Andrew Li is Chief Executive Officer of Zouk and that is no small potatoes. A global contender in the clubbing scene, the brand originally founded by Lincoln Cheng transformed the local nightlife scene. For more than two decades Zouk kept the Red Dot in the hotspot of the international club scene.
It even climbed its way into DJ Mag’s top 10 list for clubbing. In 2015, however, Cheng announced his intention to sell Zouk and the Genting Hong Kong group was ready to take it on. Li has been running things ever since.
With an introspective yet wildly adventurous mind, he has been guiding the iconic club through the tempestuous storm of pandemic realities and continues to pivot the brand into a “Covid-proof” behemoth spanning not just clubbing but also food and beverage and, eventually, retail.
Could you give us a summary of how Zouk got from there to here?
We are close to 1,000 staff now (Vegas accounts for 500). I came on board about six years ago with Genting Hong Kong, after the opportunity arose to acquire Zouk from Lincoln Cheng. We saw the potential of the brand going into more of a lifestyle and hospitality segment because what it did extremely well was being at the forefront of this kind of nightlife concepts. We thought that it was great in that respect but why can’t you take that forward thinking and bring it into other concepts as well? We could do this in a few different ways. One was to develop our own concepts and also bring concepts from the US, into Asia, which was how Five Guys came in. We wanted brands that possess that vibe and DNA of music ‒ something quite experiential.
We are not very accustomed to looking at Asians and thinking, wow, these guys come up with entertaining nightlife concepts. So what do you feel is the main driving force at Zouk?
I agree with that. But I also disagree because Zouk itself is a 30-year-old nightlife brand, and probably one of the oldest nightlife brands in the world. Its longevity points to its enduring appeal to generations of clubbers. We’ve been rated by DJ Mag in the Top 10 of the world and the top Asian Club. In terms of nightlife in a small city state like Singapore, Zouk has a lot to shout about. And since buying it over, we have been able to take a Singapore icon and translate it for Malaysia and now Las Vegas. Those have been no small challenges. We were very mindful of the emotional connection that Singaporeans have with the brand, and we knew we had to translate that affection and nostalgia into a hospitality experience. While building a world-class team in Las Vegas, I’ve had to take team members from the best clubs and then blend it all together to have the best of worlds, if that makes sense.
So do you do you feel, being Asian, we bring a different perspective to concepts we put out there?
I would say it is for me. It is the hospitality aspect. Do you know we have some guests who literally come in every day? And when we ask them why, they say it almost feels like coming home and the staff know them well. There is a feeling of family. I think the ability to extend warmth is a very Southeast Asian quality – be it in Singapore, Thailand, or Malaysia. It’s very strong in our culture.
Guests can’t come to Zouk as they used to because of the pandemic. Would you say that’s the most challenging situation you’ve had to manage?
Absolutely. I think in the last two years, I’ve probably had the two biggest challenges of my life, and I can’t say they’re over yet. The clubbing industry has not been open for 19 months now and many places have just packed it in. It was painful to have to consider reducing your manpower because you’re not making any revenue from the original nature of your business and there is still no end in sight.
But all this is no fault of our staff members. And then we thought: what if we tweaked the nature of our business. So we did our best to pivot. We brought Spin Cycle classes to the club. We developed Capitol Kitchen and started building new concepts that could be “Covid-proof” even though our bread and butter was always going to be nightlife.
My second biggest challenge was opening in Las Vegas, and Ayu spans 130,000 square feet of space. It’s almost crazy: who opens a casino during a pandemic? People need to wear masks and avoid socialising… we were taking a huge gamble on the space. Touch wood, it is working out well for us. The silver lining was that without the pandemic, we wouldn’t have been able to get top class DJs like Tiësto nor at their normally fees.
We also picked up top-notch talent from the other clubs that didn’t survive. Hence the pandemic has merely pushed us to accelerate our expansion into a lot of areas we were originally only thinking of doing. But when you’re profitable, you’re just chasing statistics. It was very painful entering the new verticals the way we did but now we have new revenue streams, especially in the US, which is doing extremely well. We can only get stronger from here on.
Whose idea was it to have Spin Classes in Zouk?
Honestly speaking, ideas come out from everywhere. I remember having a conversation with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Kiat, we were just talking about how much the fitness industry had suffered and he said, “You guys should work together. Zouk should curate music for fitness clubs.” For me, it didn’t sound particularly profitable, but that idea triggered something else, I was thinking to myself how hard it was to go to the gym because they’re fully booked because of distancing guidelines. So the spark was, Zouk has a huge space, an amazing sound system and screen and we can fit a huge number of bikes upstairs and downstairs, so we approached a few spinning studios and they were all super excited. In some ways, the instructor is almost like a DJ and you could play Mambo Nights (a Zouk tradition) where everyone is just dancing on their bikes, it was really about finding ideas to utilise the strengths and infrastructure you already had.
What would you credit as your biggest source of inspiration?
I think my background has been quite colourful, I was born in the UK and lived in Hong Kong for a bit and went back to UK boarding school, worked in the UK, and worked in Bangkok, worked in Malaysia, eventually going to Hong Kong, I think having that wealth of exposure was extremely important.
Is it this global perspective that gives you the courage to bring a Malaysian day club to Las Vegas and then bring Here Kitty Kitty from Las Vegas to Singapore?
We had to understand our infrastructure and I think it was always our idea to kind of become a global business so that we could become more resilient in the future and not just rely on one revenue stream or country. We like to take things that do well in each country and transplant them elsewhere in the world, I would love to have an Ayu Day club in Sentosa.
Ayu is in the mountains of Genting, we have one in the deserts of Nevada, and to have one next to the sea would be amazing. Even things like bring Boon Tong Kee chicken rice and Springleaf prata to the US is all about education and telling all these amazing stories of the culture from Asia that they may not have been able to experience themselves.
It’s very gratifying to be an Asian and to do this and the cultural exchange goes both ways, bringing the best burger brand from the US to Singapore and Malaysia has been extremely successful as well.
“I FEEL THAT THERE IS INNATELY IN ALL OF US A SENSE OF DESIRE TO SOCIALISE AND BE TOGETHER IN A COMMON COMMUNITY SPACE, THAT WAS WHAT ZOUK WAS BUILT ON. WHETHER IT WAS MAMBO NIGHT, TRANCE NIGHTS OR DJ NIGHTS, WHEN YOU GO THERE, YOU’RE BEING BROUGHT TOGETHER. NOW, MORE THAN EVER, THIS IS SO IMPORTANT”
You’re in multiple territories, are you banking on the fact that there’s something that appeals to what’s common in all of us regardless of country?
I feel that there…
Read More:Andrew Li On Expanding The Zouk Brand Beyond Just Clubbing