Why quality isn’t enough

As Singapore crests a multi-year wave of strong tourism growth, a bigger set of challenges looms ahead. The Singapore Tourism Board’s (STB) chief executive, Keith Tan, tells Pamela Chow about his ambitious plans to boost sustainable quality tourism

How have your prior experiences in the public sector helped you in your role?
My time in the public service has given me the ability to learn how to work with different agencies and stakeholders. In anything that STB does, we need to work with many other government agencies. For example, we have NParks, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Land Transport Authority and the private sector (involved) in (the rejuvenation of) Orchard Road.

My previous jobs have helped me understand how to build common ground for seemingly different perspectives or even competing positions. My work as a trade negotiator has been very useful.

What pertinent concerns in the tourism trade do you hope to address during your term?
When I came here, I knew that STB was riding on a high of at least three years of good tourism growth. Everyone was saying that my job would be very easy because we had Crazy Rich Asians and the Trump-Kim Summit. As statistics will tell you, there’s always a return to the norm, which means that we can’t keep growing at the levels that we’ve been seeing. Of course, we still want growth, but realistically I knew there was no way we could grow at six to eight per cent year after year.

The question, therefore, is how do we get better quality growth? How do we attract visitors who are willing to spend more time in Singapore to understand and appreciate our richness more? How do we continue to maintain tourism as a vital contributor to the Singapore economy, even when we feel that international visitor arrivals would taper off or slow down? That’s what I’m concerned about.

We are quite keen to attract more repeat travellers from many of our markets. For some markets, we want to give first-time travellers a feel of a global city that’s different from Hong Kong or Sydney.

What are the biggest challenges holding Singapore back from seeing such “quality growth”?
There is still a big perception that Singapore is a stopover destination, and there’s not much to do here apart from eating and shopping. People think that they’ll spend just two or three days here, but there’s so much more. From the big players like Gardens by the Bay and Singapore Zoo to smaller museums, they all have interesting events going on, but sometimes they struggle to make them known.

One of my biggest challenges then is how do I get travel agents, OTAs and DMCs, hotels and technology companies to collectively work together to show visitors there’s so much more they can do here to make a longer visit worthwhile. It would require an industry-wide effort to get all this rich content out there; (so as) to create the effect that there’s so much going on (that) visitors wish they could spend one more night in Singapore.

So we’re trying to create a platform to make all these events knowable to visitors, hotels, travel agents and DMCs alike. Our Tourism Information Hub reflects this market gap that we want to close.

What can trade players do then?
What we need to do is persuade DMCs to broaden their offerings and find opportunities to work with new, emerging and interesting providers. You may have customers who still want to visit the regular big-name attractions, but these customers may also want to spend a day trying teas in Chinatown or visiting shophouses in Kampong Glam. Right now, the DMCs aren’t hunting for those opportunities, so we need to work with them to expand their knowledge of such offerings.

People can develop all of these experiences, but they’ll need a good intermediary like the DMCs. Otherwise, they may have platforms like Airbnb Experiences or their own websites, but the reach is limited.

The other aspect that we need to look at is a much greater appreciation of digitalisation and data. (The trade has) to use digital tools more effectively in order for our tourism industry to be able to meet the needs of the 21st century’s digitally savvy travellers. These travellers expect everything to be at their fingertips – not just recommendations, but also the accessibility to book, pay, and check in and out – with as little human interaction as possible.

We need our attractions to embrace this. It’s not just a fad. They may even need to change their systems in order to adapt to consumer expectations and use data to plan their resources more effectively. I think our tourism industry can do a much smarter job this way.

With Singapore’s tourism landscape set to undergo a major transformation, what accompanying changes do you hope this will bring to the sector here?
Let’s talk about hotels. Today, we are running at 87 per cent occupancy on average. This is very high and we need hotels to meet the future demand. However, we don’t have unlimited manpower. So one of the big changes I hope to see in the near future – if we want to see more hotels – is really a mindset change in how we operate hotels.

In Asia, there’s a mindset that luxury equals high touch. I was recently in New York City, in a hotel where the fees are astronomical and they bill themselves as “minimalist luxury”. You can do self-check in and check out. The room is small but everything is high-finish – beautiful sheets, Bang & Olufsen speaker, a very Japanese aesthetic. The room is maybe 20m2; if you go to a five-star hotel in Singapore, you have 37-46m2 rooms. You hardly see any staff, but you still get high-quality service and experience.

That is the mindset shift that we need to see in Singapore: that high-quality accommodation does not equal to high personal touch. People are still willing to pay five star-equivalent prices even if you don’t have somebody greeting them at every step. We have to (consider) how hotels can continue to deliver high value with half the staff, and I’m very happy to see that some of our hotels are already doing so.

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