Why can’t S’pore create an A&K?

Singapore travel agencies don’t take branding seriously, don’t see that a name is an asset and has enormous equity.

Singapore does not lack global brands – think Singapore Airlines, Changi International, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, Como Hotels and, in other industries, Osim (massage chairs), Razer (gaming), Charles & Keith (shoes) and Tiger (beer and balm) – but it has yet to produce a global travel agency brand.

This talking point arose when I chatted with sources about Scott Dunn’s acquisition of Country Holidays, a Singapore brand that began 24 years ago and has made a name for itself as a bespoke outbound travel agency. Including offices in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Dubai, it claims a turnover of S$35 million (US$27 million).

The agency will be rebranded Scott Dunn Singapore and founder Theng Hwee will be Scott Dunn’s new CEO, Asia, reporting to group CEO Simon Russell. London-based Scott Dunn has been pursuing a global expansion since being acquired by Inflexion Private Equity in 2014. In 2016, Scott Dunn bought San Diego-based Aardvark Safaris to make inroads into the North American market, and tried to tap the Asian market by opening a Singapore office that year. Country Holidays accelerates this goal.

The remarks: ‘There goes another local brand.’ The questions: ‘Why does a local brand need foreign expertise to thrive internationally?’, ‘Why not the other way round – established local brands buying a foreign entity to grow internationally?’, ‘Why can’t we be an Abercrombie & Kent or even better?’, ‘Why can’t we be another success story like G Adventures from Canada?’

I asked Theng Hwee himself about it. He said he sensed those sentiments. He admitted that when Raffles Hotel Singapore was sold, he too ‘felt it’. He sold because he needed the financial muscle to go to the next level, pointing out that a move from a SME to an organisation with 300-400 staff on his own would take a while and would be a learning curve. Scott Dunn parachutes that with its advanced technology to tailor products quickly, marketing proficiency, customer service training, aside from boosting staff morale to be part of an international brand, he said.

I thought about A&K, founded by Geoffrey Kent and his parents in 1962 – 56 long years to reach 52 full-time offices worldwide staffed by more than 2,500 people. It’s perfectly alright if Theng Hwee does not want that kind of journey; but it does not mean Singapore companies can’t do it. Then again, if time is all it takes, why are, say, Chan Brothers Singapore, more than 50 years in business, and Dynasty Travel, 40 years in business this year, still largely a Singapore brand?

To me, one reason could be that Singapore travel agencies don’t take branding seriously, don’t see that a name is an asset and has enormous equity. Theng Hwee told me he didn’t know how he came up with the name Country Holidays, when his agency is anything but about country holidays. Another reason could be the comfortable, ‘safety net mentality’ of Singaporeans in general. If I compare young Singapore men and women – even today – to their global counterparts, I’d say few are willing to get up and go into the world. Just like the agencies.

But the fact that those questions are being asked by the local industry players I talked to is a pretty good sign. It reflects an awakening. Hopefully that flame will burn and we’ll see global local brands 10, 20 years down the road.


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