The role of data and tech in transforming a destination experience: How STB is executing on its vision

WITH a background in data and gov tech, the new chief technology officer of the

WITH a background in data and gov tech, the new chief technology officer of the Singapore Tourism Board, Wong Ming Fai, is driving possibly the most ambitious of digital transformation of not only a tourism organisation but the entire travel industry ecosystem of a nation. He outlines the comprehensive steps to do this in an interview with Yeoh Siew Hoon.

Q: I am
curious, your first job listed in LinkedIn was as programmer for WhizBang!
Labs. Sounds fun. What did you build there? And what lesson did you take from
this experience that has stood you well in your career?

WhizBang! Labs
was a startup founded by university professors specialising in machine
learning, and their focus was to help businesses automatically scan the
Internet for information, and extract those information into structured formats
for easier consumption. One key use case was crawling job advertisement pages
on company websites, and compiling the list of available jobs, including the
job title, the job description, the hiring company and the contact number. These
information could then be put up on a job search website like Monster.com, and
because the process is automated, it saves a significant amount of manual
labour. Machine learning powered much of this work, from picking out relevant
webpages from the sea of information on the Internet, to identifying where to
look on shortlisted pages for relevant information like job title. I was
building part of this machine learning engine during my time there.

My stint at WhizBang! Labs reinforced my passion for data.  I was intrigued by the insights that can be uncovered through data, and the many possibilities that could be achieved through technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. That passion guided my subsequent career choices, and even to my current role at STB, as I was drawn by the many possibilities data can do for the tourism sector.

Wong Ming Fai: “I was intrigued by the insights that can be uncovered through data, and the many possibilities that could be achieved through technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.”(Image credit: Singapore Tourism Board)

Q: Other
than short stints at Oracle Corporation and MIT, you’ve largely been in
government tech – Ministry of Health and Enterprise Singapore where you were
last before joining Singapore Tourism Board. What is it about gov tech that
draws you? Do you feel you can make a bigger difference with gov tech,
particularly, during this time when gov tech has been critical in managing the
pandemic?

I find it meaningful to be
able to pursue my passion in technology, while at the same time contributing to
Singapore’s vision of becoming a smart nation.  When I was with Ministry
of Health Holdings, I worked on the National Electronic Health Records (NEHR)
project. Years later, when my father was in hospital receiving treatment, the
doctor was able to access my father’s medical records even though it was stored
at another hospital, by leveraging on the NEHR. At that moment, I felt a sense
of satisfaction as I experienced the impact of my earlier contribution. I feel
proud of what the Singapore government has achieved on the technology
front, from providing better e-services to the public, to functioning more
productively and effectively as an organisation.  The impact has become
more visible recently through the pandemic, as the public interacted with
technologies like SafeEntry and TraceTogether on a very regular basis.

Q: Given
your experience with gov tech, what
role can gov tech
play in helping Singapore tourism reopen? There’s been a lot of work in
developing travel passes for example – Singapore has a partnership with IATA
Travel Pass – and Temasek’s Affinidi has also developed a travel pass. How can
gov tech in general help with the recovery?

As we reopen Singapore’s borders in a safe
and progressive manner, technology is playing a critical role in enabling a safe
and seamless experience for both locals and visitors.

Apart from developing technologies such as digital certificates for COVID-19 tests and vaccines to enhance the safety of travel, the Government has provided support through grants such as STB’s Business Improvement Fund (BIF) for companies to adopt innovative tech solutions to raise cleanliness and hygiene standards. For example, our hotels have tapped BIF to deploy contactless technology and virtual concierge services that provide a seamless experience and peace-of-mind for guests. We are encouraging hotels to participate in the E-Visitor Authentication (EVA) System initiative, which leverages facial recognition technology to authenticate guests’ identities. Guest data will then be sent to ICA to verify the validity of their stay, eliminating the process of performing manual checks on travel documents.

As mass leisure travel is unlikely to recover quickly, our tourism and lifestyle businesses must continue to find ways to allow consumers to experience Singapore from afar, stay top-of-mind, and build demand for when the market recovers. Companies that are looking for platforms to enhance their marketing can to utilise STB’s Tourism Information & Services Hub (TIH), a one-stop digital resource platform developed by STB for them to access relevant information on Singapore’s tourism offerings and travel software services.

This platform
will give businesses access to a resource depository that contains over 4,000 listings and
more than 13,000 media assets across multiple categories including attractions,
food and beverages, malls and shops, as well as plug-and-play services like a
Recommendation Engine and an Itinerary Planner. Real-time information
updates are pushed to all TIH-linked tourism-related websites and mobile
applications through the use of Application Programme Interfaces (APIs).

