumption which are still available to us, we are also a literary venue and so you can still read a book, for example. And there are lots of small positives to this situation — we’ve been running a series of workshops onlie, for example, and from that, one of the things we’ve noticed are new possibilities.

By being online, there were participants from all over the world that previously would not have had access to the workshops due to their location.

Additionally, participants here who have mobility problems, for example, could also access these workshops easily. We are continuing to plan online events throughout the year, [because] we think it’s really important to make the most of it. We’ve been working to find [and produce] content that works particularly or uniquely well online.

It is a unique medium, and that’s to be celebrated, and particularly, from a literary point of view, you know, things translate in interesting ways online. So what projects can we initiate? How can we work with writers and audiences to do things in a way that you couldn’t do live? What will make the most of the fact that we are bound to being online?

How will the arts scene bounce back from this?

Singapore’s art scene is great — there are a lot of great things going on, but there’s also an exciting and continued feeling of development and of growing through this in lots of ways, which I think is something very much to Singapore advantage, actually.

Our arts scene has the unique ability to sort of choose, to some extent, how it develops and it happens as organically as possible through artists and creatives in the sector. It sort of adjusts its bodyweight, so to speak, to shorter timelines, digital as well as live as well as social existence modes. I hope that if it [the arts scene] can be kept organic and responsive, that will lead to the most exciting forms of response [to these hard times]. 

 

Charlotte Nors, Managing Director, Singapore Repertory Theatre

How has the SRT been coping during this Covid-19 period?

I think the good thing that’s coming out of these times is that, whether on a global level or within my team, I feel we’re coming together in a very honest way to say hey, we’re all on this same boat, how do we get through this?

There is no right or wrong way and you know, we’re just doing the best we can until the stage we can come back together to the core of what we do and what we’re passionate about — which is to bring people in a room to experience something together.

We’ve had to write off our entire 2020 season and even into 2021, we are not sure what is going to happen — we plan large scale events like Shakespeare in the Park, but we have absolutely no idea if we’re going to be able to do it. It’s frustrating and scary, but it’s also exciting, because we have to figure out how to do it.

What’s in the works, how has things changed?

We’re looking at all kinds of different ideas where we can still do what we do well — tell good stories and get people together — just on a much, much smaller scale. And thinking how we can make that financially viable, and how our audiences and sponsors can take that journey with us.

We’ve had amazing conversations especially with our sponsors and donors, and everybody gets it. And I think also everybody understands the importance of the arts. It’s also forced us to fast-forward thinking about technology and how we tell stories in different formats. It’s forcing us to think more in terms of partnerships and collaborations; to think of different business models, and that’s always a good thing.

How will the arts scene bounce back from this?

You have to be agile. You have to be able to say, “Okay, this is really hard, so what do we do?”. I mean, sitting around is not getting us anywhere, right? I’m definitely a person who sees a glass half full and I think we have to right now. I think the hardest thing as managers that we’ve ever had to figure out is how to manage our teams, and make sure that we protect our teams and our industry. But I’m really excited that my team has come together and we’ve had a lot more conversations than we normally do.

So we have weekly staff meetings, department meetings… and every Friday, we have a social where we wish each other a good weekend or ask about the week, but where we also watch something online every week together — stuff we could never go in and see but now we’re seeing together in the comfort of our home so you know, we’ve followed National Theatre and watched different shows together.