He’s won hearts in the industry with his youthful, helpful and humble ways. Can the new Singapore tourism chief win the battle for more high-yield tourists, which the capacity-constrained city needs? Raini Hamdi talks to Lionel Yeo
Lionel Yeo, CEO, Singapore Tourism Board
Since the Tourism Industry Conference (TIC) in late April, where you charted a course for ‘high-yield’ or ‘quality’ tourism, what follow-ups have been done?
We’ve been having follow-up conversations at specific industry levels, so as to go deeper into the implications for each sector. Every sector has its own set of challenges and opportunities. For instance, shortly after TIC, we got together with attraction owners and gave details of the masterclass on experience creation which STB (Singapore Tourism Board) and ASA (Association of Singapore Attractions) have developed. The first class will roll out in July. So for attractions, we’ve identified capability development (as a need) – how do we help them create a more compelling experience?
What needs have you identified for inbound agencies?
They have good connections with their counterparts in the source markets. They have a track record of putting together good programmes that showcase Singapore’s best attractions. We would like to help them move into bespoke offerings, which will also appeal to the more discerning travellers. We see a few players doing it, but we think more should go that way.
An example of such players?
CTC Travel’s Singapore Deep, which targets FITs, is one. FITs don’t need agencies, yet CTC makes itself relevant to them by offering a simple menu of options – certain walks, package of entrance tickets to attractions, etc – that just makes it easier for them to enjoy Singapore. We want to encourage agencies not to compete on price. So they need to figure out what their USP is.
This issue of competing on price is longstanding. Why aren’t agencies able to make the shift and is it STB’s role to help?
It is our role to help them succeed. We would like them to succeed in a particular way, i.e. yield-driven. For some, the model may be to get as many visitors to Singapore, but going forward, we would like players to think a bit harder about how we can go after the target audience that can give us a better yield, i.e. the sort of traveller who appreciates what Singapore has to offer and rewards us with a higher spending. That’s what we mean by a yield-driven approach. There is a misunderstanding that we’re just going for the richest people in a particular market.
If not the richest people, then who?
If I can use an analogy, if we run a good steakhouse, would we indiscriminately go after the richest people to come? We would want to avoid the vegetarians or those who don’t like steak, because even if we throw in a bottle of wine, they might come, but in the end, they might only order the salad on the menu. So they are not your target audience even if they are wealthy.
It’s being clear about which market segments would find Singapore appealing and going after them. We believe they would make the most of their stay in Singapore and spend more.
What are your plans to help agencies with bespoke offerings?
A couple of things, one of which is to share consumer insights gleaned from our regional offices. We’ve been developing capability around market intelligence and we’ve started sharing it with some agencies. By doing so, we are giving them more knowledge and background, so they can find their own USP with respect to that market. We’re not just sharing, say, an understanding of the China market, but breaking down to markets such as Shanghai and Chengdu and what our focused studies show. This will help them be more strategic in using these market insights to develop programmes.
We also want to help them build their workforce capabilities by working with parties such as WDA (Singapore’s Workforce Development Agency) and developing training programmes their staff can be put through to upgrade themselves. The NATAS Accreditation scheme (TTG Asia e-Daily, February 22, 2013), for example, had some involvement from STB and WDA.
What happens if there isn’t a focus on quality tourism?
You may get more arrivals possibly but the per capita expenditure won’t be as high and more arrivals would strain the infrastructure. The supply challenges we have – hotel rooms, airport capacity, manpower, etc – will be even greater.
Our demand drivers are strong. Singapore is still an aspirational destination while Asia, which is 75 per cent of our source, continues to rise. In the medium term, we project three to four per cent arrivals growth and four to seven per cent in receipts. That, to me, is good growth.
If not for supply issues, we can grow faster as the demand drivers are strong. This is why we have to make the most of what little we have. If there isn’t a focus on high-yield tourism, you may have valuable hotel capacity being taken up by lower-yield tourists. We want every single room, three- or five-star, to go to somebody who will fully appreciate what Singapore has to offer and have a good time here, whether his thing is F&B or attraction.
How do you measure that you’ve done well in the quality tourism drive?
When we maintain or even grow tourism’s contribution to the overall GDP of around four per cent in the next decade. But that alone is not enough, it must stem from having productive and innovative companies that create good jobs for Singaporeans. Thirdly, it must involve strong local participation.
Did you know what you were in for when you came into STB about 10 months ago?
(Laughs) I guess the short answer is no.
What did you expect?
I came in with an open mind. I knew there was a lot I had to learn, not just from
STB colleagues but partners in the industry. And that’s what I spent a lot of my time on in the first year: engaging the different stakeholders, sometimes in big settings, sometimes smaller. I tried to make myself as available as I could and I have to say they have been generous in tutoring me and they have given me a warm welcome.
I did not come from this sector, but they have the bigness of heart to say, okay, let’s help this guy understand our business. A number of them, for example, Madam Kay Kuok (president, Singapore Hotel Association, and executive chairman, Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore) came up and say, let me organise a lunch for you, invite members of the exco and get to know them. There were many such examples in the many industry areas.
We’re in the hospitality business after all.
(Laughs) And they were patient with me. As a beginner, you ask 101 questions and they indulge me.
What surprised you the most about this industry?
I didn’t expect the tourism sector to have such a wide impact on the country. It impacts the Singapore national brand – how the rest of the world perceives Singapore – and it impacts how Singaporeans feel about their own country. Tourism contributes a lot to the narrative about how we (Singapore) attract capital and are a hub for knowledge and talent. By making the place more attractive, we’re also an attractive place for talent, which fuels other parts of the economy.
Do Singapore ministers see it too? Well, I guess you have to say yes to that.
(Laughs) By and large, yes, but it wouldn’t hurt for us to make the case from time to time. I see it as part of my job to explain to my colleagues in other parts of government: don’t just see tourism as just another industry sector, because if you take away tourism, you’re not taking away just one sector, but a lot of other horizontal benefits. So I tell my STB colleagues: when we do our job well, we help our EDB (Economic Development Board) colleagues to do their job well as they are trying to attract people to base their HQs and top talent here.
What motivates you in the STB role?
I’ve been in public service for 17 years now, working in different parts of government. I feel lucky to be born in Singapore and, for me, being in public service means being able to help keep the Singapore story going. I’ve come to appreciate that tourism brings people together from different countries to learn from each other and I’ve come to realise that a lot of people, particular from Asia, see Singapore as not just aspirational but as a model of governance, to the extent that we are able to inspire them when they go home and do better in their own cities. We learn from them too.
That’s extremely motivating. I really salute some of our industry leaders whom I met in the course of the year; a lot of them share the passion of wanting to do well for Singapore, to do good and to inspire others. It’s not just a job for them.