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Lydia Vasko
Tuesday, Sep 9, 2014

Singapore

Gearing up for a second flight

The Straits Times | Lydia Vasko | Tuesday, Sep 9, 2014

Mention the Singapore Flyer and Ms Yuan Yuan gets a twinkle in her eye.

The Chinese national and Singapore permanent resident, who has been living here since 2004, has taken a ride on the observation wheel three times since it opened in 2008.

"I don't mind going again and again because it holds special memories for me," says the 29-year-old financial executive. She first visited the Flyer on one of her first dates with her boyfriend, whom she will marry at the end of the year. One of her friends also received a wedding proposal in one of the 28 cabins.

She says: "It has amazing views of Singapore too. Going there reminds me of these events. I enjoy it."

Alas, not enough people here feel the same enthusiasm for the attraction, which went into receivership in May last year after suffering declining visitorship, along with mounting debts.

However, it was back in the black this year, says Mr Tim Reid, partner of recovery firm Ferrier Hodgson, which holds the receivership.

It has also been given a new lease of life after Straco Corp bought the Flyer and its retail terminal through its subsidiary Straco Leisure for $140 million last week. The home-grown firm is behind several well- known tourist attractions in China, such as the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium and Underwater World Xiamen.

It is the first Singapore attraction for the company and Straco says it is too early to reveal its plans.

To ensure that the Flyer keeps spinning, tourism, F&B and entertainment industry experts say the new owner has to win the hearts and minds of residents. Of its 1.3 million visitors in 2012, only about 40 per cent were Singaporeans.

Mr Mark Wee, 39, director of experience design at home-grown architecture design and branding firm Ong&Ong, notes: "The building isn't connected to a larger pedestrian or public artery, but is isolated, which removes it from the public's mind and has to be marketed as a destination for tourists instead.

"There is no compelling experience for a local at all, except for the novelty factor of offering a unique vantage point for viewing the city."

He says the place needs a coherent concept such that a ride on the wheel, the retail mix and the service can forge a strong story and experience.

"Imagine if we can redesign the Flyer as the most romantic activity in Singapore. Or what if the Flyer experience was so amazing and emotional in showcasing the making of Singapore through our skyline that every Singaporean would be so proud to take their overseas friends there?" he suggests.

"Then the Flyer could foster national pride. That's a much deeper impact than banking on a restaurant, shop, nightclub or colourful ferris wheel."

The 165m-tall Flyer opened to much fanfare as the world's highest observation wheel then. It held the title until March this year, when the 167.6m-tall High Roller observation wheel was unveiled in Las Vegas. This, too, will be surpassed by the 210m-tall Dubai Eye when it opens in the emirate in 2016.

In any case, the Flyer is not the only place where visitors can admire the Singapore skyline. Marina Bay Sands' Sky Park and bar-restaurants such as Ku De Ta, 1-Altitude and Level33 are all competitors which have sprung up across the bay since the Flyer opened.

Experts say competition and poor marketing contributed to its struggle to pull in local crowds, though it has been rated one of the top paid attractions here among tourists - behind integrated resorts Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa, and Sentosa - since it opened.

It is the retail terminal below that is problematic, says Mr Kevin Cheong, chairman of the Association of Singapore Attractions. Besides the Singapore Flyer, the building houses about 25 shops and eateries, with activities such as a flight simulator and a fish spa.

Besides a 1960s-themed food court with about 10 stalls, including those selling Old Airport Road Satay Bee Hoon and Ang Mo Kio Yong Heng Friend Baby Squid Hokkien Mee, dining options at the Flyer are limited to Seafood Paradise restaurant, Bayview Tandoor Indian restaurant, Popeyes Louisiana Chicken, Subway, O'Leary's Sports Bar & Grill, and Ya Kun Kaya Toast.

Mr Cheong says: "The retail terminal has struggled to be an attractive and compelling destination. The previous and current tenant mix may not have taken into account how a visitor might be attracted to stay for more than four to five hours. There is very little to do there."

He says Straco must be clear about its target audience and cater to them in terms of shops and activities. Designing day and night activities pitched at different market segments or themes would help too.

Mr Cheong says: "What is the compelling story for the Flyer as an attraction? Why must someone visit it or take a ride?"

The location, about a 15-minute unsheltered walk from other landmarks in the area such as Marina Bay Sands, also deters walk-in traffic.

Ms Yuan says she would visit the Flyer more often if there is more to do in the vicinity.

"When I spend 15 to 20 minutes walking over from Marina Bay Sands and the only thing I can do is get on the Flyer as there is no good food or shopping around, it is too boring. People would rather take pictures of the Flyer from afar than ride it," she observes.

Likewise, risk management executive Jane Liu, 31, doubts her family will return even though they enjoyed the scenery when they went for their first spin in March.

"It was something to do as a family, but it was a one-time experience because the view will always be the same. We did not see anything interesting in the mall and when we went to the food court for dinner, the food was below expectations," says the Singapore permanent resident from China who is married to a Singaporean.

A tour on the Flyer costs $33 for an adult and $21 for a child aged three to 12.

Ms Liu would consider returning if there were promotions, such as cheaper tickets packaged with meals, or more family-friendly activities such as a carnival on the premises.

A quarterly carnival with games and varying themes would also appeal to Singaporean Chua Ming Xiong. The 28-year-old corporate relationship manager, who has never been to the Flyer, says he prefers to view the Singapore skyline from other more accessible vantage points.

"There are lots of bars and restaurants around Marina Bay where one can eat, drink and hang out without having to pay just for the view," he says.

He adds that "generic" restaurants at the Flyer, such as Popeyes, do not attract him.

Fast-food outlet Popeyes has struggled at the Singapore Flyer location since 2011, when its business dropped by 50 per cent after the 1960s-themed food court opened a stone's throw away.

The 4,500 sq ft outlet now sees about 130 customers a day during the week and roughly 200 customers on weekends, down from about 240 and more than 300 customers respectively in the past.

"We are losing money there," says Mr Parmod Verma, 52, regional general manager of Select Service Partner Singapore, which represents and runs F&B chains around the world including Popeyes at the Flyer and Changi Airport. Its other brand, O'Leary's Sports Bar & Grill, which is also located at the Flyer, is bleeding too.

To survive, tenants of the retail terminal say they have to draw more locals, especially families, and get them to view the Flyer as a shopping and dining destination, not just a place for a ferris wheel ride.

"Right now, the main people who are coming to the Flyer are tourists," says Mr Verma. "They take a bus, their tickets are pre-purchased by a travel agent, they go up, take the ride, then go to Gardens by the Bay for a two-hour tour and have a meal there. We are losing that business."

He adds that the company is staying on because it does not want to lose what it regards as a strategic location in the Marina Bay area.

It will wait to talk to Straco Leisure. "I want to see what the new owner's vision is and how we can be a part of it. The Flyer has to have a big marketing revamp and campaign, but that's not only the landlord's responsibility. We can also help bring in people," he says.

vlydia@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Sep 7, 2014.
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