Grace Yeoh, Goh Chiew Tong & Anne-Marie Lim
SINGAPORE (CNA) – At the start of this year, Byron Koh discovered that rock bottom had a basement.
While Singapore was barely beginning to brace itself for the impact of COVID-19, he knew things were heading south when clients started calling him in early February to cancel tours here that were booked under his travel start-up, Lion Heartlanders.
In one day, he lost SGD20,000 in sales. “For a small company, that’s a significant amount. To have that wiped out in one day was when it got real for me,” the 33-year-old said.
Desperate to salvage the situation, he encouraged clients to postpone rather than cancel their tours. Most agreed, but ended up cancelling owing to the unpredictable situation.
The worst was yet to come. By April, he had bled more than half of the company’s remaining resources since January, and he had already stopped paying himself a salary.
He was forced to have “painful conversations” with his freelance tour guides, even as many of them were “encouraging” and “understanding”.
“I promised them that for all the jobs that were postponed instead of cancelled, the guides would have first priority for any future jobs, because I owe them a job or a tour,” he said.
That promise has remained his compass in a troubled tourism landscape. Today, with a creative pivot plus a little help from job-saving schemes, he has not only picked himself up but has even created more jobs than before.
And he is not yet done with overturning the odds.
This year was supposed to be one for the books for the director of Lion Heartlanders, which Byron founded last year.
In January, he had secured enough sales to be on track to hit, by June, the equivalent of 2019’s full-year sales targets.
But when COVID-19 blindsided him, he experienced a “100 per cent drop in sales”. He just about managed to pay his two full-time staff for the next half a year.
He was not the only one who suffered a massive blow. International arrivals plummeted from 1.69 million in January to 8,912 in August, after last year’s record 19.1 million visitors and tourism receipts amounting to SGD27.7 billion.
Despite this, the former Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) officer never regretted leaving to start his own venture.
In the RSAF, his portfolio had included designing National Education programmes for his men. Starting Lion Heartlanders was, in his opinion, the best way he could help more Singaporeans know more about, and better connect with, their country.
For example, his Melting Pot of Tea tour was a way for people to appreciate Singapore’s different heritages through a common beverage, with tea blending sessions, food tasting and cultural commentary.
Amid a pandemic, however, he was relegated to the confines of Zoom meetings, unable to “stand in front of an audience of 450, tell them what’s going to happen, and prepare them for the surprises coming up” on the tour.
It soon seemed that he would have to face his fear of shutting down his company and being unable to find another job.
The 75-per-cent salary subsidy for local employees in the tourism sector, under the Jobs Support Scheme, was keeping Lion Heartlanders alive. But it was only in late April, as this financial support was extended to company directors, when Byron saw a sign of hope.
Afforded a personal lifeline, he began to explore the different sorts of stay-at-home travel experiences there were.
These included platforms like Airbnb Online Experiences, which introduced people to varied aspects of a country or culture.
Despite the novelty and its apparent success, Byron was initially sceptical. “To attend a tour online, you need to be either really interested in that topic or the person has to be very entertaining. It’s not easy to sustain someone’s attention for a long period,” he explained.
“I didn’t see doing a tour to be the same as watching a show. We can watch a movie for two hours, but can you really follow a person around a city for two hours? It’s totally different.”
Realising that being cynical or close-minded did not help, however, he decided to find a way to “bring the outside to people”. He approached Monster Day Tours founder Suen Tat Yam to attempt to break into the virtual experience market.
Despite being competitors, the partnership was symbiotic from the start: Lion Heartlanders had an existing connection with the local market, while Monster Day Tours had been focussed on the overseas market, with “young and energetic” tour guides.
While most virtual experiences comprised self-guided tours or pre-recorded videos, the pair’s unique selling point involved placing a person live on site.
“When the guide shows you something, and you want to see it again, you can have the guide go back and show you that component of the tour again,” said Byron.
“Or, there could be things happening on the ground, like the guide can interact with the people around.”
He recalled conducting a virtual learning journey in Fort Canning Park for a primary school. At the archaeological excavation site, he talked about the porcelain pieces and asked the children whether they had something similar at home.
“One of the girls ran to the cupboard and took out a porcelain plate. She waved it in front of the camera, trying to show us that she had a porcelain plate,” he said.
While focussed on enabling such engagement in classrooms, Byron and Tat Yam had to first consider the logistics for a smooth learning journey.
First, they ensure there is a live stream from the tour site. A technical team keeps this running, as a virtual tour effectively collapses with technical difficulties.
Second, there is a host in the classroom to connect the audience and the tour guide.
Finally, there should be a corresponding activity in the classroom. A virtual tour of Little India, for example, could include individually packed spices that pupils can smell and touch.
These tours could also make teachers’ lives easier in these times.
“The students are in a safe environment and a familiar setting. All I have to ensure is … a Zoom or some online set-up for the students,” said teacher Anisia Teng from Frontier Primary School, which works with Byron and Tat Yam.
“We don’t need to charter buses, go down to the venue and do a recce on site, or get a parent volunteer or the help of many teachers to accompany the students.”
Apart from convenience, virtual tours allow students to explore places beyond Singapore.
“We’re bringing our students on a virtual tour in Wakayama, Japan, next week. They’ll get to go on the tour with a guide in Japan and even experience the sights and sounds,” she said.
“In reality, it would be quite impossible to bring the entire group of 131 students to Japan.”
She believes virtual tours should continue, regardless of travel bubbles. If all goes well, her pupils might be virtually visiting another country next year.
It is a pivot that has allowed Byron to recover the SGD20,000 he lost nine months ago.
“We’ve made it back already and more. We were booked up for October, so the forecast looks pretty decent,” he said.
Moreover, he has expanded his team and hopes to do even more by the year end — a notion he might have found incredulous earlier.
In September, with the wage support from the government, he converted one freelancer into a full-time employee. This month, he did likewise for freelancer Basirun Mansor, now a full-time virtual tour manager.
Like Byron, the 29-year-old had to adapt his skills to the digital space. In person, with energy from a crowd, he could go with the flow, but a script is essential now.
Byron has also hired another person, under the SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programme, to grow his sales and marketing team. The programme worked in his favour because he didn’t need someone with experience in tourism or sales.
“I was confident that I could train this person to represent our company, and our products are not too complicated,” he said. He gets a government subsidy of 80 per cent of the training allowance.
Initially, he was concerned that he could only support the three new hires’ salaries until March, when the Jobs Support Scheme would end. But “that’s where the Jobs Growth Incentive comes in”.
The scheme, under which the government co-pays part of the wages of a new hire for 12 months, will help ensure he can keep them on for the longer term, he said.