Exclusive: Inside Singapore's plans for predictive tourism

Interview with Quek Choon Yang, Chief Technology Officer, Singapore Tourism Board.

It’s the weekend and you want to do something fun. Your smartphone could predict what you would like to do before even you can make up your mind. This idea is suggestive of Singapore’s vision to predict and customise experiences for tourists. “Why can’t the technology understand your preferences based on your past interactions and available events, and predict what you like?,” asks Quek Choon Yang, Chief Technology Officer of the Singapore Tourism Board. The island state has to compete against more affordable holiday destinations in the region to draw visitors. Tourism is picking up after two years of negative growth, Quek says. The city is safer than others in the region, and the government has been targeting visitors from Chinese cities. “We have been doing a lot of work in market activations,” he says. The city’s tourism industry must now cope with digital disruption. Fewer visitors buy guide books, and most prefer to book and research online, like on TripAdvisor or AirBnB. “The question then is how do we continue to build a very good immersive experience for visitors,” Quek says. Central data hub There are three key priorities for Quek, and analytics tops the list. “Data is particularly important because it helps us understand the needs of our visitors better,” he says. The tourism agency has set up a new predictive analytics unit. One of their first tasks is to build a “central area where we can collect and process the data to get insights”, Quek says. [blockquote]“Data is particularly important because it helps us understand the needs of our visitors better."[/blockquote] The tourism data hub will pull together information from different sources to create a full picture of where visitors come from and what they like to do. “It gives a little bit of a heads up about the future demand that’s coming our way,” Quek says. For example, forward bookings from airlines together with data from hotels could allow the city to predict room availability. The unit also looks at social media and travel blogs to understand feedback from tourists. It looks for patterns in tourist habits during their stay. “What we are looking for are the major trends: Are people preferring certain types of activities or food?,” he says. A giant content system A second priority for STB is to push out content quicker. Typically, tourism marketing would have to be prepared months in advance. STB is building a “giant content management system” that will help hotels and attractions publish content in real-time across the world. The new tourism information services hub will help businesses be more agile, Quek believes. If a business is not doing well, it could launch an event or promotion within a week. “Under today’s process, this is impossible because you could never get the content out in time,” he says. But with the new system, “it will be immediately updated in everybody's systems”. Third, STB is building an app to deliver information and alerts to visitors in Singapore. “Mobile is now the key channel through which people get their content and services,” Quek says. “It is a bit of a test lab for us to try out new ideas and concepts around how people like to receive information and services”, he adds. Tech Exploration The Tourism Board is looking beyond digital and apps to new technologies that can be used in the sector. It has set up a department called Tech Exploration - TX for short. “Their job really is to try out new interesting technologies that are at the horizon or a little beyond,” Quek says. The team is currently exploring chatbots. “We are looking at whether we could use some of these types of technologies to get very basic simple queries answered”, he says. STB expects that chatbots will be more popular among younger tourists. Another area being tested is IOT for personalisation. “When you walk into a hotel room, can it remember that your favourite air conditioning temperature is 23 degrees celsius?”, Quek suggests. Other areas on the team’s radar are mobile payments, near field communications, voice activated solutions, augmented reality and integration with chat apps. The team must ensure that new technologies are ready for widespread use. It uses three principles to judge this: there must be a sufficient number of companies to develop and support it; it must be proven and work as it is advertised; and there should be good use cases and stakeholders willing to adopt it. Hotels in Singapore are also using robots in customer-facing roles, like for room delivery. For example, Park Avenue Rochester Hotel is using Techi robots (video embedded above) in a project partially funded by STB. The tech has passed TX's litmus test, Quek says: "We would consider it at the early stages of going into mainstream." Support for small businesses “The travel and tourism trade has not adopted new technologies as quickly as other segments of the economy,” Quek believes. STB must support businesses by sharing its findings, and help them develop capabilities. “A lot of these capabilities that we are talking about are fairly expensive to acquire on your own”, he says. [blockquote]“The travel and tourism trade has not adopted new technologies as quickly as other segments of the economy."[/blockquote] Tourism businesses will be able to access STB’s analytics and content platforms through APIs. “That’s going to be available for anyone - whether you're in Singapore or outside - to build in order to deliver experiences about Singapore,” he says. For example, travel agencies would get access to the tourism data hub to better understand visitors’ preferences. “It might be prohibitively expensive for a small business to hire a data scientist,” he says. “What we want to do is then let us take care of the bulk of that, and share those insights with you.” This will allow them to better package attractions and customise tours to their needs. Quek himself has not been afraid to embrace new things. In his first job, he helped build Singapore’s e-citizen centre - one of the earliest examples of electronic public services grouped with citizens’ needs in mind. In STB, his role has been to shift mindsets about disruption and new ideas. “It’s about embracing change, rather than being defensive about it,” he says. “Not all disruptions are bad. Some of them can be good, and in the longer term maybe even extremely beneficial to us.” Holidays are a time to relax and have fun. But ensuring that people have a good time is serious business.