Taking over Bliss: Interview with Travis Bannert

Bannert, 29, is from Edmonton, Canada. He came to Taiwan two years ago, “to get away, see Asia, similar to the situation of a lot of people here,” he says. In Canada, he was an investment banker, and “didn’t want to push paper anymore,” and managed promotion for a nightclub. In Taiwan, he taught English in Taipei County for a year. Three months ago, he and a friend took over the lease for Bliss, a popular pub and live music venue in Taipei.

TRAVIS: I was talking to my partner Oliver [Campbell], a banker here, and we both wanted to open a bar/restaurant in Taiwan, and planned it for over a year. Originally, we were looking at Kaohsiung, for the weather and closeness to the beaches. Then a few months later, I saw Barry (Smit, Bliss owner) had put this place up for sale on Facebook. So I inquired and after a month of negotiation and looking at the bar, decided to take it over.

How much? That’s classified…! But we found it was more affordable to take over this bar and do something with it, rather than building a new establishment. It made it a lot easier. Buying a building like this in this area would cost NT$20 million. So we took over Bliss; bought the liquor license, everything in the bar, equipment, took over the lease. We could change its name, but not now. An accountant helped me with all the paperwork and licensing; she ran me through the steps, transferring over the title, dealing with the landlord, tax information. As for ARCs (Alien Resident Certificate), initially we were supposed to get a resident card, but you need to have certain investment amount, and ours wasn’t enough. We could legally own the bar, but I couldn’t give myself a resident card. So I needed to get my residency card through a school and started teaching again, just part-time.

I don’t have a Taiwanese partner. I prefer just doing it on my own, being able to do it on my terms, doing what I want. One definite disadvantage is the language barrier. Taipei Gas — they recently turned it off for a few hours for roadwork, so I had to talk to my staff and find out what it was all about!

There’s a lot we want to do with this bar. We’ve done things with the sound system and menu, and want to keep it a live music venue — it was nice the way it was — but change the feel of the place; make it a little younger, a little more fresh, appeal to more local tastes. We’re targeting the original audience, but also trying to reach other customers that don’t know much about Bliss. The younger crowd in Taiwan seem to like dance bars. We don’t want to make it a dance bar, but we want to make it more accessible to that crowd. This is Taiwan, we’re doing business in Taiwan. You can’t reach everybody all the time, but we’re reaching out by booking more DJs, live acts and special shows; we’ve dropped some prices, booked more DJs and changed the way it looks inside. We’re getting more liquor companies involved in sponsorship, but we’re also getting other groups involved — the local art community, music community. I think Bliss has a good reputation in the music community, but anything can be improved on, right?

Overall, it’s been very good, a lot of fun. You meet a lot of great people. But when you’re running a business, it never leaves your mind, there’s very little down time. I have more staff than Barry, seven, but I’m the only full-time person, whereas Barry had three full-time people. I don’t get much breakfast time, working in a bar! I try to get up by eleven. The first thing I do is check emails, finish up work contacting events, check stocks. Then I go have lunch, and usually take my computer with me and eat while I’m working. I usually go a little place that has Internet and a lunch special, but starting Monday, I’ll be eating our own lunch special here — a chiabatta or bagel sandwich, with side salad and drink for 200NT. It’s a healthy lunch, with all fresh ingredients and fresh-baked bread; top-quality meals for businesspeople in the area. And cheap beer specials for lunch, maybe a highball! We’ll see how it goes; we’re pretty excited.

I did take over an established venue, so I’m expecting a profit, hopefully in six months. With the economy right now, you never know. From talking to other bar managers and owners, a lot of them are not doing so well. That’s not to say we’re printing money here or anything, but compared to most people I think we’re doing okay, and maybe even making a profit in a few months. We’re still learning from mistakes, so hopefully between the lunches and other ideas this will help. For Chinese New Year, it was a rough month for everybody, but we had a big event right afterwards, the Caribbean Sun Party, which helped balance it all out.

Having DJs pulls in crowds, especially events where there are a few DJs and a band, a special promotion where an outside promoter does a show, they’re the engines behind it. Typically so far that’s the biggest draw. Next Saturday night we’re having a “Latin 1 Party.” The DJs who throw this party go to ShiDa — do flyers, guerrilla marketing, word of mouth — and get that whole student crowd to come here, exposes them to the bar, a bunch of new regular customers interested in coming back again. We figure this time the crowd will be 2-3 times as big.

The sound system needed to be revamped. We put in a new stage, got new mics, cables, two new amps, monitor speakers; main speakers needed to be fixed, and a brand new mixer. Also, we tried setting up a DJ on the first floor. It sounded really good, changed the whole experience, with a party on the first AND second floor. We hope to get the whole place popping, with two parties instead of one. One successful thing we tried is starting to charge at the door; in the past there was someone on the stairwell, but in some cases people didn’t know the band playing on the 2nd floor. So what we do now is charge entry at the front door, NT$200, but throw in a free drink. Then as a plus, you can go see the band. In that way, too, the band gets paid, guaranteed. It’s better for the band, and good for us because we wanna get people in here. As soon as they walk in they get a whole experience; you can kind of wander around without having to pay cover later on. These are small things, but I think that’s a better arrangement.

One thing about Bliss that is a lot different than most venues: there’s that double appeal. It’s a standard pub where you can have a beer, chat with friends, have some quesadillas. Or, you have the option of getting away from the bar and going to a dance party, get involved with live music, local acts, in the atmosphere of the 2nd floor (Next month, The Milkmen cometh). That’s always going to be the case.

Overall, doing business in Taiwan has been very good, and easier than what I expected. Some things are very difficult — like banking regulations. For example, when transferring money from Canada, the name of my account in Canada was in a different name than on my passport. So the bank sent the money back to Canada three times, even though the bank managers verified who I was; I used to work for her! And because the exchange rate was fluctuating at the time, I lost a chunk of the investment I was going to use on the bar. So there were a few bumps — that was the biggest one in the beginning. Taiwan is very investment-friendly, but I would expect they’d make it a little easier to spend money in this economy. But it’s been a good experience; I would definitely do it all over again!

— Photo and interview by Trista di Genova, originally published in The China Post 2/22/09