Trade Talk: Arthur Kiong of Far East Hospitality

The CEO of the fast-expanding Singaporean group speaks about its transformation during the pandemic and latest projects both at home and abroad.

All photos courtesy of Far East Hospitality

Far East Hospitality is a Singapore-born company. What particular traits or aspects of its home country is the brand most keen to showcase?

We redefined our position from a mid-tier hotel operator to a curator of lifestyle hotel brands by showcasing genuine Singapore-inspired hospitality. Singapore-inspired hospitality is built based on our four-pronged approach of providing comfort without excess; being attentive but not pretentious; being aesthetic but not ostentatious and being relevant with a touch of elegance.

We complement this by conceptualizing our Brands to fit travelers’ psychographics instead of demographics. This is unique and offers a hospitality that anticipates and addresses the needs of today’s new generation of discerning travelers and their different lifestyle segments. For instance, Quincy is for the non-conformist, while Rendezvous is for the conventional traveler.

These are enhanced with our creation of authentic and experiential staycation packages across various properties such as The Barracks Hotel Sentosa and The Clan Hotel Singapore. This strategy has enabled us to garner exceptional customer rankings and reviews in TripAdvisor, and increase the number of awards for our hotels and serviced residences.

 

You led efforts to transform the image of FEH and diversify its offerings. What were the primary drivers for those dramatic changes?

Our goal is to transform from a local mid-tier hotel operator to a world class operator managing lifestyle brands. And Covid gave us an opportunity to do so.

We were able to, during the pandemic, elevate our staycation packages by creating unique experiences such as exclusive tours, partner with local artisans, and so on. We also had the chance to refurbish and rebrand some properties such as The Elizabeth Hotel and Regency House to Vibe Hotel Singapore Orchard and Adina Serviced Residences.

On top of that, we expanded into new business segments and streams through the opening of The Clan Hotel and Oasia Resort Sentosa and Spa, as well as into new markets such as Australia and Japan.

Internally, we also had the opportunity to undergo job redesign processes. This allowed us to give our employees peace of mind — ensuring them that no one will be replaced due to the rise of technology in the hospitality space. We truly believe having that human touch is still important to create unique and enjoyable guest experiences.

The tiered pool at Village Hotel Sentosa.

Sentosa Island now has a precinct consisting of The Barracks Hotel, The Outpost and Village hotels, and most recently the wellness-oriented Oasia Resort. How did the vision come about and what was the timeline for making it happen?

FEH saw an opportunity to provide a more diverse accommodation option to what Sentosa had at that time. We designed our products to cater to different audiences so there is something for everyone in our Sentosa precinct: for example, Village is for families, The Outpost is for young couples and The Barracks Hotel is for the heritage aficionado.

Then, in 2020, with Oasia, we decided to tap into the wellness segment because post-pandemic, health and wellness would be a key hospitality niche and we wanted to be ready to capture this market segment when the tourism recovery happens. Oasia completes our suite of curated and yet diverse offerings at Sentosa.

At the same time, we also wanted to integrate our hotels’ experiences with what Sentosa has to offer. We felt that with these properties, Sentosa will become more attractive as a destination.

 

As both CEO of FEH and the first Vice President of the Singapore Hotels Association, you steered both through an unprecedented time for the industry. What are some of the key lessons you’ve taken away from the past 2.5 years?

The two key lessons are – firstly, be agile and adaptive, and secondly, be ready to seize opportunities within every crisis. As part of the hotel industry and community, I think it was our responsibility to provide accommodations to support the government during the pandemic. By doing so, it helps to free up hospital beds and not put a stress on Singapore’s healthcare system.

During the pandemic period, I split my team into two teams. Team #1 worked with the government agencies to not only get our hotels ready to be quarantine facilities but also to comply with ever-shifting regulations and needs. To be an isolation hotel, the challenges and protocols are different. Meanwhile, Team #2 focused on those drivers that I’ve shared to transform the Group’s image and diversify its offerings – taking us closer to our goal of being a world class operator managing lifestyle brands.

