Singapore tourism sector draws up battle plan for “long winter” ahead

Nine months into the Covid crisis, which has rewritten the playbook for Singapore’s tourism industry, local players have proven their agility in adapting to a new reality. In this changed landscape, brands have had to seek out new growth opportunities, retune their business plans, unlearn old habits and adopt new ones.

• International tourism recovery could take “three to five years”, says Singapore’s tourism chief
• Agility and creative innovation key enablers to drive tourism recovery
• Businesses that harmonise tech and human touch will be more prepared to play in the new normal of travel

Singapore’s tourism industry must brace itself for “a long winter” ahead, says STB CEO Keith Tan

Nine months into the Covid crisis, which has rewritten the playbook for Singapore’s tourism industry, local players have proven their agility in adapting to a new reality. In this changed landscape, brands have had to seek out new growth opportunities, retune their business plans, unlearn old habits and adopt new ones.

However, tackling the pandemic and its aftermath will be a marathon, not a sprint. And more needs to be done to ensure the long-term survival of the tourism sector as it braces itself for recovery.

Painting a gloomy forecast of the path forward, Singapore Tourism Board CEO Keith Tan said “there is a long road to recovery ahead” and “frankly, from where I stand, I am not sure I see any light at the end of the tunnel”.

He predicted that even if a vaccine was found by year-end or at the start of 2021, it would take “possibly three to five years” for international arrival numbers to return to 2019 levels.

“We must be prepared for a long winter,” he said, but stressed that in the interim, “we cannot simply be in hibernation”. Rather, Singapore needs to continue working to ensure that the destination remains top of mind for high-value business and leisure travellers.

Tan was speaking to industry stakeholders at the SG Tourism Roundtable: Navigating the Covid Storm webinar organised by PATA. The two-hour session saw players from the hotel, retail, travel agency and attractions sectors sharing how Covid-19 has disrupted their industry, and lessons learnt.

In his opening remarks, Tan urged tourism stakeholders to identify their existing capabilities that set Singapore apart from her competitors, and pledged the government’s support to sustaining those capabilities.

He also encouraged players to be creative in finding new revenue streams, such as pivoting to digital platforms, and called on businesses traditionally reliant on foreign visitors to reposition their business to target locals more effectively.

Tan warned stakeholders not to expect the tourism industry to return to pre-Covid normal, even after travel rebounds. “There will be permanent, lasting changes to the mindsets and expectations of travellers. So we must change, we must improve or else many of us will not survive,” he said.

Predicting that in the new normal where people will travel less and seek unique travel experiences, Tan said the industry needs to be prepared to meet that thirst for more exclusive and smaller-scale experiences.

Likewise, Kevin Cheong, chairman, Association of Singapore Attractions, urged local attraction operators to create unique, authentic and original experiences.

“Nobody came to Singapore to see more of China… For too long a time, we have been copying (from our foreign counterparts). We need to develop our own unique content (and) our own local stories (that) really pull the heartstrings of our guests,” he said.

Creating new revenue streams
With sustained international border closures, the hotel industry remains in “critical financial crisis”, said Margaret Heng, executive director, Singapore Hotel Association (SHA).

However, she noted, nimble-minded hotels in Singapore have been quick to pivot to incremental revenue streams, such as creative takeaways, F&B delivery services, online gift shops, and most recently, ‘workations’ – a staycation for work – to boost weekday demand.

The pandemic has also forced brick-and-mortar brands to rethink their business model. In light of current capacity limits due to safe distancing measures, local cinema operators have struggled to break even, according to Terence Heng, vice president, Shaw Theatres.

This will still be the case when capacity limits at cinemas are raised from October 1. Large cinema halls with more than 300 seats will be allowed to admit up to 150 patrons in three zones of 50 patrons, while smaller cinema halls will be permitted to up their capacity to 50 per cent of their original operating capacity or stick to the current limit of up to 50 patrons per hall.

With the closure of cinemas in Singapore amid the pandemic, Shaw Theatres launched a virtual cinema

Adding on to the woes of cinema operators is the move by many studios to push back movie release dates, or air titles on streaming services.

To diversify its business, Shaw Theatres in July launched a virtual cinema, KinoLounge, streaming indie, arthouse flicks not screened in local theatres. Unlike its physical counterpart, the online platform can showcase Q&A sessions with the directors and filmmakers, offering “a new level of in-depth interaction”, Heng said.

He added that the company is on a constant hunt for alternative content for its physical cinemas. It also has plans to expand its F&B offerings, with the possibility of pivoting to home delivery, he said.

Stronger together
During times of crisis, it becomes all the more crucial for industry stakeholders to band together for a stronger fight.

Tan urged various establishments to come together to create meaningful and exclusive packages and bundles to appeal to more discerning travellers, including locals.

Collective synergies play a key role in recovery, said SHA’s Heng, noting that “without the government’s support, the private sector alone cannot survive the crisis”. She added that collaboration has helped Singapore “to emerge stronger in comparison to many other countries”.

Singing the same tune, Steven Ler, president, National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS), urged agents to be more open to sharing resources and working collaboratively. There is room for greater collaboration, even across sectors, he stressed.

Looking ahead, NATAS plans to create more collaborative platforms for agents to work together to explore new opportunities such as jointly developing back-end solutions, Ler shared.

In the retail sector, collaboration between landlords and tenants needs to be strengthened, opined Rose Tong, executive director, Singapore Retailers Association. “There should be more equal sharing of responsibilities in shopper traffic and sales acquisitions. We will be looking and expecting more flexible lease structures, shorter lease periods, and less onerous lease terms,” she said.

Marrying high-tech and high-touch
Technology has become a critical enabler for businesses across the tourism value chain to continue engaging with customers and generating revenue amid the pandemic.

This point was driven across by Tan, who urged the industry to step up to create more seamless and digitally-enabled experiences for visitors. “To survive and to thrive, all of us have to be armed with the right data, insights and the abilities to scale new products and experiences faster,” he said.

He urged stakeholders to leverage STB’s suite of smart services that allow businesses to tap into data to target customers more smartly and to guide their business decisions.

But while Covid has hastened the shift to contactless interactions, panellists stressed that high-touch still play a key role in a high-tech world.

“The relationship between offline and online retail is now more important than ever, and brands that cannot combine or marry the two will find it hard to sustain or even be profitable,” Tong said.

Stressing the importance of human touch, Ler said the role of travel agents has become “more relevant in this critical time” where uncertainty surrounding travel has thrown up a lot of questions for aspiring travellers. “We (agents) can be better prepared to have (relevant travel) information (on hand) to share with the customers as we guide them through the booking process,” he said.

At the end of the day, the sector must unite to push for growth, and accept that the new normal is here to stay.

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