Singapore Tourism Board’s digitalisation drive

Image courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is the leading economic development agency for Singapore’s tourism industry. Seeking to differentiate Singapore as a tourism destination, STB oversees all aspects of tourism in the city-state, including resource allocation and strategic planning.

STB Chief Technology Officer Wong Ming Fai has spent the last several months formulating and aligning technology and digitalisation strategies to promote the country’s tourism industry. One of his latest initiatives is the Tourism Information & Services Hub (TIH), an online portal that gathers information on Singapore’s tourism offerings.

Frontier Enterprise recently talked to Wong about the technology behind TIH, how it helps tourism businesses impacted by the pandemic, STB’s planned technology deployments, and much more.

Could you share a bit about the launch of STB’s TIH digital resource platform? What kind of technologies were used in building it? Was it outsourced or created internally?

TIH is a digital resource platform developed by STB for tourism businesses to access relevant information on Singapore’s tourism offerings and travel software services.

TIH was developed using the Agile software development methodology where the team was able to test the product, and respond to market feedback throughout the development period. It took 10 months to complete, from conceptualisation to its beta release.

This platform gives businesses access to a repository that contains over 4,000 listings and more than 13,000 media assets across 12 categories; as well as plug-and-play services like enhanced navigation 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 programming interfaces (APIs).

TIH was developed based on the RESTful API, where APIs are broken down into multiple independent microservice components. Currently, TIH has more than 150 APIs and uses digital products for its:

  1. API gateway, which aggregates all API services within a unified user interface.
  2. Content management and analytics, which enables STB to reach and engage users across the Web and mobile devices. This includes real-time web and mobile analytics, which gives STB insights into customer behaviour.
  3. Hosting platform, which allows STB to leverage security by monitoring infrastructure services.

TIH has also developed services that rely on artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities such as a recommendation engine and itinerary planner. The recommendation engine provides travellers activity suggestions, based on data such as nationality, location, and profile. The itinerary planner generates customised travel plans based on travellers’ preferences and length of stay.

What were some of the technological challenges that you faced when deploying TIH, especially when integrating it with STB’s legacy systems?

When the idea for TIH was first mooted, there was no precedent for a destination content and services platform of its scope and scale. The two key challenges we faced were:

  1. Establishing a singular standard across Singapore’s destination content. There is a huge breadth of content categories covering our various tourism industries. The team had to examine a wide pool of content to propose a standardised structure on how information such as business addresses, opening hours, images, and videos could be easily and consistently used and displayed by tourism-related websites and mobile applications.
  2. Migration of legacy assets, which did not align with the standardised usage rights. TIH aims to be a platform for businesses to directly connect, access, and share Singapore tourism information and travel software services. STB had, in the past, maintained a repository of images and videos with varying usage rights (e.g. limited geographical use, rights-managed). Time and effort was spent identifying assets that were aligned to TIH usage rights, as well as setting up a process for a seamless transition between the two systems to minimise disruption to our users.

In addition to exposure, how can listing a company’s details in TIH help local tourism businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic stay afloat?

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 partnerships. Some examples on how TIH can help specific tourism players include the following:

  • Attraction operators can share more highlights (such as latest events, images, and show timings) for business partners to use and share to a wider audience.
  • Travel agents and tourist guides can extend the reach and exposure of their tours as a key content component on TIH.
  • Hotels can contribute key information (latest offers, services, and food & beverage events) to enhance awareness of their offerings.
  • App developers can use over 150 APIs on Singapore-related content and travel software services like the recommendation engine.

In support of COVID-19 recovery efforts, STB added a content category for deals on TIH to enable tourism businesses to actively contribute and cross-share deals. Attractions, tour operators, tourist guides, and hotels are encouraged to offer their deals and promotions through TIH to expand their reach.

Are you looking forward to deploying any new technologies for the STB to use in the near future? For example, do you plan to use AI, big data, facial recognition, or augmented reality (AR) in some capacity? If so, please tell us more about them.

We know future travellers will prioritise health and safety above all else, and so we need to use technology to build confidence in Singapore as a safe destination. In addition, with online shopping and virtual meetings becoming the norm, consumers are more accustomed to using technology to experience their world. As such, they have raised their expectations of how tourism companies are deploying technology.

Through the Singapore Tourism Accelerator programme, we are working to identify gaps in the travel and tourism industry, and match them with startups or pre-scaleups that can help develop solutions to future-proof the industry. The objective is to help tourism companies thrive amidst the challenges brought about by COVID-19.

These solutions include AI, data analytics, facial recognition, and AR. To date, the Accelerator has supported 25 start-ups to develop 35 industry solutions across the first three cohorts, which include contactless transactions, enhancing the visitor experience with digital tools, real-time monitoring of tourism establishments to improve crowd management, and technology to raise cleanliness and hygiene standards. For example:

  • As part of their digital transformation, Copthorne King’s Hotels (Millennium Hotels and Resorts) has partnered with WooHoo to bring an in-room voice assistant. Guests can issue voice commands to make phone calls, play in-room entertainment (e.g. music, TV), request for toiletries, place in-room dining orders, and adjust the lighting. The aim is to reduce staff calls by 20%, increase in-room dining by at least 30%, and provide real-time operational insights.
  • Snow City Singapore is piloting a facial recognition ticketing system with local company Facepaz to facilitate contactless ticketing to save time and avoid crowding at ticketing counters.
  • The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore developed an AR art tour for hotel guests, in collaboration with PlattAR, an AR company based in Australia. Likewise, Marina Bay Sands worked with BuzzAR on the development of an AR-driven wayfinding solution that helps visitors within the resort and drive foot traffic to brick-and-mortar retail outlets.

In 2020, we also launched a new AR strategy to seed industry-wide capabilities in a growth area that remains under-appreciated in our sector. We are developing a library of up to 1,000 3D assets over the next three to four years to supplement the current lack of such content in the market, and will make these assets available via TIH without additional charge.

To support the development and deployment of new technologies in the tourism sector, we also launched Tcube, a hybrid innovation space that brings STB’s digital initiatives, resources and content onto a single platform to support our sector’s digital transformation.

You’ve been focusing on digitalisation these past few years. Could you highlight some of the other technology-enabled transformations STB has undergone?

Like most organisations, STB officers have had to adjust to working from home during this period by conducting virtual meetings and work events. Even prior to the pandemic, technology has been second nature to our work – be it leveraging data analytics from the Singapore Tourism Analytics Network (Stan), or using digital platforms and content to engage potential visitors. STB officers are also being trained in Agile and Scrum practices.

Officers are encouraged to keep up-to-date with tech developments and best practices in the marketplace. To that end, we developed the Tech College, a series of technology programmes, talks, and workshops organised by STB. These are open to industry stakeholders and our own officers.

We are also actively developing AI solutions and piloting these with tech companies to make AI ubiquitous and accessible within STB. For example, we are using machine learning techniques (such as neural networks) to improve the way we analyse our data at scale to help inform our strategies. Staff can then access such information and insights through Stan. We are also using AI to improve our operational efficiencies by analysing the feedback from our visitors.