With TIH, tourism
players can achieve greater exposure for their products and amplify their
marketing efforts to reach more channels and broaden their consumer base. They
will also be able to connect with other tourism businesses to explore
collaborations and build synergistic partnerships.

Q:. You say
your role is “formulating and aligning technology and digitalisation strategies
to shape a dynamic, vibrant and innovative tourism sector for Singapore”.
Simple statement but a lot to unpack within it –
what are your top 3 priorities?

The top three priorities for STB’s technology transformation strategy are:

1. Creating a seamless end-to-end visitor experience – our vision is to create the One Singapore Experience, adopting a customer-centric mindset that is guided by data to deliver a seamless and immersive experience via technology such as Augmented Reality and smart services.

  • To deliver a seamless experience, we mapped out visitors’ journey to identify friction points and see how to reduce the number of steps visitors have to go through.  We then deliver the seamless visitor experience via a variety of platforms – VisitSingapore.com, Visit Singapore App, Singapore Visitor Centres – and work towards a seamless transition between these platforms.
  • Furthermore, we collect data from different parts of the visitor journey, and use them to understand visitors’ preferences.  With this understanding, we are able to make recommendations to visitors on where to visit, and even propose itineraries for their visits.
  • In addition, we empower our partners to deliver useful content and recommendations through their channels, by integrating their channels with STB’s Tourism Information & Services Hub.
  • To deliver immersive experience, we crafted an Augment Reality Strategy, where we proposed how AR can improve visitors’ experience, and also how we can encourage greater AR adoption for Singapore Tourism. 

2. Transforming Singapore into a living lab for the future of travel – to do that, we need to level up the demand side, i.e. the tourism businesses in Singapore, as well as intervene on the supply side to bring into Singapore cutting edge technology providers.  As such, on the demand side, we catalyse digital transformation through initiatives like Tcube that provide resources for tourism businesses to transform.  On the supply side, we have initiatives like the Singapore Tourism Accelerator to attract tech solutions and talent from around the world to Singapore to power our tourism sector.  We also partner with tech bellwethers like Google and Airbnb to co-create new digital products for tourism.

3. Building tech and data capabilities within STB – finally, we want to promote the wider usage of digital tools and data among STB officers, be it tapping on data analytics from the Singapore Tourism Analytics Network (Stan) to enhance our marketing through consumer insights, or using digital platforms and content to engage potential visitors.

Q: Tell
us about TCube. Name 3 ways in which the travel industry can leverage on its
resources and capabilities. And thus far, what has been the most in-demand
service/product?

STB launched Tcube in April 2021 – a
hybrid innovation space that brings together several of STB’s existing digital
initiatives, with new resources, programmes and thought-leadership content onto
a single platform. Tcube provides easy access all of our digital resources
in one place, to help tourism businesses transform and redesign experiences and
to support their overall digital transformation.

The resources and digital initiatives
available on Tcube are organised under the three-step Learn-Test-Build
framework:

In the immediate term, we want to encourage tourism players to Learn – that is, to understand their current state of digital transformation. To do so, STB launched the Tourism Transformation Index (TXI), a self-diagnostic tool that consists of:

  • A framework that provides a common language for what transformation means to the tourism sector and STB.
  • A self-assessment tool that diagnoses the current state of transformation for a company
  • A report thereafter which provides targeted recommendations to companies.

We also launched Data College, a data analytics e-learning platform that provides training resources for a range of competency levels, from basics in data analytics for those just starting out, to a more technical track as companies level up.’

Tcube then fosters an open innovation environment for tourism businesses to Test by cultivating a community of tourism innovators to testbed world-first innovative solutions through proof-of-concepts and pilots. Through the Singapore Tourism Accelerator programme, we are continuing our support for companies to develop quality solutions and piloting them with our tourism industry players. To date, the Accelerator has supported 25 start-ups to develop 35 industry solutions across the first three cohorts. For example:

  • Wheel the World partnered Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) and Shangri-La Hotel to improve accessibility for customers with disabilities. Through its smart accessibility assessment, recommendations and training, Wheel The World enabled SDC and Shangri-La Hotel to adapt their products and services for the needs of travellers with disabilities and create seamless end-to-end experiences.
  • Copthorne Kings Hotels (Millennium Hotels and Resorts) has partnered with WooHoo® as part of their digital transformation initiatives, to bring in WooHoo X-Series, a next-generation Voice Assistant speaker that improves in-room guest safety and experience. Guests can use their voice-commands to make phone calls, play in-room entertainment like music and TV, request for toiletries, place in-room dining orders and adjust their room experience e.g. control the lighting. The aim is reduce staff calls by 20%, increase in-room dining by at least 30% and provide real-time operational insights.

With Cohort 4 currently in progress, we look forward
to seeing the results of the latest pilots.

