SINGAPORE - The tourism industry must be prepared for a long winter, as international travel could take three to five years to recover even if a vaccine for the coronavirus is developed soon.
But businesses cannot go into hibernation mode if Singapore is to come roaring back as a top destination for high-value tourists when the situation begins to normalise.
This was the stark message from the Singapore Tourism Board's chief executive, Mr Keith Tan, to industry members at a virtual roundtable on Thursday (Sept 24).
"It will take many years, possibly three... to five years for... international visitor arrivals to return to 2019 pre-Covid-19 levels," Mr Tan said.
Echoing the bleak outlook, Association of Singapore Attractions chairman Kevin Cheong urged operators that are barely hanging on to cut their losses.
"If you think the light at the end of the tunnel is around the corner, this is not a corner. It is a huge turnpike," said Dr Cheong.
STB's Mr Tan said the Government will do its best to aid the industry, such as by stimulating local demand through its domestic tourism campaign and spending vouchers.
He also urged firms to develop offerings that can help differentiate Singapore as a travel destination, saying that support will be available to sustain these capabilities.
"We need to be prepared for travellers who are looking for more exclusive, smaller scale or special experiences that are hard to find elsewhere, because we believe that in the years after Covid-19, people will not be travelling so frequently," he said.
Businesses will have to be creative in coming up with new revenue streams in the interim, and some may have to reposition or pivot their business to survive, he noted.
During the two-hour session, industry leaders across sectors such as hotels, retail and attractions spoke about the challenges they face amid the tourist drought and safe distancing restrictions, as well as the need to collaborate and to improve service levels.
Sustained border closures have put the hotel industry here in a "critical financial crisis" as international tourism contributes to about 90 per cent of revenue, said Ms Margaret Heng, executive director of the Singapore Hotel Association.
Beyond staycations, hotels here have been quick to pivot towards other revenue streams, such as private chef services and "workations", where those working remotely can pay to use a hotel's rooms and amenities, Ms Heng noted.
While the pandemic has hastened the adoption of contactless guest touchpoints, it has also led to a surge in demand for soft skills programmes as providing a personal touch will remain key for the hospitality industry, she said.
Better in-store service is also needed if retailers are to give shoppers incentive to visit bricks-and-mortar outlets, said Singapore Retailers Association executive director Rose Tong.
"If a shopper steps into the store and is not well treated and not served, then they might as well shop online," she said.
Retail staff should thus be trained in conversational and soft skills to better engage customers, Ms Tong said.
She noted that some retailers have been managing store traffic amid safe distancing restrictions by allowing customers to visit by appointment only, allowing shoppers to feel safe - and special.
"They're given undivided attention, as though they have a personal concierge and then, hopefully, they're also more likely to make a purchase."
Going forward, retail tenants will also be looking for more flexible lease structures with shorter lease periods and less onerous terms, Ms Tong said.
Locals tend to be lethargic about visiting leisure attractions at home and are generally willing to pay more while overseas, said Dr Cheong from the Association of Singapore Attractions.
Operators will thus have to better study and cater to the local market to convince Singaporeans to spend on ticketed activities, he said.
"The easiest way in the attractions business is research and copy, not research and develop. (But) we need to develop our own unique content, own local stories and really pull at the heartstrings of our guests."
Travel agents may see a resurgence when international travel resumes, with holidaymakers seeking guidance on country requirements and more structured itineraries, said Mr Steven Ler, president of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas).
But the pandemic has also forced operators to relook their business operations, and there is some room for improvement, said Mr Ler.
Going forward, Natas will create more platforms for agents to work together and reduce resource duplication, such as by jointly developing back-end solutions, he said.
There is also scope for cross-sector collaboration, he said, adding: "People that you never thought are possible to work with will potentially be your strength to differentiate your product."
Cinemas will soon be able to up their capacity from 50 patrons per hall to 150 people for larger cinemas and up to 50 per cent of their operating limit for smaller ones. But this is still not enough to cover costs, said Mr Terence Heng, vice-president of Shaw Theatres.
Content is another issue as release dates are pushed back and movie studios release some titles directly to streaming services, he noted.
To boost revenue in the meantime, Shaw launched a pay-per-view service in July, offering access to niche and art house films. It is also expanding its food and beverage offerings and exploring the possibility of home delivery, Mr Heng said.
This year's Orchard Road Christmas light-up will go ahead with scaled-down activities in light of safe distancing regulations, the Orchard Road Business Association said on Thursday. More details are expected early next month.
The association's chairman, Mr Mark Shaw, said that capacity limits have made survival a struggle for businesses designed for much larger crowds at Singapore's premier shopping belt.
But the pandemic presents a good opportunity for Orchard Road to better utilise its street space, he said.
"We really do need to all pull together to make sure that businesses survive even as we retool and as we rethink how we do our business," he said.