ECONOMY, HOTELS & TOURISM | Contributed Content, Singapore
Antonio Acunzo

From transit to trendy: how Singapore evolved into a cosmopolitan travel destination


The first time I visited Singapore was way back in the mid-'80s.

The I.M.Pei-designed The Westin Stamford Singapore hotel was under construction, along with sister property The Westin Plaza, and when opened in 1986 The Westin Stamford was the tallest hotel building in the world (later rebranded Swissôtel The Stamford and Raffles The Plaza respectively, in 2002, when both hotels were sold to Raffles, with the late one becoming Fairmont Singapore in 2006).

Also John Portman-designed atrium-style hotel The Mandarin Oriental Singapore was work in progress and due to open in 1987, right next to the Marina Square Shopping Mall which when opened in 1985 was the largest mall in Singapore at the time, and built on reclaimed land at Marina Centre.

Marina Bay the way we know it today was just a huge master plan, and Sentosa had no attractive attractions and was connected to Singapore via the non-air conditioned Sentosa Monorail that was eventually discontinued in 2005 to make way for the new Sentosa Express in 2007.

In brief Singapore was just a stop-over en-route to Australia and New Zealand, or on the way to closer destinations in the region like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A 1- or 2-night stay with the advantage of purchasing electronics at a cheaper price (I myself purchased my first Mac PowerBook in Singapore during one of my frequent visits back then) and enjoying the original (not the pre-mixed) Singapore Sling at the Raffles hotel.

Fast forward, 30 years later, and 2014 Singapore marks 50 years of tourism development and promotion since the establishment of the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board in 1964 (later called Singapore Tourism Board in 1997).

A record-high of 15,567,923 international travellers visited Singapore in 2013, a +7% compared to previous year, contributing to S$23.5 billion in tourism receipts (+2% y-o-y) and generating S$2.9 billion in hotel room revenue (a +3.9% y-o-y).

It’s a huge improvement compared to the mere 91,000 travellers who visited Singapore back in 1964, or the 3,000,000 something that visited in the mid-‘80s.

According to the Mastercard’s 2014 global destination cities index, Singapore ranks #4 after London, Bangkok, and Paris as top destination cities by international overnight visitors, ahead of Dubai and New York.

In terms of visitor spending, Singapore remains at #4, right after London, New York, and Paris, and ahead of Bangkok and Seoul .

Interestingly, Singapore shows a ratio of 2.3 overnight visitor arrivals per city resident (same as London, UK) while Dubai, UAE gets a staggering 4.8 and New York just 0.6.

It’s not been easy to compete in the highly competitive tourism arena, and simply said during the ‘70s and ‘80s Singapore was losing ground in tourism compared to other destinations in Asia.

Yet Singapore managed to reinvent itself and transform and evolve from ordinary city and transit stop to become a prime trendy tourist hub, a cosmopolitan destination capable of attracting not only leisure tourism but also M.I.C.E. tourism (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Exhibitions) and events.

A tough challenge that required the ability to innovate and transform, and provide innovative, attractive local attractions, conventions, and events able to act as catalyst for the decision of selecting Singapore as travel destination and to generate quality volumes and not quantity volumes.

In this process, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proved to be instrumental in setting the vision of a Singapore with that kind of vibe you only get in places like “the Big Apple” or “la Ville Lumière”.

Not just casinos by themselves but an integrated resort concept was the strategic solution, not only limited to game tables and slot machines as unique facilities yet extended and expanded to include an integrated set of amenities ranging from hotels and restaurants, to convention spaces and entertainment, shopping, and theme parks.

This vision, and subsequent guidelines, brought a dynamic thinking in terms of infrastructures, architectural landmarks, urban landscapes, and concepts that have completely redesigned the Singapore skyline and what Singapore can offer in terms of unique selling proposition.

What we see today in the Marina Bay area with the integrated resort of the Marina Bay Sands (3 55-floor towers hotel with 2,561 rooms and suites and the world’s largest skypark, 120,000 sqm. of meeting space and the largest MICE facility in town, designer and high-end boutiques at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands including the largest Louis Vuitton Maison in South-East Asia, 6 fine dining venues by celebrity chefs, the ArtScience Museum, and yes of course the casino), and in Sentosa with the extensive proposition of the Resorts World Sentosa (6 hotels with more than 1500 rooms, more than 60 dining places, casino, the Universal Studios Singapore theme parks, and entertainment), do reflect the ability of Singapore to reinvent itself and turn into a cosmopolitan hub capable of attracting a newer and larger target of savvy and discerning travellers.

For the record, Universal Studios Singapore, the first and only Universal Studios theme park in South-East Asia, and featuring 7 themed zones, celebrated its 10 millionth visitor on 18 April 2013, just 2 years after the official opening.

As a matter of fact the Las Vegas Sands, that developed the Marina Bay Sands in what appears to be the world’s most expensive building at US$5.5 billion, had its strength in the MICE business, and the target in Singapore is the MICE visitor whose spending power is higher than traditional leisure visitors and generate more spending.

Again for the record, Resorts World Sentosa ranks #2 in the world’s most expensive buildings at US$4.98 billion (just as a term of comparison, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE, the world’s tallest man-made structure at 829.8m, stands at #19 at US$1.5 billion).

And the emphasis on targeting new visitors is on the yield, or said plainly, on attracting visitors who can contribute best to tourism spending: read Luxury visitor, MICE visitor, Event visitor.

