When it comes to recovery, fortune favours the bold. In this long read, we compare two destination recovery efforts past and present

Way back in 2003, right in the teeth of the SARS outbreak in Singapore, our trade magazine began to talk to associated partners about a recovery campaign.

The idea was bold yet simple — tell stories that nobody was hearing. We gathered forces with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and leading lights in the inbound travel and events industry, to launch a platform dubbed simply Life in Singapore. I became its News Editor.

The notion behind Life In Singapore? When outside forces are painting the picture of your demise, the best thing to do is to simply to create a factual, unvarnished picture to stand in opposition. One that shows, in bright journalistic fashion, the on-the-ground reality.

As Paul McCartney once famously quipped, “The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. Certainly, nobody was denying the impact of the SARS crisis in Singapore – and nobody downplayed the need for care and caution. Equally though, we as journalists wanted to show that, as it always does in crisis times, life goes on.

To this day, for many of those who remained in the Singapore travel industry long-term, the effort served as something of a calling-card. It eventually won its partners a PATA Gold Award. From a personal perspective, it served as a reminder of how, if harnessed well, times of market correction can be the perfect time to build your runway to recovery.

Be bold and get started

Until SARS, nothing of its kind had grind Singapore inbound to its knees in as stringent a manner as this. The destination at the time was without some of its more iconic marketing muscle – the Jewel, Marina Bay Sands, the Singapore Grand Prix, Resorts World Sentosa and the Gardens by the Bar would all arrive subsequently.

I recall genuinely concerned people asking my boss at the time, Yeoh Siew Hoon, whether we really should be writing about the fact that people were going out, while the destination faced non-urgent travel advisories from the World Health Organization (WHO). Our answer was: “All we should do is write the truth, to give others suitable levels of context to share with partners abroad.” Then let the future take care of itself.

SARS was not COVID

As with this year’s virus alert, SARS had arrived via China’s outbound travellers, and its deadly path had spread around the world. From its first reported deaths in March 2003, Singapore had recommended that people remain indoors if concerned. Yet because SARS was significantly less infectious than COVID-19, there was still a high degree of discretion allowed.

Changi Airport was quieter, but certainly not the ghost town that we see today. And there was nothing then to compare with 2020’s COVID-19 ‘Circuit Breaker’ lockdown in terms of its legal enforcement or sanction of movement.

As such, freedom of movement came down to being responsible. Taking precautions and wearing masks on occasion — especially when travelling through airports and other highly-frequented areas. But domestic business continued.

Eerily quiet

In those days my friends and I were all unmarried, and we loved to dance. At the peak of SARS, it felt at the time like the city became eerily quiet by Singapore standards. Yet nothing was forced to close. Arriving in the original Zouk one Friday night at 11pm, the usual throng of people typically greeting us was replaced by a host of gathered staff. Instead of the often aloof, too-cool-for-school service of peak times, during SARS, Zouk staff shook hands with each of as we arrived, thanking us for our support.

People were similarly cautious about Life In Singapore, our weekly e-newsletter that we launched from the outset of SARS, lasting for around three months of duration. It documented the real picture on the island-state, and the activities and events that took place, and were announced, during that period.

In what I think was our first edition, we wrote about the Rolling Stones concert, which still took its double-night act to Singapore, while cancelling its Hong Kong nights. The talk of the town at the time, was of the racy treatment the Stones delivered, complete with inflatable lips gyrating on our national flag. We were still an innocent city where rock and roll was concerned.

Feeling of Involvement

TravelWeekly didn’t make a huge margin from the campaign. We had all agreed that profit was not the point. Similarly to the way we later helped Sri Lanka after the tsunami, the point had been for us to be doing something, and getting it started fast.

As a young editor-reporter at the time, my experience during this period bonded me to Singapore — a place I’d hitherto experienced more as a constant traveller does. Sure, I loved the airport, the food and the energy of the people I met — great Night Safari, expensive beer. I’ve a ticket out again soon, see you again for the MICE season.

This time though, I got to know the marketing and inbound destination people by first name. During the newsletter time, I took my then girlfriend (now wife) for a birthday stay at Raffles Hotel, writing about how such hand-made experiences, of the kind Joseph Conrad had enjoyed (an in-room butler!) were indeed timeless and virus-proof.

Momentum builds

While initially there was less to report of a big picture nature, Life in Singapore was able to cover the talking and strategizing of an industry: including the widespread planning process under way for an eventual recovery. The government and investors were wisely moving into action mode, aware that for a while, early economic momentum would help fill economic gaps and rice bowls, and create positive headlines early while the bigger picture took its time to improve.

