$10 takeaways, half-priced stays for healthcare workers as hotels fight to survive

(From top left, clockwise) Pet-friendly InterContinental Hotel in Bugis, tilapia dish and gourmet care pack.
(From top left, clockwise) Pet-friendly InterContinental Hotel in Bugis, tilapia dish and gourmet care pack.PHOTOS: INTERCONTINENTAL SINGAPORE, FAIRMONT SINGAPORE AND SWISSOTEL THE STAMFORD, AND OAKWOOD PREMIER AMTD SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - Guest relations executive Syahidah Hamzah is used to seeing the odd cat or dog spending the weekend at the InterContinental Hotel in Bugis, which launched pet-friendly staycation packages last year.

In recent months, however, she has welcomed more furry friends accompanying their owners on 14-day stay-home notices (SHN).

To make its four-legged guests feel at home, amenities such as a toy, water bowl, pet diapers and pee pads are provided.

But when all of the above did not work for a dog that was not toilet-trained, the SHN care committee went to the extent of arranging for a small patch of grass, purchased from a nursery, to be placed in the room for it to answer nature's call.

The property is just one of more than 80 hotels here housing various groups affected by the coronavirus pandemic, including those on SHN, healthcare and front-line staff, and Malaysian workers impacted by their country's movement control order.

It is not uncommon to see men in their work wear of T-shirts, shorts and slippers toting plastic bags with takeaway styrofoam box meals padding across plush carpeted hotel lobbies back to their rooms at the end of the day.

These new guests have been a lifeline for the Singapore hospitality industry as it pulls out all the stops to stay afloat while tourism dries up.

In April, Singapore experienced an almost 100 per cent drop in international tourist arrivals - only 750, compared with 1.6 million in the same month last year - according to research and consulting company Globaldata.

Figures from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) revealed that hotels' average occupancy rate fell from 87 per cent last year to about 40 per cent in March and April.

Guest relations executive Syahidah Hamzah is used to seeing the odd cat or dog spending the weekend at the InterContinental Hotel in Bugis. PHOTO: INTERCONTINENTAL SINGAPORE

Across the region, the bloodletting began. Hospitality group Banyan Tree this month laid off about 30 per cent of its 180-strong Singapore workforce. At least 10 hotels in Malaysia have shuttered permanently over the last couple of months, including some in tourism hot spots like Penang and Ipoh. More fallout is expected in the coming months.


Hospitality players here are determined not to go down without a fight and are doing whatever it takes to ride out the pandemic.

Oakwood Premier AMTD Singapore in Shenton Way, a serviced apartment-cum-hotel, launched a promotion for healthcare workers in April: $130 a night for a studio apartment, down from the usual starting rate of $280.

Last month, it also housed nursing home staff in order to reduce community exposure during the circuit breaker period. The Government footed the bill for accommodation and meals for these workers at a similar rate.

Healthcare workers and nursing home staff clocked more than 600 nights in total. Coupled with other guests, such as expatriates and locals based overseas without a permanent residence here, the property has maintained an occupancy rate of about 40 per cent over the past few months.

It is a far cry from its 92 per cent occupancy during pre-pandemic days, but keeping some of its 268 units filled helped the property avert "unilateral pay cuts and retrenchments", says Mr Roy Liang, regional general manager of Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, Oakwood Worldwide (Asia).

This strategy has proven popular with other hotels, too, which are eager to adapt to the times.

When Expedia, a travel booking platform, launched the Singapore Healthcare Heroes programme in April to offer heavily discounted rates for front-line healthcare professionals, 14 properties promptly signed up as partners.

Mr Ang Choo Pin, Expedia Group's senior director of government and corporate affairs in Asia, says the number of hotel sign-ups has more than doubled to 36 hotels today. They include smaller properties such as Bliss Hotel in Upper Cross Street and Hotel Bencoolen @ Bencoolen Street.

Executive housekeeper George Ng (left), who has welcomed guests such as foreign workers and those on stay-home notice at the Far East Hospitality hotel where he works, teaches a colleague how to don the N95 mask.

Meanwhile, Singapore hotelier Far East Hospitality (FEH) - which has 23 hotels and serviced residences here - has been hosting foreign workers who are waiting for Covid-19 test results or who have recovered, Malaysians working in Singapore and those on SHN at several of its properties here since March. It did not reveal which properties these were.