Amid the long list of conventions that take place in Singapore bringing in attendees from all parts of the world, luxury takes an important position: the prestigious French design trade show Maison&Objet elected Singapore for its first edition outside Paris, France, and during the 4 days of 10-13 March 2014 Maison&Objet Asia 2014 gathered over 10,000 designers, design professionals, design buyers, design media, who visited the latest trends in design furniture and luxury home décor from over 200 international exhibitors who showcased their high-end products at the Marina Bay Sands Expo & Conference Centre.

The success was so outstanding that Maison&Objet Asia will take place again in Singapore in 2015, during 10-13 March, in the same place but doubling the size of the exhibition space.

The strategy for positioning Singapore on the luxury map proved successful: luxury hotels in Singapore recorded an average occupancy rate of 88% per the Jan-Dec 2013 period, with a peak at 92% during the month of August, a standard average room rate of S$437, and a revenue per available room (RevPAR) of S$385.10.

Demand for luxury hotels stayed strong and above standard average occupancy rate of all Singapore hotels, with the luxury segment on the rise and recently welcoming 2 new properties:

The Westin Singapore, a Starwood high-end modern design brand whose motto is “For a Better You”, opened in November 2013 right in the heart of the CBD, occupying levels 32 to 46 of the Asia Square Tower 2 and featuring 305 rooms and suites.

Sofitel So Singapore opened in May 2014 as a 134-room top luxury boutique hotel designed by legendary Karl Lagerfeld, blending timeless French elegance with a chic Singaporean twist, housed in an iconic building with neo-classical façade in Singapore’s CBD, and soon becoming the new sanctuary for discerning travellers.

Singapore Changi airport is of course the official entry gate to the Lion City.

Voted best airport in 2013 by Skytrax in the category over 50 million passengers per year, and ranked #13 as world’s busiest airport by passenger traffic in 2013 with a total of 53,726,087 passengers, and #5 in the list of busiest airports by international passengers traffic, after London, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Paris.

Beloved by all passengers, Changi airport ranked in the top 3 positions as best world airport by Skytrax for the past 14 years, and for one simple reason which can be simply described as the “Changi experience”: efficiency all across the airport experience from check-in to security to lounges and gate, relaxing environment, great shopping and dining facilities, excellent customer service.

In brief a welcoming place where it’s pleasant to spend a long transit between connecting flights or simply grab a coffee and rush to the gate.

And a great first impression upon arrival that well reflects the efficiency of the Lion City because Singapore is widely acknowledged as synonymous with efficiency.

Another major driver for marketing Singapore and positioning the Lion City on the world map of the top destinations has been the F1 Grand Prix which has absolutely elevated Singapore’s standing as a prime destination in particular for the peculiarity of the night race which is the only full night race on the F1 calendar.

Now in its 2nd 5-year term, Singapore will host the Grand Prix until 2017.

More than 200,000 visitors flew to Singapore during the first 5 years, mainly from Europe, USA, and Australia, to enjoy the night race, and this year with public holidays on Hong Kong and South Korea falling right during the race days, there has been a staggering increase in bookings from both markets (+37% from Hong Kong and +241% from Seoul).

With an expected S$200 million from tourist dollars during the 3 days of the F1 Grand Prix, the Government of Singapore well recovers its 60% of the total cost set at S$150 million.

Singapore is a dynamic melting pot of cultures, architecture, languages, and food that changes constantly and offers an abundance of activities to cater the most demanding travel experience.

Following the successful destination campaign called “Uniquely Singapore”, Singapore Tourism Board launched “Your Singapore” in 2010, a fresh destination brand designed around the needs of the visitor who can mix and match the multiple experiences Singapore can offer to satisfy his/her own taste.

Meant to differentiate Singapore from other travel destinations, the “Your Singapore”  destination marketing campaign highlights the competitive advantage of the Lion City and elevate the travel experience by offering the promise of a bespoke travel experience.

The choice of a destination logo made of overlapping bidimensional squares creating the shape of the Singapore island suggests the idea of multiple perspectives and faces that can be personalised by the user/traveller/visitor who feels an emotional bond with the destination and at the same time a sense of freedom for the multiple offer of unique and creative activities.

For a luxury brand, and Singapore is a luxury brand, offering a bespoke or tailor-made product or service is essential for highlighting the uniqueness of the proposition and for positioning brand and product on a different, higher engagement level with the customer, a customer who understands and appreciates the value and the difference and enjoys the experience.

As I said in a previous article on Luxury Asia, Singapore is truly a shining beacon not only in Luxury Asia but in the THL (Tourism, Hospitality & Leisure) segment as well, and enjoys a premier position in today’s highly competitive landscape.

A success fueled by the perfect match between the captivating attractions and activities proposed by cosmopolitan Singapore and a growing demand for Luxury, MICE and Events products and services generated by increasingly demanding and discerning travellers with the right budget to enjoy the next level of personalised service.

Confident of its competitive edge, Singapore will be able to maintain this leadership position as a prime destination, and continue its path in pursuit of excellence.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Antonio Acunzo

Antonio Acunzo

Antonio Acunzo is the CEO at MTW GROUP | Foreign Market Entry Advisors, a market-entry strategy and brand marketing advisory firm founded in Florida, and with Asia-Pacific office in Singapore. He brings with him over 15 years of experience in international business in the US and Asian markets focused on the Luxury and THL industries, and is a regular speaker at marketing and international business events.

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