[email protected]: Singapore’s Bizarre New Business Travel Concept

Filed Under: Singapore

Singapore is reopening its borders to business travelers… kinda sorta. I’m sure this concept will become fairly popular, but to me this is just the saddest version of business travel that there ever was, and it also raises some questions about how long Singapore plans to keep its borders closed.

[email protected] brings back “safe” business travel

Singapore’s borders have been closed for nearly a year now due to the coronavirus pandemic, and there are no signs of that changing anytime soon. The country is a business hub, though, and has just introduced a concept intended to bring back business travel in some form.

[email protected] is a new facility at Singapore EXPO that allows people from around the world to have face-to-face business meetings with residents of Singapore, minus the risk. Think of it as a Singaporean business travel bubble.

[email protected] exterior

The facility opened this week, and initially features 150 guest rooms and 40 meeting rooms, with the rooms being able to accommodate anywhere from four to 22 people.

[email protected] reception

How does the [email protected] concept work?

  • Business travelers from around the world can apply for the SafeTravel Pass under the [email protected] scheme, so that they can conduct in-person business meetings with companies in Singapore
  • When the foreigner lands at Changi Airport, they will be driven directly to the [email protected] facility, and won’t be allowed to leave until they return to the airport
  • Travelers will need a pre-travel negative COVID-19 test, then they’ll need another COVID-19 test upon arrival (and will have to stay in their room until the results are in), and then depending on the length of stay will have to get tested again on days three, seven, and 14
  • Foreign business travelers will be completely isolated, and will have three meals a day delivered to their rooms, though there are some amenities, like gym pods (which only one person can use at a time)
  • Then travelers can conduct in-person business meetings with locals in conference rooms, though there are air-tight glass panels separating people on both sides; there are different entrances and exits, different ventilation systems, and if documents have to be signed they will be sanitized before being transfered between sides

[email protected] public areas

[email protected] guest room

[email protected] meeting rooms

[email protected] meeting rooms

For those wondering, rates for this seem to start at ~410 SGD (~309 USD) per night, and that includes three meals per day, roundtrip airport transfers, a minibar, and much more.

Singapore thinks this is “the new normal”

I’m kind of at a loss of words about this whole concept, and I don’t even know what to make of it:

  • On the one hand, isn’t this the point at which we just accept that video conferencing is the way to go, because it’s not like you can even network or enjoy a meal with someone?
  • At the same time, for cultures and businesses where in-person relationship building has been important, I could see this being used to some degree, even if I don’t personally see merit to it
  • The whole concept just seems so ridiculous to me, since you’re basically traveling to a bubble that’s not much different than what’s possible with high-tech video conferencing

The other thing I find interesting here is that this is only the start of this concept for Singapore. This facility will continue to expand, and by the end of 2021 Singapore hopes that this facility will be able to host 1,300 travelers at a time.

In other words, Singapore doesn’t view this as a temporary solution. In a promotional video about the facility, it’s stated that “Singapore is paving the way forward for business executives all around the world to meet again,” and that this is “designed for the new normal.”

While I never expected Singapore to be among the first countries to reopen its borders, I can’t help but wonder what exactly the country’s plan is? Keep in mind that to even access this “business bubble” you need to get tested before travel, get tested upon arrival, and get tested again on your third day. And that doesn’t even get you access to the country beyond this facility.

Obviously vaccine rollout differs significantly around the world. Here in the US, many of us are hopeful that life can mostly start to return to normal this summer (with some adjustments, of course). Personally I think that’s realistic. But when you see a country opening these business travel bubble hotel rooms in late 2021 and calling this “the new normal,” you can’t help but wonder…

Bottom line

[email protected] is a new business travel facility in Singapore that allows people to conduct in-person business meetings. The issue is that in reality it’s somewhere between an in-person meeting and a virtual meeting, in the sense that you’ll only be able to interact with others through an air-tight glass shield in a board room.

What I find much more interesting is that Singapore doesn’t even view this as a temporary solution, but rather as a new normal for conducting business.