For staff, hosting these new guests can take some getting used to.

Executive housekeeper George Ng, who heads the housekeeping department at a FEH property, says some in his team were worried about catching the virus. Others were worried about fake news such as the virus mutating from droplets to airborne transmission.

Learning to don personal protective equipment such as N95 masks, disposable gloves and gowns helped to allay some of these fears, as did Mr Ng's daily briefings, in which he discussed news from government sources to debunk misinformation.

Mr Ng says he has grown in terms of crisis management. "I've learnt to stay grounded instead of listening to the noise around me, and to find out what people's concerns are so I can address them directly," he says.


Besides contributing to the nation's Covid-19 fight, hotels see serving as a dedicated SHN facility as a way to keep staff occupied and build brand loyalty.

Ms Samantha Seah, who heads a command operations centre that secures and manages hotel rooms for those serving SHN, says hotels have had to incorporate a slew of new measures, including safe distancing during check-in, providing cleaning supplies and even making sure guests do not leave their rooms.

Ms Seah, who is also STB's assistant director of hotel industry development, says many staff have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

"True to the hotels' hospitality DNA, they've come up with ways to engage guests during this period," she says.

Copthorne King's Hotel on Havelock Road, which hosted about 350 SHN guests, brought in fitness instructors from ActiveSG to conduct daily yoga and exercise sessions for guests to participate in from their balconies. 

Copthorne King's Hotel in Havelock Road, which hosted about 350 SHN guests, brought in fitness instructors from ActiveSG to conduct daily yoga and exercise sessions for guests to participate in from their balconies.

They also sent guests QR codes to watch livestreamed religious services in various languages from a church and mosque.

"Our core strategy is building our brand through guest experience. We saw no reason to stop because of Covid-19," says front office manager Ramesh Krishnan.

Meanwhile, Shangri-La's Rasa Sentosa Resort and Spa, Singapore has sought to keep guests connected with the outside world by sending milk and coffee sachets to their rooms so that they can join in the Dalgona coffee-making craze.

The hotel has also conducted online classes on towel origami and packing tips, and hosted trivia nights and virtual meet-ups.

"We tried to foster a sense of community and camaraderie among our guests, some of who have forged friendships over their time spent on their respective room balconies," says general manager Gavin Weightman.

He adds that many of these ideas were contributed by the hotel's recreation, F&B, culinary and housekeeping teams.


With staycations still not allowed in phase two of the country's reopening, hotels will continue to lean heavily on food and beverage promotions. Those priced at sharp discounts are popular.

Fairmont Singapore in City Hall is one of many that have launched a drive-through service for customers to pick up takeaway orders without leaving their vehicles. This will continue even as the hotel reopens its F&B outlets on Friday (June 19).

Besides promotions such as 50 per cent off the second pizza from in-house Italian restaurant Prego, the hotel also offers recipe kits for dishes such as chicken tikka ($26) and tilapia fish curry ($28). Close to 250 kits have been sold since their launch in April.

Fairmont Singapore launched a drive-through service for F&B promotions such as 50 per cent off a second pizza from Italian restaurant Prego. 

At Grand Hyatt Singapore on Scotts Road, customers can also opt for a drive-through collection of takeaway meal boxes, with dishes such as burgers and lamb briyani for $10 to $12 each.

Affordability is key. Mr Liang of Oakwood Premier AMTD Singapore says that when the team was conceptualising a gourmet care pack, it steered clear of a multi-course meal, opting instead for small but luxe canapes such as foie gras croquettes that can be eaten at any time.

"On social media, I have seen so many people send gestures of goodwill to friends and family. Not everyone is prepared to shell out $150, but they want to send something," he says.

The property has sold about 550 gourmet care packs, priced at $25 each, since their launch a month ago. It is now gearing up to woo local guests in the second half of the year.

Mr Liang knows the property is not a top choice among staycationers, especially those who work in the central business district and want to keep work and play separate.

But it is a market it will target nonetheless, with hopes that unique offerings - such as a mobile bar that goes door to door of guest rooms - will attract those who want to steer clear of crowded places.

Mr Liang says: "The moment the Government allows it, we will definitely try to take a slice of this pie. Perhaps after staying home for so long, the CBD will have newfound appeal and people will enjoy the different vibe here over the weekend."