Arthur Kiong remembers when the full magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic first hit him.
Kiong, who is the first vice president of the Singapore Hotel Association (SHA), initially thought it was similar to the SARS outbreak in 2003.
“But when international borders shut down completely, it became apparent that this pandemic is unique and will be protracted beyond a couple of years,” says Kiong, who is also CEO of Far East Hospitality Management.
Then last July, reality truly hit home when the International Air Transport Association (IATA) released its gloomy report that air travel would not return to pre-Covid-19 levels until 2024.
“We saw the magnitude of the threat and its implications for Singapore as a global commercial node,” says Kiong.
“I immediately thought, ‘This is the great reset for Singapore’s accommodation and tourism sector’.”
Managing an unprecedented crisis
Before the pandemic, international tourism contributed to more than 90 percent of hotel revenue here. In 2019, Singapore’s tourism revenues were $27.70 billion, up from $27.1 billion in 2018. When borders closed, this was lost. Other revenue sources, like banquet events, also dried up when safe management measures were implemented.
To tap the domestic market, local hotels have designed new services, such as creative F&B takeaway menus and packages, home chef services, staycation packages, workations and daycations. Income from these, serving as Stay Home Notice (SHN)-dedicated facilities, and SingapoRediscovers vouchers have mitigated, but far from resolved, the shortfall.
“Domestic demand is not enough for hotels to break even unless there are robust job support schemes in place,” Kiong says.
Government support measures have helped greatly.
SHA is part of the SGUnited Jobs Initiative, which facilitates the temporary redeployment of excess manpower from the hotel industry to other hiring sectors, such as retail, healthcare and manufacturing.
Some 7,000 tourism businesses benefited from the Jobs Support Scheme last year, and companies in the sector will receive further wage support until September. The government will also waive hotel licence fees till the end of the year.
An industry transformed
“The key priority for SHA is to preserve industry capabilities over the course of the pandemic as well as to maintain our competitiveness as a tourism destination and global commercial hub post-crisis,” says Kiong.
“Safety, hygiene and sanitation now take top priority in every aspect of service delivery,” he adds. An SG Clean quality mark also assures guests that a hotel has been audited for hygiene and cleanliness. At hotels islandwide, public spaces like lobbies and restaurants have been reconfigured to ensure safe distancing. Activities at shared facilities, such as gyms and swimming pools, now require appointments.
While the hotel industry’s digital transformation was already underway, Kiong says the pandemic significantly “accelerated the process”.
Aiding this are government-led initiatives, such as the Workforce Singapore’s revamped Job Redesign Reskilling Programme, which enhances hotel staff roles using technology. Under the scheme, some 200 hotel staff here will have their roles augmented besides receiving specialised training.
Hotels that have implemented new technology in the past year or are planning to do so soon will also get course fee funding and salary support.
Several hotels have adopted digital or smart technologies, says Kiong. These include contactless check-in and check-out using QR codes on mobile devices, digital menus and contactless payments. Using digital concierges, guests can request simple housekeeping services, order in-room dining, book hotel facilities or look up itineraries on mobile devices, freeing up staff to attend to more complex requests.
In the “back of house”, robots can be deployed to deliver amenities to guestrooms, sanitise areas using UV light and transport linens. Internal processes, such as in procurement and finance, can be digitised, thus helping optimise workflow and reduce paper waste.
Some hospitality roles will no longer exist, at least not in their traditional forms, says Kiong.
“Front office and food service functions will move towards more self-service options. Instead of being a doorman, bellman or security guard, one has to do a combination of these functions now. Support functions such as marketing, HR, finance, reservations, etc, will become more automated due to AI and machine learning.”
“Service has evolved from “high tech–high touch” to “high tech–no touch” without compromising on hospitality excellence,” he says, adding that service professionals will be expected to deliver a higher level of intuitive service and contribute towards the creation of better guest experiences.
On the horizon, glimmers of hope
More than 950 million vaccinations have been given worldwide, according to The New York Times. We may see the opening of travel corridors for vaccinated travellers from mid-2021 — bubbles that Kiong predicts will include Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam by the third quarter of this year.
The IATA Travel Pass — an app that lets passengers verify their Covid-19 test results, vaccination status and confirmation to fly — was recently successfully piloted by Singapore Airlines. And recent hotel launches here, such as Dusit Thani Laguna Singapore and The Clan Hotel, should boost traveller confidence.
Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative and Green Plan 2030 will also play a significant role in the visitor experience, Kiong says. He believes technology will enhance every step of a traveller’s journey, from customs and immigration to hotel accommodation and itinerary management.
“Everything can be seamless and guided through a traveller’s preferred language on their mobile device,” he says.
Nevertheless, recovery in the tourism industry will take time.
“Singapore’s hotel industry enjoyed an average occupancy rate of around 86 percent in 2019,” says Kiong. “It may take up to 2024 before we see such occupancy levels again. This is due to flight capacity taking a longer time to return to pre-pandemic levels.”
“It is also quite possible that hotel supply will adjust to demand. This will inevitably result in contraction, consolidation and transformation of the industry.”
It follows that hotels that can deliver superior guest experiences will become even more popular since travel will be more deliberate due to the inconvenience and higher cost involved now, says Kiong.
“Singapore will have to reimagine itself and move towards quality tourism by focusing on increasing the value per visitor instead of growing the number of visitors,” he says. “This is a long-term battle, which requires evolving strategies to ensure that Singapore’s hotel industry emerges stronger from this crisis.”