Supporting stakeholders through COVID-19 and planning for recovery in Singapore

Singapore has been praised for its rapid response to the outbreak of COVID-19. We spoke to Keith Tan, CEO at the Singapore Tourism Board, to understand how they played a key role in supporting the Government's containment strategy and how they're supporting their stakeholders through the crisis and the recovery that will follow.


Unusually for the CEO of a major destination marketing organisation, your career path has not been exclusively within the tourism sector, but you have progressed through public service roles with responsibility for defence and economic policy development.  What do you feel you previous roles have taught you that enable you to bring a fresh perspective to the Singapore Tourism Board? 

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work with many domestic and international players to champion Singapore in areas ranging from defence relations to free trade agreements. Leading STB gives me a chance to do something similar, because STB excels in telling the Singapore story to an international audience.

One lesson in particular is the importance of the Singapore brand. As public servants, we are ambassadors of our country brand and story to a global audience – the story of a small nation that punches above our weight in so many aspects of our work. I’ve always been proud of this brand, and I’m proud to use it to drive my work at STB. Now, more than ever, we have the chance to share our story, not only with our international visitors and trade, but also our domestic audiences.

 

How important do you feel it is that the STB works closely with the Economic Development Board in Singapore?  And indeed with other government departments?

Collaboration with the Economic Development Board (EDB) and other government agencies is key to our success at the Singapore Tourism Board. Whether we build tourism infrastructure, address manpower concerns, or encourage place making in our key tourism precincts, we do so with the support of our counterparts from other government bodies and agencies.

As statutory boards under the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), STB and EDB share a unified brand, Passion Made Possible, which was developed to market Singapore internationally to visitors and businesses.

Another government agency we are in close collaboration with is Enterprise Singapore (ESG), which champions capability development, innovation and internationalisation for businesses in Singapore, including tourism businesses. They have been our long-term partner in encouraging our key stakeholders in the private sector to digitalise and adopt technology, in order to drive productivity.

STB’s partnership with other government agencies also extends to a number of key projects. For instance, we work closely with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the National Parks Board (NParks) on the long-range plans to transform Orchard Road into a world-leading lifestyle destination. We are also committed to our partnership with Changi Airport Group (CAG), to grow the attractiveness of Singapore’s Changi Airport as an aviation hub.


How does this collaboration work in terms of telling the story of Singapore and presenting the nation brand to the outside world?

Over the past five decades, Singapore has built a strong reputation as a global business and tourism hub, recognised for its quality infrastructure, safety, stability, connectedness and accessibility. However, global competition to attract tourists and investments has intensified, and the media landscape has become more crowded and complex. Visitors have become more discerning in their travel choices, seeking to immerse themselves in cultures and build deeper connections with destinations, while international businesses want to create new solutions that make a difference.

The unified brand of Passion Made Possible thus aims to communicate the country's value proposition in addressing the needs of travellers and companies, and help Singapore stand out on the international stage.

Passion Made Possible presents Singapore's attributes beyond tourism and business. This has provided the opportunity and platform for Singaporeans and residents to showcase their enterprising and persevering spirit to the world, and has served as a unifying brand for Singapore on the international front. Hence, in addition to STB and EDB, it has been adopted by other statutory boards and agencies under the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and incorporated into their marketing campaigns and tradeshows when reaching out to international audiences.

Other than collaboration with other government agencies, we have continued to partner industry stakeholders to bring the spirit of Passion Made Possible to life. This joint effort bore fruit when many stakeholders in our tour and hotel sectors adopted a storytelling approach to their products and experiences.

 

Just 18 months in to your role and the STB is having to deal with the very serious impact of the coronavirus.  Do you feel that the organisation was well prepared having learned from the SARS outbreak 15 years previously?

Many of the learnings, protocols and procedures from SARS have been beneficial. While we can never fully be prepared for a crisis on such a scale, many of these lessons have helped to guide our actions.

For instance, the SARS crisis has taught us the importance of frequent and transparent communications with both our industry partners and visitors from the onset of the crisis. Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, we have regularly shared the latest health and travel advisories, kept up our engagement with them to explain our policy decisions and reassured them that Singapore remains committed to our long-term partnership.

Apart from stepping up our communications efforts overseas, we know it is critical to support the industry in a timely manner during times of need. The Singaporean government worked quickly to provide immediate and targeted support for our tourism businesses and industry professionals. Within a week of the travel restrictions on China, we rolled out fee waivers for hotels, travel agents and tourist guides, and subsidised the cleaning cost of hotels that had confirmed or suspected cases.

We’ve also gone much further than we did for SARS. For example, we have provided more comprehensive job support, such as wage support for tourist guides, and training for the tourism sector, with absentee payroll and course fee subsidies to encourage tourism businesses to send their staff for training. Through this, we hope to encourage businesses to retain and retrain their employees, so that they are positioned to capture growth when the situation improves.

Another significant difference from SARS is the prevalence of digital and social media, which are key channels for us to communicate with Singaporeans and the international community. We have to manage these channels in real-time, as that is the expectation from our audiences today.


How have you managed your liaison with private sector tourism partners through this crisis?  What support have you provided? What reassurance are you able to provide in terms of projecting longer-term confidence?

In order for the tourism industry in Singapore to see any meaningful recovery, we have to work closely with our partners in the private sector to plan recovery efforts, and design and implement any support packages. One such example is the Tourism Recovery Action Task Force (TRAC).