Chef James Tay at The Clan Hotel Singapore and his signature siphon mushroom tea.

Now that international travel is on the rebound, what are the biggest challenges faced by hospitality businesses today?

It would be the manpower crunch. But it is possible to alleviate the issue by shifting the paradigm in Singapore from mass tourism to quality tourism, when we instill in our employees the importance of creating elevated experiences for our hotel guests.

Just like The Clan Hotel. In that property, we partner with local artisans and craftsmen like chef James Tay, savonnier Chew Jia Tian, and other homegrown talents to create an authentic stay experience for every guest who enters the space. Through this, they can not only receive Singapore-inspired hospitality, but also experience quality tourism.

 

Oasia Hotel Downtown is known for being a green skyscraper. Has it set the blueprint for future FEH properties, especially as we see the accelerating effects of climate change? What sustainability goals are FEH working toward in the medium- and long-term, and which concrete steps are being taken to get there?

FEH aims to lead the way in sustainable hospitality through local community support, reduction of environmental footprints and promotion of sustainable choices. With that, we do have a sustainability framework in place where we look to preserve and strengthen the community and planet by maximizing our positive social impact, excelling in environmental stewardship, and inspiring our guests and people to do the same. This way, we can reduce our environmental impact on our planet.

As for Oasia Hotel Downtown, how we brought the concept of sustainability to life in the building is to work closely with like-minded architects and developers. With their help, we managed to create a space that is incorporated with an ecosystem, like the green façade, that combats the Singapore heat. The green facade is also self-sustainable — it grows and “replaces” the greenery lost in construction exercises around the area.

In 2023, we have plans to extend our sustainability drives to encompass a wider reach, for example by encouraging our guests to participate in these initiatives.

Entering The Barracks Hotel, a boutique heritage property on Sentosa Island.

Last year, FEH entered a strategic alliance with the Indonesian boutique hospitality brand ARTOTEL. What is the scale of the cooperation and what makes ARTOTEL the right partner for FEH?

ARTOTEL Group is one of Indonesia’s leading boutique hospitality and lifestyle groups. It has a wide range of offerings, including integrated hospitality, food and beverage, creative event management, and artsy merchandising.

Under this alliance, we will be collaborating across operations, branding, and training, as well as supporting business growth across markets. This will create strong synergy between us as we recognize that Singapore and Indonesia are key inbound markets for our respective tourism sectors. We are excited to leverage our combined portfolio to appeal to both domestic and regional markets and cater to various types of tourists.

 

Can you tell us about any notable expansion plans elsewhere in Southeast Asia, if not the wider region?

One of FEH’s earlier forays around the region was the joint venture with TOGA Group, one of the top operators in Australia. With this partnership, we were able to bring Quincy to Melbourne, marking the Quincy brand’s first expansion abroad. On top of that, bringing the Adina and Vibe brands from Australia into Singapore.

Elsewhere, we also had the opportunity to expand in Japan with two Village hotels in Tokyo and Yokohama. For the upcoming months, in this post-pandemic world, we are preparing for the full resurgence of tourism arrivals in the second half of 2023. At the same time, we are also looking to do more in Japan and to grow our presence in markets like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Mainland China.

Inside the lobby at Vibe Hotel Singapore Orchard, which opened earlier this month.

Where would you like FEH to be in five- or 10-years’ time?

To strengthen our position as a truly homegrown and yet world-class hospitality group offering different and curated brand experiences with a view to delighting our guests with ‘Far More’ value and benefits.

As an expanding regional hospitality operator, we believe that Singapore’s tourism industry will benefit also by pivoting to quality tourism. As a destination, it would stand Singapore in good stead to compete with the rest of the world based on experience-led hospitality. When we offer relevantly differentiated experiences, we would then be able to attract tourists who value authenticity and do not mind paying for them.

Our goal is to have more capacity for where our customers wish to visit: Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, China, and Indonesia. And continue our path to be creator and manager of lifestyle brands providing experiential stays for our guests.

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