IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

How to spin the revenue?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 19, 2013

BACK in 2005, at the Singapore Flyer's groundbreaking ceremony, then National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan admitted to being initially unimpressed with the idea of it.

He candidly said: "It looked to me like a very big Ferris wheel and I said to myself: What's so great about it?"

Eventually convinced, he referred the idea to the Singapore Tourism Board and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

He may have been better off going with his gut feel.

Mired in financial woe, the company behind the Flyer, Singapore Flyer Pte Ltd, was put under receivership last month. This means that its creditors have appointed a receiver to settle outstanding loans by taking control and managing some or all of the company's assets.

The world's largest observation wheel has since been hawked for sale in newspapers including The Wall Street Journal.

There are all sorts of theories on why the wheel did not spin the revenue it was expected to.

Some blame it on Lady Luck, who seemed absent from the get-go.

Since opening in March 2008 the wheel had suffered several breakdowns, including one in December that year when an electrical fire caused it to stall, trapping 173 passengers for six hours.

Others say it failed to recover from the squabbling and bad management that dogged it in its early years.

In November 2008, former director Peter Purcell approached the High Court to gain access to documents related to certain expenditure but was unsuccessful.

In January 2009, a document prepared for a creditor surfaced, questioning the Flyer's ability to meet revenue projections, among other things. By the end of that year, some investors attempted to oust several board directors as they were unhappy with their stewardship.

It is difficult to analyse what really went wrong without access to the firm's financial records. But there is one thing critics agree on: the Flyer has hit rock bottom and the only way is up.

The receivership, which will mean new owners, will allow fresh blood in to rethink the marketing strategy for the attraction.

The Flyer will need some help from its new owners, who must learn from the mistakes made by their predecessors.

Cheaper tickets

THE first thing that must go, experts say, is the $33 per adult ticket price for the half-hour ride on the Flyer.

An adult ticket to the Night Safari, where a visit can span several hours, is a competitive $35. Entry to the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark, which offers a similar view to the Flyer, costs $20 per adult and visitors can stay as long as they wish.

"Lower ticket prices and you will get more Singaporeans, more critical mass and more repeat visits," said Ngee Ann Polytechnic senior tourism lecturer Michael Chiam, who added that a good base would be a local visitorship of 60 per cent.The Flyer attracted more than one million visitors last year, 40 per cent of them locals. Its initial target: 2.5 million visitors every year.

Its new owners could also adopt a differential pricing strategy: tourists pay more, residents pay less. This is to encourage repeat visits.

Mr Nick Foley, managing director of branding consultancy Landor Associates Singapore, suggests different prices for sunset and discounts for multiple ticket sales.

Another factor that needs to be relooked at is discounts given to travel agencies. Currently, tickets are sold to agents in bulk at half price to encourage them to include the Flyer in their tour packages.

That would help boost sales, if not for errant agencies snapping up tickets and selling them to touts who peddle them on the street to sightseers. In essence, this means that tourists are paying half the fare locals are.

This is of course against contractual rules, but the Singapore Flyer has not taken the culprits to task. In the meantime, riders are bypassing official ticketing channels, riding on the cheap and eroding precious revenue.

Too many freebies?

ANOTHER question to ask is if an excessive number of free tickets are being distributed.

According to court documents, Mr Purcell had wanted to check several items of expenditure. Among them was the alleged supply of more than 100,000 free tickets during the F1 Grand Prix season in September 2008. The free tickets - if issued - would have been worth at least $3 million. The practice of giving out free rides during the F1 has persisted.

Solutions from abroad

THE road forward will not be easy. At least 10 other wheels - including the Beijing Great Wheel and Melbourne's Southern Star - have shut or had building plans cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Reasons cited include structural defects, design disputes and a lack of funds.

Even the future of the successful London Eye, with about 3.5 million riders annually, was iffy at one stage.

Crippled by hefty interest payments to British Airways - one of three equal shareholders then - it had yet to make a profit in 2004, four years after it opened, reported The Guardian.

It started turning a profit only after one of the shareholders, the owner of Madame Tussauds waxworks, bought over the stakes from the other parties. It also assumed a £175 million debt the Eye owed the airline.

Tussauds was acquired by Merlin Entertainments Group in 2007. Merlin - the world's second-largest attraction operator after Walt Disney - is preparing to go public after racking up over £1 billion (S$1.97 billion) in revenue for the year to Dec 29, 2012.

One of the Eye's architects was reported as saying that finding a location with a large enough supply of tourists is crucial - because the wheels have to keep on turning.

In choosing a new Flyer owner, recovery firm Ferrier Hodgson - appointed as receivers - should look to just one owner as opposed to a consortium. Arguably, this would mean a more nimble management and fewer disagreements. It should also look to someone who has experience in managing attractions.

New owners, intent on the wheel's success, should also consider relocating it. Its current location is out of the way and is easily overlooked.

The Flyer is already a distinctive icon on the country's skyline. Its reported receivership led to a flurry of e-mails from readers with suggestions on how to save it.

Being in receivership now gives the Flyer a chance to reboot itself. With the right owner and the right formula, the Singapore Flyer can still become the icon it was always meant to be.

limjess@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 19, 2013

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