THE last time I interviewed Marcus Hanna, general manager of the Fairmont and Swissotel The Stamford, Singapore, we were both masked, his hotels were like ghost towns, with the latter a quarantine hotel (which it stayed as for three years) and he spoke to me about what it was like to manage a “Hotel California” type of situation where guests could not leave their rooms.
Almost 18 months on, we sat across from each other in the very busy Mikuni restaurant in the Fairmont and Hanna is looking decidedly happier as well as lighter, having consciously shed at least 10kg. “I feel better, the hotels are doing better,” he smiled.
Business has come roaring back in Singapore, led by the conferences and meetings sector. With Hong Kong out of action still, events that used to be held in the territory have relocated to Singapore. For example, Jewellery & Gem World, known as “the mother of all fairs”, a Hong Kong staple, will be held at Singapore Expo September 27-30.
And there’s a slew of events lined up for Singapore, including The Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix 2022 from September 30 to October 2, after a two-year hiatus, as well as the Milken Institute Asia Summit, Forbes Global CEO Conference and several crypto events in September, followed by gamescom asia in October, not to mention two Northstar Travel Group events – WiT Singapore (Oct 3-5) as well as the HICAP Hotel Investment conference (Oct 19-21), the latter of which will be held at the Fairmont & Swissotel The Stamford.
According to the latest data from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), hotel rooms in Singapore are now the most expensive in almost a decade. At S$259 ($184) a night, the average hotel room rate in July rose nearly 70% year-on-year to the highest since September 2012.
STB data also shows that visitor arrivals rose for the sixth straight month in July to 726,601, up from 543,733 in June. About four million to six million visitors are expected in 2022. Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Australia and the Philippines were the top five visitor markets, making up 56% of Singapore’s total visitor arrivals in the first half.
The Raffles City Convention Centre which Hanna also manages is humming with back-to-back conferences and incentives from sectors such as consulting, finance, technology and pharmaceutical making a strong comeback.
“If you had asked me six months ago whether we would be seeing this kind of recovery, I would have said no. Business has come back quicker than anticipated, especially the conference business. Companies are getting back together, we are seeing incentives, corporate business has returned but not to the same level but they are staying longer, an extra 1.2 to 1.5 days longer. Leisure guests are also staying longer and they are not doing multi-stops like they used to.”
His three strongest markets are Indonesia, Australia and India. “US and Europe are also recovering well, as well as Malaysia.”
That occupancies are now in the 70s-80s with “significantly higher” rates, even without China and Japan, is a positive sign, said Hanna. “China was 19% of arrivals into Singapore and we thought it would be hard to compensate for that but in our convention centre, our September revenues are higher than pre-Covid.
“It’s a great feeling for the team. This is what we joined the industry for – to make people happy, to create experiences. And the outlook till year end is very strong.”
Getting staff retrained, and introducing tech where possible
With the ramp-up in business comes manpower challenges, of course. “Swissotel was a quarantine hotel for three years. It’s been a few months in the making to get it back. There were times when no one was staying in the hotel, and we had good maintenance, cleaning and sanitising it extremely well.
“We had to retrain the team – they hadn’t checked in guests properly for over two years – to get them confident again in dealing with guests, and not having to wear PPE gear. We had to ramp up the team – we are now 75% of pre-Covid staffing levels.”
While it tried hard to hold on to all staff through the pandemic, it had to do layoffs in October 2020. “We are grateful to the team members that stayed with us throughout Covid. When you join hospitality, you didn’t sign up to wear PPE gear. They showed great resilience and I am proud of them,” said Hanna.
It’s introduced technology wherever it can to ease manpower issues – online check-in and check-out, a robot in the dining reservations system to handle third party bookings, so a reservation from dining app Chope, for example, goes directly into the system without manual input; tablets at the table; and in-room orders through the customer’s own device.
As for contactless ordering and payments in the restaurants, Hanna said, “We are looking into it. I feel people are tired of scanning menus and we’ve gone back to physical menus.”
A farm for all seasons and suites for gamers
Its aquaponics farm, which has won the hotel several sustainability awards, came in handy throughout the pandemic – it was able to act as an online supermarket, selling fresh produce, and supply food for quarantined guests. “And now with prices increasing around the world, the farm makes even more sense in terms of price point and sustainability and quality of product,” said Hanna.
The farm now supplies up to 70% of greens for the hotels and its best-selling item at the Stamford Brasserie is a dish that combines fish and leaves from the farm. “It’s a great story, people find it intriguing that both are grown on-site,” he said.
It also helps with corporate clients whose first question now is, “what else are you doing about sustainability beyond taking out plastic bottles?”
During the pandemic, Hanna also set up a hybrid studio for events but that has since been dismantled “although we can bring it back anytime should a client request for it”.
However, he said, there’s more of a push towards 100% physical events. Holding physical events too has required re-learning from both sides. “From a client perspective, the expectations are higher and there’s a lot more hand-holding because they haven’t organised events for quite a while. Let’s just say, the communications are pretty intensive pre-event these days. But during the events, people are just happy to be back together.”
“Themes” have also been a success story at the property. Its CoComelon at Clove Restaurant is a smash with kids and is constantly booked out, and its Hello Kitty High Tea a sell-out. “I never knew how big Hello Kitty is till now,” laughed Hanna.
To “own the gaming space” in the conference circuit, it struck a partnership with Razer, the global lifestyle brand for gamers, to create what it claims to be the world’s first luxury gaming suites at Fairmont. It transformed three suites into gamer-centric accommodation, complete with Razer’s gaming peripherals.
“After we hosted ONE Esports Dota 2 Singapore Major last year, we thought about what else we could do to own this space – this niche and diverse communities of players in a time when gaming has permeated the mainstream.”
As for all the domestic packages it created during the pandemic – Mancation, Mumcation, Hello Kitty Staycation, you name it – Hanna admitted, “Since the market has opened up, they have not been as relevant. But we will keep them for the school holidays. With the way flight tickets are priced today, I think we will still see a decent staycations business.”
For now, the business has swung back to 90% international as opposed to 100% domestic – the way it should be and just the way Hanna and team like it.