The announcement of the Singapore Flyer project was one such announcement. The STB chief executive at the time, Lim Neo Chian, lived up to his reputation as a military major-general, presenting during the SARS time a calm, assuring yet factual countenance at these types of events — typically staying on to lend more time than he might otherwise to media and industry queries — aware of how important it was to get the facts and figures across correctly.

As momentum built, the atmosphere around the virus steadily improved. Ken Low, then the STB head of brand management, worked tirelessly with the industry to prepare for the reopening notice from the WHO.

For Neo Chian, Ken and team, the early momentum paid off, and as such, the subsequent years would prove ground-shifting for their destination – including the rebranding to “Uniquely Singapore”, and the upswell of national-level investment activity that followed as game-changing projects arrived — many of which are still around (casinos, night races, the Flyer, the Jewel). Other new arrivals, such as Zouk’s arch-rival club Ministry of Sound, came and went.

A running recovery

Fast forward to 2020, and we are in another unprecedented crisis. When I watched last week, Siew Hoon, Vera Lye and team worked tirelessly with supporters like Accor and STB among others to deliver the first ever Web In Travel (WiT) Experience Week.

Again I was reminded again of the power of gathering forces — and of being audacious enough to even talk-up a recovery, at a time when it still feels far-fetched.

The hybrid event, themed ‘Travel Zero.0’, was a first of its kind for Singapore’s travel industry. Part physical, part digital, the physical event was held in a state-of-the-art studio housed in Marina Bay Sands and streamed worldwide, while the first three days were streamed from within the SKAI Suite on Level 69 of Swissôtel The Stamford.

“It felt like a few new beginnings,” wrote Yeoh of the experience. “The beginning of a new WiT, the beginning of something new in events, and the beginning of something in travel.”

The spirit of the activist still burns equally bright inside of Siew Hoon. And travel as a force for change was once again on display — no more so than during the panel on “The Safe Opening of Leisure Green Lanes”.

Reopening routes. This was news in motion, produced by journalists. After months of preparation time, the live panel was a living, breathing example of the mantra that ‘If we want something to happen, we have to start talking about it first’.

Change in motion

As Yeoh described of the panel, “We heard how a consortium led by Expedia Group, with participation by Singapore Airlines and Singapore-owned hotel groups, is working on persuading the Singapore government to open a corridor to Maldives as a pilot.”

Reopening routes. This was news in motion, produced by journalists. After months of preparation time, the live panel was a living, breathing example of the mantra that ‘If we want something to happen, we have to start talking about it first’.

“It detailed the steps that would be taken by all stakeholders to create a bubble within a bubble, facilitated by tech,” she noted. Groups arriving in the Maldives, for instance, would be completely isolated throughout their stay, thanks to careful public-private choreography.

“It showed the thorough logical thinking that had gone into making the process as risk-free as possible so as to make it palatable to governments,” she noted. “The panel’s message — ‘the technology is there, it’s the mindset that needs to be persuaded’”.

Her conclusion?  “Mindsets can be persuaded through rational and logical thinking, and precise execution.” If the pilot works, after careful studies, new corridors to places like Phuket and Bintan could be created in its wake.

Web In Travel’s Yeoh Siew Hoon (right)

Unlock it piece by piece

As with SARS, today’s problems will not be solved overnight. Yet most importantly, an industry that has survived on optimism and domestic business for almost nine months, will at least be delivered some new hope.

“They will by no means save travel in Asia from the coming long winter,” Yeoh cautions. “But it is a start towards unlocking it, piece by piece.”

Because it is where I ‘grew up’ as both a journalist and an editor, I can attest to the fact that there is no group of people to compare to those in travel. Their industry is the most vulnerable to shocks, and will typically be the first to fall.

And yet, travel often the first to sow the green shoots of recovery. Thanks to travel’s ‘early adopter’ markets — those who just have to get on the first plane out – followed by the high volume, lower yield business that typically follows, things may gradually gain a semblance of normality quicker than many currently expect.

Lessons for other sectors

Can other business sectors also learn from recovery efforts like those we saw during SARS, and more recently from Web In Travel? Undoubtedly we can.

Yes, the conditions we face are unique and unprecedented. But thanks to our digital world, our isolation is only physical — the virtual world can and does give us a lifeline to do remarkable things – so long as we join forces and start talking solutions.

As with travel, our passion and levels of fight have not diminished. Nor our capacity for three key traits — unity, creativity and grit — which I believe will be the keys to our eventual recovery.