Riding the tide of change

With the pandemic blurring the lines between digital and physical spaces, Singapore Sports Hub CEO Lionel Yeo shares how the company plans to head into a post-Covid era on the front foot by embracing a “phygital” strategy for hybrid community events

How was your transition from tourism chief into the private sector, and now as you make inroads into sports and events?
I’ve enjoyed tackling new challenges and learning new things at the Singapore Sports Hub (SSH). My experience at the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has also come in useful. In the public sector, the general aim is to create an enabling environment for growth and success, whereas in the private sector, we are (aiming) for that growth and success under serious resource and commercial pressures.

A common thread throughout my roles at SSH, STB and even Grab is the key strategic priority: to maintain relevance in a fast-changing environment, and consistently engage with the internal team and external stakeholders as we navigate change.

What lessons about tourism demand and consumer behaviour glimpsed from your time with STB could translate into your work at SSH?
There are a few similarities in driving tourism demand and running a sports and lifestyle venue. For one, staying attuned to consumer trends by recognising short-term or seasonal preferences and behaviours is the key to staying relevant. For instance, this pandemic has led consumers to shift towards seeking familiarity and predictability. In response, SSH has organised activities that invoke that sense of normalcy that Singaporeans crave during this time.

Technology plays an increasingly important role in both tourism development and venue management. Leveraging key tech innovations is therefore necessary to keep up with the pace of change, improve services, enhance operational efficiency and elevate the customer experience.

What does SSH have planned for the year ahead?
We have plenty of discussions abuzz for the second half of 2021, as we are in the midst of building our events calendar and providing our event partners the support they need. Following the successful execution of safety protocols for Project Dorm – where we provided quarantine facilities for thousands of migrant workers – and ONE Championship in the past year, we have confidence in our ability to hold more live events, particularly in the latter half of this year. We are excited to unveil these to the public in due course.

Being able to support the training of our national athletes is also an important priority and we are glad that we have been able to reopen many of our facilities for this purpose.

For a public-private partnership like the SSH project, success can only be achieved if all partners are aligned and working together.

How do you foresee the concept of massive community and sporting events will change in the post-Covid era, even after the majority of the local population has been vaccinated?
When it is safe again, we will want to gather as social beings to play, celebrate, cheer, bond and form great memories. These are deep human instincts and desires, and the demand for such experiences will always be there. SSH aims to be able to curate and host these experiences through entertainment, sporting and community events.

The safety aspect of events will definitely have to be tightened to ensure that they run smoothly and efficiently. The judicious application of technology can help us here. Hybrid events that combine both the virtual and physical worlds will also likely be prevalent in the post-pandemic world, and event organisers will want to leverage on the strengths of online and physical engagement.

Singapore had its fair share of such “phygital” events in 2020. What lessons have you learned from these activities that can be applied to SSH’s “phygital” events?
A key observation is that standing out from the multitude of phygital events available in the market has become all the more critical. The variety of events available online means patrons can easily switch between virtual events at the last minute. This is behaviour that can impact our business. Therefore, it’s imperative that we are able to engage viewers well enough that they feel strongly about our programmes and events, and stick with them.

The key to keeping patrons engaged with phygital events is to focus on building a sense of community both online and offline, and across the participants on either platforms. Physical meet-ups can supplement the online ones, (while) online engagement allows the community to remain connected even after the physical event. If sustained over a period of time, a community can be even more connected and build even stronger bonds than (with) a pure online or offline experience.

As businesses pivot towards domestic markets now, what considerations do you have to keep in mind when planning events?
First and foremost, safe management measures should be the most important consideration in any event plan. Patrons need to be assured of their safety when attending events. We ensure this by carefully and thoroughly executing safety protocols across various teams. Externally, we also clearly communicate the safety procedures that event attendees must undergo, and manage their expectations of what the new experience will be like.

We also make it a point to be discerning of the type of programmes we organise. As mentioned previously, Singaporeans desire meaningful experiences during these challenging times, which is why we have been focused on activities that matter to our local audiences as well as help drive greater community engagement.

In the near term, we hope to be able to host our usual suite of marquee sporting and entertaining events via careful selection of international acts and sporting events that can be sustained by domestic demand.

What challenges do you foresee awaiting and how might you overcome them?
Balancing commercial ROI with capacity limits is one of the challenges that we foresee. Even in the future, we can expect restrictions on large crowds and gatherings, therefore, tapping into phygital events to draw a larger crowd online is definitely vital. We are working on enhancing these hybrid virtual events to engage with audiences.

We also want to ensure that we hold physical events responsibly and safely, hence, coming up with solutions for crowd monitoring and control will be very important. In order to ensure that all these new processes run smoothly to support the future of events at the SSH, reskilling staff to carry out hybrid events will be a top priority.

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