Some Changi, Jewel retailers better prepared for closure this year following Covid-19 outbreak at airport

Mr Ken Seng Guan, managing director of Bakery Cuisine, said the impact of the closure has been significantly cushioned by the wage and rental support.
Mr Ken Seng Guan, managing director of Bakery Cuisine, said the impact of the closure has been significantly cushioned by the wage and rental support.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - When news broke last month that Jewel Changi Airport and the passenger terminals would be closed to the public for an initial two weeks, following an outbreak of Covid-19 cases at the airport, Saap Saap Thai's staff and management greeted the news with relief.

Unlike last year - when the disruptions from the circuit breaker sparked concern - the 20 staff at the Thai restaurant's airport outlets were in a better position to adjust this time.

They are among airport businesses that were more prepared for the extended month-long closure till June 13 this time around, after a difficult year that saw repeated setbacks for the aviation sector.

Businesses at the passenger terminals and Jewel told The Straits Times that they have adapted in the past year, such as by reducing the number of staff at the airport and switching to online sales.

Some have settled for just covering their costs as they await a recovery in air travel. This was especially so for businesses that are able to rely on other revenue streams.

They said the full rental waiver for Jewel and Changi Airport tenants till June 13, as well as the Government's additional wage support from April to June, has also provided much-needed relief.

Mr Jack Poon, a director of the Coffee & Toast Group that runs two Saap Saap Thai branches as well as a Ma Mum store at the airport, said: "From last year's experience, we knew that when we were asked to close, there would be rental waivers and help given.

"Emotionally, the staff were more prepared... They knew that there would be no business after the news of the Covid-19 cluster."

He said the firm offered workers temporary redeployment to other branches. Those who opted not to be redeployed could clear their leave.

Mr Ken Seng Guan, managing director of Bakery Cuisine, which operates stores at both Jewel and the terminals, has also sent his eight workers there to other branches.

He said the impact of the closure has been significantly cushioned by the wage and rental support.

"Our workers were very concerned about the Covid-19 cases, asking me if they could be deployed elsewhere... Their family members were also asking them not to work at the airport," he added.

"We were actually happy when the closures were announced."

Ms Jerelyn Foo, media and operations manager of Rich & Good Cake Shop, which has an outlet in Jewel, said it is keeping its other outlet in Kandahar Street open on public holidays and Sundays to try to make up for the shortfall in revenue.

But the shop is concerned that the public might shun Jewel after the end of the temporary closure.

"The public might have some reservations due to the airport's Covid-19 cluster, but it must be noted that there have not been any cases within Jewel so far," she said.

"We hope that the attractions at Jewel will still be able to draw some visitors back."

A spokesman for luggage retailer Samsonite said there is "absolutely no concern" about the public avoiding the terminals and Jewel. It is confident the safety measures put in place will reassure the public.

While some are coping well with the closure, businesses that cannot rely on earnings beyond the airport are more affected.

Durian Mpire, which has all its three outlets at the airport and Jewel, was hit with the double whammy of having their production facility at Changi Prison closed as well. This came after a Covid-19 cluster was found at the prison last month.

Mr Goh Kwee Leng, the cake and pastry shop's founder, said he has received help such as rental rebates and a delivery service. But, with losses mounting, he is hoping for more help, such as being allowed to operate just three days a week instead of daily when the airport reopens.

"Our coffers are empty. We have no way to hold on, especially with the latest setback," he said in Mandarin. "We hope there can be more help, otherwise we hope that we can be allowed to terminate our tenancy earlier without a penalty."

Changi Airport and Jewel Changi Airport Development said in separate statements that they are in talks with businesses regarding support measures. Both said they are open to discussing changes to their tenants' contracts on a case-by-case basis.

They added that many outlets were already opening for shorter hours prior to the month-long closure, to manage manpower costs.

iStudio, which sells Apple products at the airport, said it welcomes further support, but it also "takes pride in developing strong business resilience through our own efforts".

Despite the current challenges, some businesses remain optimistic about the long-term outlook.

Ms Pamela Loo-Song, retail and local sales director of Focus Network Agencies, which operates chocolate retailer The Cocoa Trees, said its business at Changi has remained at 5 per cent of what it was before the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the group has proceeded with plans to renovate its outlets at the airport. She said: "We are confident in Changi Airport's ability to bounce back."

Correction note: This article has been updated to reflect that iStudio operates stores at the airport terminals, but not Jewel Changi Airport. We are sorry for the error.