Observe and learn on holiday

It pays to keep one's eyes open to possibilities - and pitfalls - of investing far away from home

This article first appeared in The Sunday Times on Dec 7, 2014.

Most of us subscribe to the idea that going on holiday means evading the bulging inbox of e-mail, disconnecting the work mobile and giving in to the pleasures of being a tourist.

It is liberating, of course, but amid the delights of having no meetings to prepare for or deadlines to meet, I find that it still pays to keep the thinking cap on while on holiday, even if it means thinking about anything that could be remotely related to work.

I have had the privilege of travelling to many cities - far more than most of my peers. On some of these trips, it was clear that, unlike me, other Singaporeans kept their eyes wide open and wits about them.

Take my exchange visit to the University of California, Berkeley a few years ago.

A local yogurt brand popular with teenagers here bears an uncanny resemblance to the wildly popular Yogurtland soft serve chain based in California.

I remember how I would religiously queue up for a serving every day while at the university, heaping generous portions of granola and chocolate chips on it as if they cost nothing.

For the amount I spent on processed sugar (and calories), it never occurred to me that youngsters in Singapore could have shared the same enthusiasm for the dessert.

When a 22-year-old entrepreneur opened a yogurt shop with an identical concept here, a few years after I returned home, I could only kick myself for not thinking of it earlier.

The shop turned out to be a roaring success with locals, spawning five more outlets.

So on a recent trip to London, it seemed important not to get carried away by the possibility of a Kate Middleton sighting and the bright lights adorning Harrods.

After all, in the course of my work, I have written countless stories about how the city has drawn many Singaporeans - and their money - to its shores, after property cooling measures made it hard for them to invest here.

For the whole of last year, Singaporeans splashed a cool $3 billion on overseas homes, up from $1.9 billion in 2012.

This time, I took the chance to see what exactly the big deal was.

On a cab ride out to Hammersmith, in London, a friend asked the driver to pass by the site of the massive Battersea Power Station project on the south bank of the Thames.

It is an ambitious integrated development that involves the transformation of the old building - once described by London mayor Boris Johnson as "a dead pig floating down the river" - into a complex of around 4,000 homes, 250 retail and food and beverage outlets and offices for the creative types.

Once I saw the site, it became apparent just how immense the project was and unlike any in Singapore: 1.25 million sq ft of retail space, 1.62 million sq ft of offices, three hotels and 12 football fields of green spaces.

Surely it would be hard to determine which unit would have a good view just by looking at the floor plans in Singapore, given the density of the project, noted my friend.

For investors hoping to attract tenants, the 4,000 or so homes that will be available should indicate the possible leasing competition.

For its string of brand names - homes designed by renowned architects Gehry Partners and Foster + Partners - the drawback was that it took a full 45 minutes for us to get there from the Tower of London on the north bank.

I wondered if tenants really want to be that far away from Central London. Granted, the locals are likely to hop on the Tube instead of a cab, and the developer's bold plans for the project could really take off over time.

Yet the fact is that the city's terrain is completely different from what we are familiar with and investors must be prepared to be in for the long haul to realise any significant gains.

The takeaway for me was: How many Singaporeans have made personal trips to check out a foreign property for themselves before buying it, and how many have actually bought a unit off the pretty floor plan, putting blind faith in a developer more than 10,000km away?

My observations may just be those of an armchair critic. But it is not improbable for antsy investors, eager to make their money work for them, to fall prey to the myriad opportunities out there while things are not looking up at home.

For me, I suppose it would be safer to first invest in travelling; to observe and learn before sinking my dollars into anything for the long run.

ocheryl@sph.com.sg