The task force involves leaders from different segments of the tourism industry, comprising government agencies, industry associations, and tourism business owners. TRAC’s work is action-oriented, and we will feed good ideas from TRAC into STB-led campaigns and strategies in response to the crisis. TRAC is also intended to spur industry stakeholders to work together as partners rather than as competitors. Through TRAC, they have already started to share some cross-cutting best practices that can be applied to different segments of the tourism industry.

In addition to TRAC, more than S$300mil has been committed to support the tourism sector, as part of the Support and Stabilisation Package announced on 18 February, on top of the broad-based measures announced at the Singapore Budget 2020. These support packages represent a very strong level of commitment from the government to help the tourism sector. We have been encouraging tourism businesses to take full advantage of the support provided to stabilise their operations, manage their cashflow, transform their businesses, and grow their manpower capabilities.

Even as we help our businesses get through this period, we must not forget to invest for the future, and enhance our attractiveness as a destination. That is why we are forging ahead with our long-term tourism plans such as the Mandai nature precinct, Jurong Lake District, rejuvenation of the Integrated Resorts (Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa) and Orchard Road, our world-famous shopping belt. We will also continue to pursue our Quality Tourism strategy of enhancing destination attractiveness and supporting industry competitiveness, so that when the situation improves, we will be well positioned to recover from COVID-19.


Singapore has been praised by the WHO for its response to and management of the virus – in terms of containment and healthcare strategies.  How does this reflect the brand of Singapore and how its perceived at home and internationally?

Singapore’s response to the crisis is a real life embodiment of the Passion Made Possible spirit. It reflects who we are as a destination, as a city, and as a country.

This tenacity and conviction has really shone through in the past few weeks, with many of our everyday heroes stepping up to ensure the health and safety of other Singaporeans. For example, when the government instituted a 14-day isolation period for Singaporeans returning from abroad, we worked swiftly with our partners in the hotel industry to procure hotel rooms and serviced apartments for returning Singaporeans to serve their quarantine notice. Our hotels responded quickly to the call. They also went the extra mile to provide extraordinary service, such as sending personalised notes of encouragement to guests in isolation, ensuring they receive regular and nutritious meals, and even keeping them occupied with creative activities such as exercise routines on their hotel balconies.

 

On a practical level, what decisions were taken in terms of continuing to promote Singapore during the eye of the crisis and / or restarting promotion as the crisis ebbs?

There are a few considerations. Firstly, as a responsible destination, our top priority is the health and safety of Singaporeans, visitors and those who work in the tourism industry. As such, we have focused our efforts on providing timely and accurate information about the situation in Singapore, so that visitors can make informed decisions about their travel plans.

As many people around the world are now staying home, we have also put out content to remind them to keep safe and healthy, whilst telling them that Singapore awaits their return when the time is right.

Restarting our marketing efforts and bringing visitors back to Singapore will be our top priority once the situation gets better. This will require STB working closely with all our partners in Singapore. We are already getting our plans in place and await the earliest signs of recovery.

 

How important has it been to be able to access data to support your decision-making process during this crisis?  Are there any particular data resources or analytics tools that your team have found particularly useful?

Data has been central to STB’s reaction to COVID-19. At STB, we have a data analytics platform – the Singapore Tourism Analytics Network, or STAN for short. STAN leverages tourism-related data aggregated from both STB and the industry to derive actionable insights. These insights are crucial for STB and our tourism industry in terms of forward planning and strategy formulation.

An example of STAN’s impact on our response was when the crisis first broke in Wuhan in January, and travel restrictions were imposed. The tourism sector was hit almost immediately, as visitors from China dwindled. During that period of uncertainty, we were able to evaluate the impact of the Chinese source market quickly and accurately using the data available on STAN. Based on that data, we then anticipated a 25-30% decline in arrivals. With this data, we were then able to react quickly and provide the appropriate support to our tourism businesses.

STAN is still serving us today as we continue to calculate the economic impact of the outbreak, and will be even more useful during the recovery, when we will use data to guide our marketing to specific locations and audiences.

During this period, it is also important to upskill our industry’s capabilities, so that the use of data in decision-making becomes second nature to the whole of Singapore tourism. We have plans to roll out STAN for our tourism industry later this year, to help tourism businesses make better data-driven business decisions as they prepare for the return of travellers.


How do you see the challenges an opportunities shaping up for the STB over the next 12-18 months?

This is the biggest challenge that Singapore tourism has faced in its 56-year history, and it will not be easy to navigate, with travel at a standstill around the world. We don’t know how long the crisis will last, how deep it will be, or how it will develop over the next 12 to 18 months. We can only continue to engage our partners, support them in every way we can, and help them prepare for the recovery.

However, we must never let a good crisis go to waste. No matter how challenging, this tough period present important lessons which will help STB and the tourism industry. At STB, we are conducting a continuous After Action Review to gather key learnings from the COVID-19 situation in real-time, even as it evolves quickly. The aim is to gather rich, actionable insights that can help us make better decisions moving forward, and to help us emerge from this crisis as a stronger and more resilient destination.

If you had one essential lesson from this crisis and how the STB have manage it that you would like to share with other nation branding and destination marketing teams, what would it be?

One of the things I’ve learnt, is how much people care about the tourism industry. It’s not just the visitors who come to Singapore, but our locals. I think it’s because so much of the tourism industry is associated with the positive moments of your life. You celebrate birthdays, weddings, proposals, engagements, and surprises in tourism establishments like hotels and theme parks and restaurants. How can we build on this positive social capital that tourism has with our people? I think this will be a key element that we will need to build on as we prepare for the recovery.


Thank you for sharing your insights with us, Keith.


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Prepare for the worst: crisis management strategies for place branding organisations

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