We recently interviewed Rob McIntyre, General Manager, Sales & Marketing, Fairmont Singapore & Swissotel The Stamford to get an insight into the effects of COVID-19 on the Conference and Events Market in Singapore and how they are coping with the ever-changing climate from a hotel perspective.

As one of the leading Conference & Events venues in Singapore – can you give us an indication of how badly your business has been affected by COVID-19? How has your business managed to pivot?

Overall our business has been very flexible in changing our model to maximise the small amount of commercial opportunities that existed during the height of lock-down restrictions in Singapore. From home meal kits for delivery, to contracting long stay accommodation for foreign Malaysian workers to enhancing our digital and contactless capabilities. However, with the bulk of our accommodation and events business coming in from overseas there is only so much you can do whilst borders are still closed.

Are you starting to see some uplift?  From what segments?

The Singapore Tourism Board has been working very hard to get events back up and running in Singapore with a crossover of live and virtual event pilots taking place over the last few months.  With this we are now able to host events up to 250 pax, but there are still a lot of restrictions around how this operationally can take place and for a lot of clients it just won’t work yet.  We would normally host in excess of 150 weddings per year and whilst 2020 has been a washout, that segment is coming back strong as a lot of people have put off their wedding this year and moved it to 2021 and there is new demand as well.

What kind of enquiries are you getting?  How are they different from pre COVID-19 enquiries?

The longer lead international conferences are still very much looking to Singapore for late 2021 and beyond.  I don’t think they are a different style of business than we have hosted before, but certainly a more cautious and longer lead enquiry type.  Singapore has handled COVID very well within Asia and is seen as a safe destination to return to when borders re-open.  So it has not put clients off wanting to come to Asia but rather pushed back their desire and I think in the mid to long term Singapore will come out of this stronger than a number of other Asian destinations.

How do you see the future of your venue?  Will you return to a Conference & Events focus or shift priority onto other segments?

For our 2 Hotels and 14 food and beverage outlets in the short term we need to chase the markets that will be the first to return to Singapore and we see that as more leisure focused.  But we know the success we were enjoying attracting international Conference & Events to the Fairmont Singapore and Swissotel the Stamford and how important they were to contributing to the overall success of the complex and that will not change.

Do you have any of the sales team working at the moment?  How do you go about keeping your team motivated during this time?  Are any of the team working from home? 

We were very lucky to be able to find temporary secondment roles for around 70% of sales team from the beginning of Singapore’s shut down in March.  Initially we foresaw the team all returning to work in October, but as things have carried on a large number have had their secondments extended through into Q1 2021.  This has been fantastic as they have all been able to remain on full pay over this time.  The ones that did remain all worked from home for a period of around 3-4 months and we are now back in the office most of the time.   We communicated with everyone every week either on the phone or via Whatsapp and held little competitions to keep the spirits up.

How do you see the future of the sales team?  Will sales return to normal at some point?  Or be changed forever?

Our sales team numbers have dropped this year with some natural attrition and obviously there is less demand at present, so we will be combining some functions in the mid-term.  We are also trialling new systems that allow clients to book small events and meeting rooms direct on-line, whilst the tech is not new it is now working better with existing hotel systems and also I think the world has made a large on-line shift both mentally and pragmatically during 2020 and this is good time to capitalise on that change of behaviour.  But I don’t think that the role of an effective sales team or sales person will really change, in the events world nothing is standard and you need a good sales person to help a client realise their vision and achieve their outcome for holding an event or meeting.  No pandemic or introduction of new technology will fundamentally change that.

What changes do you see in the future for work practices?  E.g. work from home?

I think we have all learnt what’s possible or as far as options to not be office bound but let’s be honest, find me one person who’s is not sick of Zoom meetings?  But yes I think a lot of organisations will probably look to adapt more flexible work arrangements where possible in the future.

What’s life like in Singapore at the moment?

Well as I am speaking to you I am sitting in quarantine in a hotel room in Auckland as had to shoot home for a quick visit.  But looking out the window and the lucky people not in captivity, the key difference is everyone in Singapore has to wear a mask all the time in public.  Other than some bars and late night venues being closed there is nothing in Singapore that you can’t now do that you couldn’t pre COVID.  Singapore has an amazing track and trace system in place and is now consistently having the lowest new case numbers in the world (yes better even than NZ) so you feel very safe and very grateful to live there during these times.  But it does get pretty claustrophobic and the desire to get out and travel is even stronger when you cannot.

What have you learned about yourself during this global pandemic – professionally?  And personally? 

That my team struggle to understand my Kiwi accent even more over Zoom than in person.  Personally that your kids actually don’t need to be taken away to an amazing resort to keep them happy during school holidays, they are just as happy being at home and having Mum and Dad around more.

Three things you miss about pre COVID-19 times?

1. The opportunity to connect with clients in person and actually get some time with them to understand what they want so you can sell them what they want, rather than seconding guessing a brief and doing some interpreting over a dodgy Zoom call.

2. Travel – Singapore is just so well placed and connected to the rest of Asia, not having the ability to jump on a plane for weekend away is just cruel.

3. Family – whilst I have had to come home for quick visit it is not easy to do so, it’s not that you always want to see your family, you just want to know you can when you want.