Q: Sustainability
is a key goal of the Singapore government and STB’s chief executive Keith Tan
has said that its vision is to position Singapore “as a top sustainable and
innovative urban destination” and it wants to be the “best place to test-bed
sustainable tourism products and experiences”. Is there anything you are
working on currently that you can share? What kind of products and experiences
would fall into this category?

Some of our tourism stakeholders have
already embarked on their respective sustainability journeys. For example,
Sentosa has set the ambitious target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030,
while Wildlife Reserves Singapore has been championing the cause for
environmental sustainability and conservation with initiatives such as the
Mandai Ecological Restoration Plan, and their green procurement
roadmap.

In addition, the Singapore Hotels
Association (SHA) set up a Hotel Sustainability Committee (HSC) last year,
comprising both private and public sector representatives, including the
Singapore Tourism Board (STB), National Environment Agency (NEA) and Singapore
Food Agency (SFA). The HSC will conceptualise solutions and strategies that
bring together sustainability and commercial value, to promote Singapore as a
green accommodation destination. The HSC will also conduct a stocktake of the
current state of sustainability efforts by the hotel industry, in order to
identify possible challenges and opportunities that would lay the foundation
for a robust Sustainability Roadmap for the next
3-5 years. The SHA will be sharing more details on the HSC at a later
date.

Within the Singapore Tourism Accelerator,
we look out for promising companies that are developing solutions to
future-proof the travel and tourism industry and match them with our tourism
companies to bring viable solutions to fruition. In fact, some participating companies
are already developing problem statements to reduce waste, water and energy use
in their properties. For example, local
start-up Lumitics helped Millennium & Copthorne International Limited
reduce food waste and lower costs through their solution which combines AI,
data analytics and image recognition software. For the next Accelerator run, we are
broadening the scope to develop sustainability-related technology solutions. We
welcome companies with innovative technology solutions that can track, monitor
and achieve the sustainability goals of tourism businesses to submit proposals.

Q: How should a travel company that wants to be more sustainable begin its journey? It is said it starts with measuring and tracking – any practical advice you can give?

It starts with a shift in mindset –
Sustainability initiatives could mean more efficient processes, use of
resources and less costs in the long run. Businesses need to think
about how sustainability makes business sense for them, and fits into their own
business processes and models, beyond it being the right thing to do.

Q:
Tech cannot exist without talent – and travel companies have struggled to
compete with tech companies for talent at this time. How can this challenge be addressed?

Our tourism businesses need to redesign
jobs to become ones that would attract tech talent.  To do this well,
businesses need to first understand how technology can help transform
their business, and then articulate a vision compelling to tech talents. 
Our tourism businesses need to keep up with technological trends, and equip
themselves with skills that can help them be more innovative and user-centric.
That’s why we encourage them to learn more about the latest tech
developments and best practices in the marketplace through the Tech College, a series
of technology and innovation-related courses, workshops and
webinars organised by STB. We’ll be launching a new module on Augmented
Reality and will have more details to share very soon.

Q: What’s the most exciting thing happening
in tech/travel tech in general at the moment?

Here are some of the key trends that will have a profound impact on the way people travel and experience tourism offerings:

  • Extended reality (XR) blends the virtual and physical world together, using a combination of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality to create immersive experiences to bridge the online to offline divide. In tourism, this can be done via gamification to deliver information to consumers in a memorable way to enhance customer engagement, drive conversion and promote products. It can also be used to deliver contactless and seamless experiences that prioritise safety amidst Covid. Tourism businesses are already using XR to provide immersive experiences for their guests. For example, virtual fashion festival. The Front Row has pivoted to a hybrid format this year. It will feature a 3D fashion village created in Virtual Reality (VR), and fashion films which deploy Extended Reality (XR) technology to transport fashion models to unique 3D landscapes. To accelerate the use of XR experiences from pre- to post-trip, STB is investing in a library of free-to-use 3D assets for tourism businesses to use. With the advent of 5G, tourism businesses will be able to further push the boundaries for AR and XR with 4K-resolution immersive experiences.
  • Robots can complete menial and repetitive tasks to replicate human actions, and provide data-driven insights acquired from the tasks. Potential use cases in the hotel industry could include house-keeping services. For example,  hotels could use robots to transport soiled linen, room supplies and reduce bottlenecks in room turnover from manual transportation. Robots capable of autonomous movement, such as Service Delivery Robots, can also enhance safety and hygiene by providing services without human interaction.
  • Artificial intelligence allows machines to sense, comprehend and learn so they can work and react as humans do. Applied with machine learning, AI helps recognise patterns and relationships in data sets to provide both real-time and forecasted consumer patterns for business decisions. For example, hotels have used AI to identify food waste to optimise resource planning. This has reduced food waste and food costs, and contributed to environmental sustainability.

Featured image credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon