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Two’s Company With Ultra Singapore Producers

The Life Interview with Alex Chew and Raj Datwani, the men behind Ultra Singapore

Friends who love entertaining went from organising daytime brunch parties to bringing in the popular electronic dance music festival

Early one morning last month, as most of the island was sound asleep, two men were very much awake and in the midst of a near panic attack.

Mr Alex Chew and Mr Raj Datwani, executive producers of this year's inaugural Ultra Singapore - a franchise of the popular Miami-based electronic dance music (EDM) festival, which was held in South-east Asia for the first time this year - were trying to play it cool for their staff, but, in truth, were completely freaking out.

An unexpected torrential downpour was threatening to wash away the year's worth of work they had put in to organise the two-day festival, which was held at the open field next to Marina Bay Sands Tower 1.

"I remember waking up to just sheets and sheets of rain and my heart just sank," Mr Chew, 31, says. "It just wasn't how we had anticipated things to go in those last precious hours. The doors to 45,000 partygoers were due to open at noon but, at 8.45am, I was dealing with a boom lift that had got stuck in the field because of the mud."

For the duo - who also own one-Michelin-starred restaurant The Kitchen at Bacchanalia and executive business lounge Madison Rooms - Ultra Singapore was a long way from the first 60-person daytime brunch party they had held together in March 2012.

Success for us is constantly thinking about different ideas, trying to bring them to life and doing it well at the end of the day. Beyond that, everything else is a bonus.

MR RAJ DATWANI

"To think that in just four years, we would be throwing an event for 45,000 people from 67 different countries was just outrageous," says Mr Datwani, 34. "But still, given that we were using an untested venue space which offered no water, electricity or Wi-Fi meant we didn't know what to expect. In many ways we had to keep our chin up and fight fires as we went along."

After a logistically disastrous first day, it seemed that the young bosses were in over their heads.

Besides the muddy grounds as a result of the unforeseen downpour, challenges on the first day included snaking queues to enter the venue and also hour-long waits for drinks and food.

"Some people had bought tickets nearly nine months prior to the event, which meant there was a lot of anticipation in the air," says Mr Datwani, who is single. "As the event ran from noon to 10pm, we had expected more staggered arrivals throughout the day. Unfortunately, the bulk of the crowd all arrived at the same time - leading to difficulties in crowd control."

As soon as the first day wrapped at 10pm, Mr Datwani and Mr Chew hustled with their team to figure out the choke points and rectify the problems.

From 10.30pm to 5.30am, they stayed at the venue - redirecting manpower, segregating entrances to make it quicker for people to enter the next day, as well as adding more cash bars for food and drinks.

The result was a stunning rebound. Revellers the next day faced barely any queues and the entire event - which featured top global EDM acts such as Kygo, DJ Snake and Marshmello - ended on a high.

For Mr Datwani and Mr Chew - who would not disclose the amount they spent on or made from the event - it was an experience that has only solidified their working relationship.

"We went from being friends to serious business partners when we started organising our Bacchanalia daytime brunch series back in 2012," Mr Chew, who is engaged, says. "Over time, we've faced so many ups and downs that we no longer sweat the small stuff. We trust each other completely."

They say they plan to run Ultra in Singapore for "many more years" to come. The laid-back duo's goal has always been to offer Singaporeans something different - be it a daytime brunch party or a full-fledged EDM music festival.

Their keen ability to home in on these gaps in the market seems to be the strength of their partnership. That, and a "healthy dose of serendipity", they add.

"We met in 2010 - in an elevator, of all places, on the way to a friend's house ahead of the Singapore Repertory Theatre's annual ball," Mr Chew says with a laugh. "From there we realised we had a lot of mutual friends and began meeting to party together regularly."

They also had in common a love of entertaining and international exposure.

Mr Chew, who was born in Singapore and studied business at Singapore Management University, spent his growing-up years - from the age of three to 17 - in Thailand, where his father ran the KFC, Pizza Hut and Tacobell franchises.

Mr Datwani was born in New York and studied international business at George Washington University. He worked in real estate in New York for seven years before moving to Singapore with his sister in 2010 to start online lifestyle guide Urban Journey.

Having had the privilege to travel and eat at good restaurants all over the world, the duo connected over a dream of starting their own restaurant in Singapore - one that would offer good food and production value for a decent price.

While they were coming up with the concept, finding investors and looking for the perfect space that offered a multi-year lease, they decided to test the market by throwing a daytime brunch party for friends.

"In Singapore, brunch was very much a Sunday affair - and usually for a price that was much too high for the quality of the food," Mr Datwani says. "In contrast to this, New York offered daytime brunches on Saturdays, which meant people could party in the day and still have time to recover on Sunday before the work week started again."

Held from noon to 6pm at restaurants which were usually closed for lunch on Saturday, their daytime brunch parties started out mellow, with upwards of 150 people in attendance.

