The role of data and tech in transforming a destination experience

With a background in data and government technology, the new
chief technology officer of the Singapore
Tourism Board
, Wong Ming Fai, is driving an ambitious digital transformation of not only a tourism organization, but also the entire travel industry ecosystem of a nation.

He outlines the comprehensive steps to do this in a recent interview.

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 specializing in machine learning, and their focus was to help
businesses automatically scan the internet for information and extract that
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.

This 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 labor. 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.

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 government tech that draws you? Do you feel you can make a bigger difference
with government tech, particularly, during this time when government 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 organization. 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.

Given your experience with government tech, what role can
government 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 government 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 utilize 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 program 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.

You say your role is “formulating and aligning
technology and digitalization 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 three priorities?

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

  • 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. 
  • 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 catalyze
    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.
  • 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.

Tell us about TCube. Name three 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, programs 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
organized 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 program, 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 with 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 travelers 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.

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
conceptualize 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 three to five 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.

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.

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 organized by STB.

We’ll
be launching a new module on augmented reality and will have more details to
share very soon.

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 prioritize 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 recognize 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 optimize
    resource planning. This has reduced food waste and food costs and
    contributed to environmental sustainability.

This article originally appeared on Web in Travel

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