Local service poses problem for Monocle

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 3, 2014

Magazine publisher Tyler Brule is eyeing Singapore as a possible location to set up a cafe.

But the editor-in-chief of the uber-stylish culture and international affairs magazine Monocle, which already has two cafes in Tokyo and London, has hit a stumbling block: Singapore's service culture.

Speaking over the telephone from London, where he is based, the 45-year-old says: "We're exploring options to set up a Monocle cafe in Singapore. But unlike London and Tokyo, where people want to be part of our brand, it's hard to find Singaporeans who are committed like that."

This, despite the magazine's first pop-up store at indie bookstore BooksActually last February being a hit with fans here. The store sold items such as stationery, prints, fragrances and luggage - all of which are available in Monocle stores around the world - and attracted more than 400 people and made $10,000 in sales on opening night.

Brule, who also runs his own branding agency, Winkreative, says the trouble with finding staff for a cafe here highlights a bigger problem. Singaporeans, he says, do not see working in the hospitality industry as a legitimate career choice, which affects Singapore's desire to be a top business and leisure destination.

He explains: "Singapore is very different from Japan, where there's a growing culture of young people who are assertive about their choices. It's a respectable option if you want to run a cafe or go into the hotel business to be a general manager, rather than work towards becoming a CEO of some company. Singaporeans see it a little differently... such jobs are for the labour class."

Service is not his only bug bear about Singapore, as readers of his weekly Fast Lane column for the Financial Times' Weekend Life and Arts section will know. In a column titled A Gnome On A Garden Bench last November, Brule recounted how he decided to give a hotel here a second chance after it had failed to live up to his expectations on a previous trip.

During his second visit there, he found himself distracted by its decor and furniture while trying to conduct a business meeting at the hotel's newly refurbished in-house restaurant. As Brule described in his column: "As your trousers contact with the banquette, you brace yourself to settle in but you keep sinking into the seat cushion and feel as if you're in free fall. As you descend into the foam, feeling not unlike Alice in Wonderland, your chin almost hits the edge of the table but you're saved at the very last moment with a thud when you finally settle.

"Blinking up at your client, who's towering over you from a chair that seems fit for a tennis umpire, you're at a loss for words. The whole situation has become so ridiculous and uncomfortable that you're unsure whether you should address the issue head-on or get on with business and ignore the absurdity of it all."

Brule declines to name-and-shame the hotel, but summarised the experience in print: "How can a designer, a furniture wholesaler and a hotel manager get this so wrong?"

However, he says that bad hotel design is not a Singapore problem. He calls it a "global pandemic", with principal designers kitting out a hotel without even visiting the property - leaving it to local contractors and designers to interpret their designs.

Designs that baffle Brule include hotels that lack power plugs ("We've been part of a digital surge for a long time and to have no plugs next to the bed is just absurd") and eco-unfriendly hotels which have excessive heating, or worse still, windows which cannot be opened, leaving guests stuck with recycled air.

But his top pet peeve: open-plan bathrooms or see-through bathroom walls. "Maybe designers thought that newlyweds might want to look at each other in the bathtub? It's a bad idea. The bathroom is a private experience and should remain as such."

Having travelled the globe, he names the five-star Grand Hyatt Tokyo in Roppongi Hills as his favourite business hotel to stay at for its slick efficiency, and small Swedish boutique hotel Ett Hem in Stockholm for when he is not working.

With just 12 rooms in Ett Hem, he likens the experience to "hanging out at a best friend's house for the weekend to rest".

In contrast, the Canadian-born Brule, who made his name in the publishing industry when he founded design magazine Wallpaper* in 1996, which he sold in 1997 to Time Inc and left as editor-in-chief in 2002, hardly gets excited at the thought of checking into a Singapore hotel.

Brule, who was here seven times last year, says: "I don't stay at the same hotel every time. I mix it up, but the candidates are always predictable: Four Seasons Hotel Singapore, Shangri-La or The St. Regis Singapore. But I don't care for any of them."

It might sound like he is being overly fussy about hotels, but as a frequent traveller, he says hotels should look at catering to those who spend a lot of time in them. "My bar for what a hotel should be is definitely set high. But I'm not unique. There are many others who help underpin Singapore's status as a business hub when they come here for work. There's a very large, international community of people who travel often and knows what looks good in a hotel room. They can compare the best from Milan to Seattle to Singapore."

In spite of all his expertise on the topic, he says that he will not venture into the hotel business.

"Building a great hotel is incredibly hard to execute. That's a problem many big hotels have. They expand very quickly, without good staff to back up the name that they are built on, so their great brand is undermined. And good staff don't grow on trees, no matter how great your staff rulebook is."

But given the chance to create his own hotel in Singapore, he says he would keep it small and luxurious with just 20 rooms or fewer, and bring on acclaimed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to design the premises. On his choice of architect, he says: "Kuma is one of my favourite architects. His buildings have a wonderful use of light, wood and stone, and create incredibly intimate experiences."

Brule, who is due to return to Singapore in a couple of weeks, is unsure if he will ever find the perfect hotel experience here: "Goodness knows, I might have to buy an apartment."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 3, 2014

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