A serviced home from home for Singaporeans

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

Finding a home away from home is the goal of most people when they are posted overseas, but Singaporean Lisberth Sng-Komatsuzaki actually managed it when her husband was posted to Bangkok three years ago.

The plan was to move from their house in Ibaraki prefecture in Japan and to stay for a while in a two-bedroom serviced apartment in the lively Sukhumvit district.

Mrs Sng-Komatsuzaki, her husband and two sons had initially intended to spend only a month at the Singaporean-run Somerset Lake Point Bangkok, but ended up living there for three years after getting used to high service standards that mirrored Singapore.

It may sound unusual, but Mrs Sng-Komatsuzaki is part of a growing trend of Singaporeans choosing to stay at Singapore-run serviced apartments when overseas.

Serviced apartments are an alternative to hotels for guests on longer stays, typically a week or more.

Singapore-based operators say they are benefiting from a ready pool of Singaporeans looking to stay at their properties overseas.

Singaporeans account for 10 per cent of Frasers Hospitality's guests in Europe and make up 10 to 15 per cent in Beijing and Seoul.

The number of nights booked last year by Singaporeans at The Ascott's properties all over the world has also risen by 65 per cent from 2011, according to the firm.

Each year, about 40,000 to 50,000 of the one million guests at The Ascott's properties are Singaporeans.

Making their mark abroad

THE appeal of Singaporean-run serviced apartments goes far beyond local loyalty, as the rapid global growth these firms have enjoyed attests.

Of the approximate 66,000 serviced apartments worldwide, more than half are operated by Singaporean firms, and these companies are developing world-class reputations. Early this month, The Ascott was named the world's leading serviced apartment brand at the 2013 World Travel Awards.

The home-grown firm, a unit of property developer CapitaLand, was set up in 1984 with a property in Singapore and one in France. It has since grown to more than 33,000 apartments in 82 cities - making it the world's largest operator.

The Ascott's apartments are run under three brands: Ascott The Residence, Somerset Serviced Residence and Citadines Apart'hotel.

Singapore's Frasers Hospitality has become another leading global player. The unit of conglomerate Fraser and Neave started in 1998 with 412 units at Fraser Suites Singapore in River Valley and Fraser Place Robertson Walk. It now has more than 15,000 apartments in 44 cities, operating under the brands Fraser Suites, Fraser Residence, Fraser Place, Modena by Fraser and Capri by Fraser.

Uniquely Singapore

OPERATORS say the qualities a Singaporean brand represents were key to their expansion.

The Ascott chief executive Lee Chee Koon, 38, pointed out that "uniquely Singaporean" characteristics like practical problem-solving and efficiency have helped the firm punch above its weight abroad. "If you look at our serviced apartments, we don't invest in excesses; our lobbies are generally quite modest," said Mr Lee.

The firm would rather halve the size of a spacious lobby to create a deli or kindergarten, to generate rental income and create a service for the guests.

This approach has helped it grow its portfolio by 30 per cent since 2010 and to achieve a compound annual growth rate of 6.5 per cent over the same period.

Its revenue for the nine months to Sept30 was up 2.3 per cent from the same period a year ago at $308.7 million.

In fact, the firm's track record has had foreign property owners asking it to manage their apartments, said Mr Lee.

Other local players have also benefited from the Singapore success story.

Mr Choe Peng Sum, 53, chief executive of Frasers Hospitality, notes that foreign investors and guests have confidence in Singapore's standards. "They look at Singapore and see how a small nation can be so efficient and systematic; that's a benefit we see when we fly the flag," he said.

Mr Choe believes the hospitality of Asians has helped set it apart from other operators. Although it is common for hotels to roster more housekeepers on floors with high occupancies, "personalised" room attendants are designated to each floor of Frasers' properties.

"We have guests staying with us for eight to nine years. It's a funny thing - whenever they place things, whether newspapers or books, there's a certain way of doing it," he said. "They can get irritated when different room attendants rearrange their stuff."

Frasers' attendants "know the idiosyncrasies of the guests".

The price is that housekeepers are not efficiently deployed, but it is a standard that Frasers would like to maintain, he said.

Smaller players growing

WHILE The Ascott and Frasers Hospitality have a significant share of the market, smaller players are slowly making their mark in the segment overseas.

Listed developer City Developments, which owns Le Grove and La Residenza here, has apartments in China and the Middle East. The group will open two more properties in Shanghai and Suzhou next year.

Meanwhile, Pan Pacific Hotels Group has added four serviced suites to its portfolio over the past five years, bringing the total number of apartments to 1,006, said chief financial officer Neo Soon Hup. The firm, which owns the Pan Pacific and Park Royal brands, identified China and Bangkok as growth areas, thanks to demand from both overseas and domestic travellers.


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

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