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Why Kampala nightclubs are here today and gone tomorrow

Kampala has often been described as a city that never sleeps, thanks to its vibrant nightlife where revellers party till morning.

It is, therefore, not surprising that several nightclubs, bars and lounges have sprung up in the city and its suburbs. However, even though on the outside business seems to be booming, most of these spots only last for a short time and close down.

For starters, the Kampala night crowd is always on the move and sticking to one nightspot has now become an antiquated trend with partygoers hyping the new hangouts only to make a silent shift to a new spot a few months later. Today it is Kush, Vault, Guvnor or Cielo and tomorrow it is Silo, Noni Vie, Aura or Thrones.

The shift is so silent that people realize the migration has happened months later. In recent years, once popular nightclubs and bars such as Club Silk and its affiliates Silk Royale, Silk Lounge, Liquid Silk, Silk Oxygen and Silk Ocean have all closed down. Wave Lounge and Fame Lounge in Kololo, King Kafunda, Kenji’s at Kisementi, Illusion at Acacia mall, La Paronis at Parliamentary avenue, Gabz Lounge in Bugoloobi, Cayenne in Bukoto, among others, have also said goodbye to the Kampala nightlife.

Several others including Guvnor, Kush, H2O, Vault, Levels, Ambiance, Casablanca and La Venti, though still open, have seen a sharp reduction in clientele. Just last month, Club Guvnor, which has been a premium nightspot for over ten years, announced that owing to a sharp drop in business, it was going to operate only on Fridays.

The rest of the week, it only opens for hire.

WHY THEY ARE CLOSING

Elvis Sekyanzi, a prominent businessman in Kampala best known for being the proprietor of Club Silk that closed in 2018, told The Observer that clubs closing is bound to happen because they are lifestyle outlets; that a normal cycle for a nightclub anywhere in the world is three to four years because trends change.

However, Sekyanzi also cited high costs of rent, electricity, water bills and taxes, which gradually run businesses into the ground. He also said the environment and location matters especially today where there is emergence of many urban suburbs.

“I have seen people opening up bars and nobody goes there and you wonder what the problem is,” he said. “The city has changed; back then there used to be many clubs along Kampala road but right now there isn’t any because places like Kyanja, Najjeera, among others, have come up with lots of people and so, the scope has expanded.”

Robert Semwogerere, the proprietor of Fusion Eco Resort, formerly Fusion Auto Spa in Munyonyo, has been in the nightlife business for over 20 years. He told The Observer many people think the bar business is about having crates of beer, beautiful ambiance and disco, yet it is a serious business that needs auditors, accountants and a serious management team.

“You find that someone gets some money and thinks that a bar is the easiest business they can set up. He or she goes to another bar and takes away some staff without even first doing a background check to know if they have ever been involved in fraud or stealing. They leave them in the business all day and only come in the evening to check on them. Some of these workers bring in their own alcohol which they sell instead of selling the one in the bar, and by the time you realize that you are making losses, it is too late to recover,” Semwogerere said.

There is no doubt that there is stiff competition in this business. Semwogerere said the competition is dirty where proprietors of rival hangouts pay people to do negative publicity on other places, tarnish their name and eventually run them out of business.

“Others pay the managers so that they recommend their place to your customers or for the managers to ignore basic details that would chase away your customers. By the time you realise that your manager is on somebody else’s payroll, they have run away with all your customers,” he said.

Kenji's bar
Kenji's bar

And every club has big spenders; patrons who order for only the expensive drinks and by the end of the night they have spent more than Shs 5m, leaving an impression that the club owner is swimming in profits. But as Semwogerere revealed, these so-called big spenders after a few visits start taking credit and then run away with accumulated debts; to make it worse, they start talking negatively about the place to justify their migration.

“At my facility, one of the big spenders ran away with a whopping Shs 168m in debt,” he said. “Today he will come, drink and sign and promise to pay later. The next day he will come with a card and pay, the third day he will say he is too drunk to remember the password to his card and so he will leave without paying. Another day he will say he is coming to clear the bill but never turns up and then he eventually disappears, leaving a huge bill behind.”

WHAT REVELERS SAY

On social media, whenever a popular hangout spot announces that they are closing, netizens run into a debate as to why business is not booming for these joints.

Charging entrance fees, strict dress codes, selling fake liquor, lack of customer care from staff, not renovating the premises, need for making reservations, and lack of parking space, all popped up.

“...not every house or yard is suitable for a bar, extremely low customer concern or service, vehicles regularly stolen, phones lost, poor offerings, extremely poor hygiene, poor lighting where lighting must be, say parking lots, poor pricing, poor location,” wrote Daniel Bwambale on X.

Another user, Michael Kimera said, “Firstly is lack of customer care and professionalism. Some of the staff in these places are very rude when associating with customers, which makes customers avoid the place. Secondly, is lack of accounting systems, which lets employees get away with theft.”

“Rent is high, no parking space, no new interesting activities for clients, poor marketing, no sitting space, waiters cheating clients and their bosses and poor customer service,” added another user, Whitney Mwolobi.

One Mr Mugii took to X to complain about how he had been bounced from Club Guvnor because of putting on open shoes and shorts.
Another user expressed the same dissatisfaction at another bar: “At Illusion, they bounced me because of sandals which wouldn’t be bad if the rule was not being applied selectively.”

One who goes by the name Ugin responded: “Riders Lounge in Entebbe tried the no-shorts- and-open-shoes madness, for a city on the lake. Suffice to say that it died faster than an Ebola patient. I will never change to go to a place. Go where you are wanted is my motto. Some of these establishments put out these rules to rule out the riff-raff; sad...someone drinking a bottle of water all night is not business. But people with money often don’t like being told what to do.”

“Hangouts should mind about the convenience and comfort of the patrons,” another user, Nicholas Nuwa wrote. “I am going to chill in whatever makes me relaxed. Dictating a dress code like we are in high school is not it.”

When Club Guvnor announced that owing to a sharp drop in business, it was ceasing its Saturday night operations, Jimmy Kiberu, a corporate and public affairs expert, weighed in on the announcement, saying nightlife dynamics have changed in Kampala with lounges and bars having become preferred joints and that the Gen Z do not believe in clubs with gate charges.

“When Silk closed, that was a sign. In July 2022, I had guests who asked to visit this famous club (Guvnor). We had special VIP seating but parted with over Shs 250,000 at the gate despite me being exempted due to past corporate support. I knew their time [had] come as well,” Kiberu posted on X.

Also, some bar patrons have pointed to Uganda Police killing the nightclub scene in Kampala with their ‘kawunyemu’ operations aimed at curbing driving under the influence of alcohol.

“It was no longer fun partying 5km away from one’s home, only to fail that breathalyzer test and spend the night in the coolers! We just started drinking closer to our homes,” one bar patron told The Observer.

Another factor which seems to be driving revellers away from some nightclubs is their requirement to first buy an expensive bottle of alcohol if you want a table reserved for you; otherwise, if you just walk in with your gang, you may end up standing the whole night. How is that customer supposed to return or give the club a referral?

Media personality Faiza Fabz said: “Every time I realize we are going to hustle to get a table at a kibaala (club), I immediately choose myself and my bed. I can’t be struggling to enjoy my money by first engaging the entire bar management including bouncers plus bribing waiters just for a table.”

For Emmanuel Egole, the idea of reserving all tables for people who buy expensive bottles chases the middle-class away.

“Imagine coming to a bar at 11pm and it is still empty, but you can’t get a table because they are reserved.”

However, Kisfra, a social media influencer, defended the clubs’ ‘weird’ policies.

“A bar will inject close to Shs 8 million in a single night to avail good DJs, a band, among others. You may note that bottles raise sales faster compared to beers, sodas or juices.”

GOING WITH THE TRENDS

Among the many reasons why many clubs and bars are running out of business one sticks out: failing to adapt to new trends. Among these trends are exclusive DJ nights, influencer marketing, live bands, hiring promoters and hosts, exclusive artiste performances, quiz nights, free entry, food, more chairs and tables and carrying out periodic renovations to rebrand.

Sekyanzi said that indeed sometimes the clubs failing to adapt to new trends could be letting them down, noting trends like people entering for free, offering shisha, theme nights with DJs and hosts, hiring promoters, filling the place with chairs and tables because people no longer dance as much, never existed during his time when business was booming.

“What we did as Club Silk in order to sustain ourselves in the industry for all those years was to reinvent ourselves. Either we had to renovate or change a name and that is why over the years we had Silk Royale, Silk Lounge, Liquid Silk, Silk Oxygen and Silk Ocean,” he said.

Semwogerere agrees with the need to move with the trends and constantly reinventing one’s business, noting that when he started Fusion Auto Spa, it was the only bar with a restaurant, car wash, hair salon and health club all in one place. But within three years, there were many other places with similar facilities.

He had to reinvent by expanding his establishment to include a swimming pool, accommodation and gardens for hosting functions, hence renaming it Fusion Eco Resort.

“Because we are all competing for the same customers, we end up sharing them and eventually their numbers in each of the establishments go down. You now find that a place which would attract 300 people now has 60, but you are still paying the same rent, taxes and other utility bills. Eventually all these establishments because they have copied each other’s offerings, end up closing down,” he said.

Semwogerere noted that the expenses to adopt to these new trends in the business are high, especially hiring DJs, MCs or hosts, musicians, bands and influencers and oftentimes do not bring return on investment.

“If you want to have a big artiste come entertain people, they will ask for Shs 10 million to Shs 15 million. Then add on a DJ at Shs 5 million, an MC at Shs 3 million and if you want to have a high-profile host like Sheila Gashumba, you can’t go below Shs 10 million. At the end of it all, you are investing between Shs 30 million to Shs 40 million in a single night.”

He added, “But remember you are not charging entrance fee and you are only expected to get returns from selling alcohol. At the end of the night, you realize you have made only Shs 10 million. But even with all this investment, a new spot will pop up and the revelers will
migrate.”

jjingoernest1@gmail.com

Comments

0 #1 Henry 2024-07-10 09:13
There is lack of innovation in the bar industry. The shallow thinking that sleek bars and lounges can only be be in Kampala is indeed shallow.

If u put up a place like Mezzanoir in Arua or Gulu or Nimule, u will make much profits selling beer at 3k and relatively good entertainment.

Y do hire a Dj at 10mn yet he going to use the same music from online resources play to the crowd. As the owner, a dj course is 6months and it s not even 10mn. Some decisions from bar owners are their downfall.
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