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‘Many people are stuck in the old idea of Sentosa being inaccessible’

Singapore Island’s own little “State of Fun” Sentosa wasn’t always known by a name that depicted peace and tranquillity. The island was formerly known as Pulau Blakang Mati, which in Malay means the “Island of Death from Behind”.

However, as Singapore found its independence and the 1970s rolled around, the government decided to develop the island into a holiday resort for local visitors and tourists. Cable cars were built, monorails were added, and the tourists and locals came pouring in.

Over the years, the island added on more lavish and exciting attractions. In its glory days, Sentosa, for both locals and tourists, became synonymous with Singapore and the holiday season. Today, the island plays host to resorts, casinos, beaches, marinas and a myriad of theme parks and attractions.

However, as outbound travel became more affordable and locals started having more disposable income, travel out of Singapore also increased. Locals looked outwards in their hunt for the next big experience and much like the other attractions in the city-state, the island’s favourite playground saw visitorship slide.

To counter this growing phenomenon, strengthen the island’s competitive edge and of course, position it as a leading leisure destination, Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) introduced a re-organisation of its functions to establish stronger operational efficiencies and build “future-ready” capabilities.

“We wanted to find a way to make the island the locals’ favourite playground again,” Lynette Ang, CMO of Sentosa, told Marketing.

Ang, now nine months into the role, was brought in from NTUC Enterprise to oversee the island’s efforts to transform “The State of Fun” into a more vibrant destination that appeals to locals and tourists alike.

With her spearheading marketing for the resort island, SDC brought together the branding and communications, sales and marketing, business promotions, events and programming as well as guest services functions for more cohesion.

“With all of us under the same roof, being in the same group, we think about each other’s roles a bit more,” she said.

“Whatever the brand promises, the entire chain from sales all the way to PR, events and programming, and guest experience and destination marketing has to deliver.

“Having the entire chain under one roof also makes it easier to synergise and create a single direction which is delivered upon.”

Modernising Sentosa

Modernising Sentosa is definitely an area the organisation is looking at seriously. Nonetheless, the road is not one without bumps. To keep up with the changing times, SDC set up a digital transformation steering committee last year, which now evaluates all of the new technology being pitched to the company.

The committee decides on the kinds of technology to incorporate to ultimately lead to a better guest experience. She said:

People always talk about big data and technology. For us, it is important to have technology not just for the sake of it, but to help sharpen our targeting, strategise and make data-driven decisions.

She adds that because the island has numerous retail partners it is an uphill task to implement new technology and the segmentation of data, despite having numerous touch-points.

As such, Ang said the island is still “at an infant stage” where it is looking at different ways to make sense of the data it has collected. To propel this journey forward, SDC also hired a chief information officer to help create data-driven change for the organisation.

“We are very different from the likes of Disney where everything in the theme park is owned by them. For us, it is not owned by Sentosa, but rather our partners,” she said.

“We need to work with our partners to see if their systems can handle new technology and if the right processes are in place. So, implementation does take a longer time.”

As such, the island currently works in phases to implement new technology. Nonetheless, keeping up with speed of change, she said, is always a challenge.

When asked if cost of implementation was an issue for a big organisation such as SDC, Ang said that while it is easy to blame the lack of change on cost and budget, mindsets play a bigger role.

“We have to be aware and in tune. What is heartening is that our island partners know that to survive we have to adapt. That comforts me. We shouldn’t be constantly pushing them, they should recognise it,” she said.

She adds that businesses only thrive because they are driven to change. “The sooner you recognise this, the faster you adapt. Otherwise you can expect the same fate as the likes of Nokia and Kodak. At the end of the day, success breeds success. We want the island to survive and thrive.”

Finding the right balance

And while data is important, Ang believes that her early years at Unilever and Coca-Cola have taught her that marketing is all about the right balance of science and art. As such, gut feel still has an important role to play in creativity and marketing.

“For a good marketer you need to have a strong gut feel on what will connect. See yourself through the eyes of the consumers to understand what will connect with them. Creative ideas also requires guts, so that is something data will never replace,” she said.

When asked about how Ang and her team use creativity to rejuvenate the island, she admits that some attractions are challenging and can take a longer time to be “rejuvenated” because of the leases in place.

However, Ang and her team are now focused on creating unique events and experiences which can be executed fairly quickly to bring back some buzz to the island.

For example, in September this year the island created an event called “Sentosa Sandsation”, where it created larger than life sand sculptures spread over 2,400 square metres of exhibition space on Siloso Beach.

There were 15 three-dimensional sculptures inspired by local culture, quirks and colloquial slangs spread across the beach for 17 days.

Altogether, the execution attracted more than 100,000 guests. Meanwhile, earlier this year, Sentosa hosted its first grill fest by the Siloso beach for two weekends, which looked to draw in families with children and working adults, and of course, Singaporean foodies. The entire event attracted more than 15,000 guests.

Ang said in both instances, the team was “pleased with the results” and going forward, she hopes to promote more of the over 120 F&B outlets spread across the island.

“We want to position the island as a place for unique F&B experiences as consumers are moving towards these. Where else would you have such experiences of eating by the marina or with your feet in the sand? Nowhere else in Singapore. We want to use the properties we have and make the experience differentiated.”

Worries on digital

Currently, to promote these events and footfall onto the island, Ang and her team split the advertising dollars across mediums such as digital, OOH and print.

Advertising, she said, is still an important lever for the organisation to drive perception change. She adds that a significant number of Singaporeans haven’t had a recent encounter at Sentosa because they have an age-old perception that Sentosa is hard to access and travel into.

“Many people are stuck in the old idea of Sentosa being inaccessible. If you want to change their perception, advertising still plays a big role and mass advertising is needed,” she said.

In most of its campaigns, there is a combination of mass traditional advertising and digital. While the split varies across campaigns, it is safe to say, about 50% of Sentosa’s ad spend is on digital.

Ang shares that while digital is great for a targeted reach, with so much of Sentosa’s ad dollars on digital, ad fraud and transparency is an issue she is constantly on the look out for. She said:

There is so much fragmentation on digital and since we spend so much money on digital, this is amplified for us. How do I know that the numbers my agency gives me are real?

She added that even media agencies are struggling to catch up to the changes in digital.

“It is so hard to track what we are buying on digital. I feel strongly that there is very little transparency on digital, and now, there are consultants who say they can help us make sense of where the money is going to and what it is being spent on. This has caused an entire new industry to rise.”

As such, Ang makes it a personal agenda to read up, educate herself and remain vigilant in the face of disruption.

“At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be insular. You need to challenge yourself to think of new ways of covering things.

“And I think, since I am addicted to Netfl ix, that if I can make time for Netfl ix shows, I can certainly make time to read up and learn.”