They would quickly veer into a full-fledged club experience -complete with flowing bottles of champagne and a DJ pumping out dance hits. These parties turned a profit from day one - money which they reinvested in each new monthly instalment.

Although they had thrown the first party in March 2012 on a whim, the concept caught on so rapidly that by their third instalment, they had 150 people - mainly strangers to them - asking to attend.

Six months later, they threw a 500-person party during Formula One at a ballroom at Marina Bay Sands, complete with bottle service, servers in costumes and live percussionists. Tickets at the event started at $1,200 a pop for a table and went up to $10,000.

When their fine-dining restaurant Bacchanalia opened in April 2013, the crowds who thronged their daytime brunch parties came by the dozens. The venture, which cost a seven-figure sum to set up, was in the black after 18 months.

But Bacchanalia also had customers who did not understand why a fine-dining restaurant also had a DJ booth and loud music by 9pm.

"We were trying to mix our old brunch party concept with a up-market standalone restaurant and quickly realised that the mix was too much. We knew we had to change things up," Mr Chew says.

So he and Mr Datwani converted Bacchanalia's original space in Coleman Street into executive business lounge Madison Rooms and reopened the restaurant in Hongkong Street as 36-seat The Kitchen at Bacchanalia last September.

The new Bacchanalia concept - which was created in consultation with its head chef Ivan Brehm and chef de cuisine Mark Ebbels - offers patrons an intimate dining experience where the open-concept kitchen is the focal point.

It has turned out to be a runaway success. The restaurant - just like Madison Rooms and Ultra Singapore - is already profitable and, earlier this year, won a Michelin star despite being less than a year old.

For Mr Chew and Mr Datwani, these achievements are icing on the cake, mainly because they do not pressure themselves with unrealistic goals. "We don't have the next five years mapped out - we like to be nimble and trust each other and our gut," says Mr Datwani.

"Success for us is constantly thinking about different ideas, trying to bring them to life and doing it well at the end of the day. Beyond that, everything else is a bonus."


Alex on Raj: He sees the big picture

For Mr Alex Chew, one of the things he is most grateful for in his business relationship with Mr Raj Datwani is how similar both of them are - laid-back but still spontaneous.

Case in point: Mr Datwani's willingness to trust Mr Chew and jump on the opportunity to bring the Ultra brand to Singapore, following a serendipitous meeting that Mr Chew had with the rights owners of the Ultra brand in Japan in 2014.

"We hadn't even considered planning a festival here at the time. Thankfully, Raj was just as willing as me to take the risk and go after the opportunity we had at hand. It helped that we're the sort to think out of the box."

Even though they have managed to successfully pull off the inaugural two-day festival, which drew 45,000 partygoers, the duo have no plans to start a club to satiate their fans for the rest of the year.

Mr Chew says: "I'm lucky that we both have the same mindset about this.

"Our interest is in planning events - we're attracted to that energy and excitement that is so palpable at festivals.

"We made a joint decision to focus on this area because we're both entertainers at heart. We love seeing the subcultures that are fostered when strangers come together to share their love of different genres of music.

"I'm lucky that I've found a business partner like Raj because we work so well together and get over business disagreements really quickly.

"Our strength is in our common vision. We have the same goal but different strengths - I focus on marketing and operations and Raj is the big-picture business development and numbers guy. It's what helps us make even the most outrageous dreams a reality."


Raj on Alex: Marketing is his forte

When asked to describe how he best collaborates with Mr Alex Chew, Mr Raj Datwani puts it down to their "drink and think sessions".

For Mr Datwani, an international business studies graduate who comes from a family of entrepreneurs, the conceptualising rarely stops - be it about a new business venture or the possibility of man one day going to Mars.

"Our creative process involves keeping our eyes and ears open all the time - whether we are reading something on the Internet or while we're travelling somewhere," he says. "We work best when we're relaxed. That's the best time for us to bounce ideas off each other."

And although the singleton admits that they end up talking about work nearly all the time, the duo have now instituted a rule to not pick up phone calls on Sundays - especially since Mr Chew is now juggling the planning of his upcoming wedding in December.

"Because both of us are pretty laid-back, we get over disagreements very quickly," Mr Datwani says. "If either of us feels very strongly about something, we make that known. We trust our instincts. So far, that's worked out well for us."

A big part of their working relationship is that they stick to areas that they thrive in - Mr Chew in marketing and operations and Mr Datwani in overlooking finances and their business development.

"Because we play on our strengths, we trust each other when we're making big decisions," Mr Datwani adds. "When mistakes are made, we just buckle down and find a solution. What we've realised is there is no point arguing over this stuff unnecessarily - especially since most of it isn't such a big deal at the end of the day."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'In search of the next big thing'. Print Edition | Subscribe