What do you make of the [email protected] concept, and of Singapore’s view that this is the new normal?

(Tip of the hat to Curtis)

  1. I don’t do any business in Singapore, but their marketing video with epic music does make me want to travel and do business in Singapore

  2. A trade association of which I am a member believes we will be holding our 2022 meeting in Singapore in April of that year. (2020 was supposed to be there, but was cancelled.) I guess whatever group runs the Singapore convention center believes things will be back to normal (at least the “new” normal) to have ~15000 people at a conference.

  3. There are some predictions that full vaccination globally could take between 3 and 8 years depending on mutations, new variants, vaccine supply, anti-vaxxer misinformation spurring vaccine hesitancy and whether people would need to be vaccinated more than once/annually. This facility is giving Singaporean businesses an opportunity to connect “in-person” and continue to build relationships while it plays out. When the time comes, you rip out the glass dividers, add a few restaurants and you have a “business resort”/conference centre with an established client list.

  4. Virtual meetings will be the norm. This would probably be useful for some very unique situations- ie board meetings, signing meetings that sometimes require physical presence legally.

  5. Wow new normal huh

    Once hopefully the pandemic mostly ends with widespread vaccinations I can see such facilities having to “invest” again to convert them to normal hotels, or perhaps it would be just a matter of removing those conference room glass barriers!

  6. This is ridiculous. Many people need to travel for business not just for the F2F meetings but for functional purposes such as visiting factories, real estate walk-throughs, IT projects that require an onsite presence, etc. I can’t do any of that from a glass box in the airport.
    I’ve had both vaccines, I’ll agree to 14 tests before, during, and after my trip, but please open the borders. We can do this responsibly!

  7. I work for a Singaporean company in financial services and we’ll have a very limited use for this for some transactions where in person signing will be better for legal / cultural reasons (e.g. multi-million dollar contracts) but otherwise I agree, no way we’ll be hosting workshops or similar in the meeting rooms as it doesn’t offer much more than VC does whilst being a big hassle / cost / pretty miserable for foreigners attending!

    It is an indicator of Singapores expectation of border restrictions being long term in some form for sure which is sad – I can’t wait to get back but don’t see it happening until at least next year. Whether the long term damage will be worth being “COVID zero” for these countries we shall see…

  8. I completely agree with Ben here. This is a bad sign of things to come in Singapore and likely many of those in the Australasian region.

    I hope this is not the way of the future and I agree it’s ridiculous, but at the same time – it feels like these types of actions are happening everywhere which is very sad about what the future holds.

  9. It looks like visiting someone in prison. Do you each pick up a landline telephone to talk to each other through the glass?

    I don’t think business travellers will even want to go on these trips if they’re locked up the whole time. So much easier, quicker and cheaper to do it by video instead.

    A low res laptop camera in your bedroom isn’t ideal but I can see office video conferencing set-ups improving so much that it will feel like you are in the same room as the other person.

  10. Well I’ll give them credit for effort and trying out of the box solutions.

    Whether it’s practical, or be successful, is up for debate. But at least they make an attempt to address the pandemic.

  11. Singapore could have lead the world on this safe reopening stuff, instead it has chosen this ultra conservative zero risk approach. My read is that it’s entirely for political reasons.

    There are much better ways of handling this. Make me pay for rapid testing every day at designated hotels. Me and plenty of others who have business in Singapore would go for it. As is – I’m giving up my visa and our company is downsizing our operation there.

  12. At the end of the meeting can we put our hands up on the glass to “touch” our counterparts just like they do in prison? That’ll be the new shaking hands.

    On one hand I respect that they’re trying something, and maybe there are different cultural beliefs and approaches that would make this work between two Asian counterparties where it doesn’t seem like it’s likely to take off for meetings that involve “Westerners.” On the other hand, this is totally ridiculous.

  13. There’s a certain, tactile kind of feedback available when in the same room that is simply absent on video conference.

  14. @Jan:

    Agreed. Or people in sales. Or in IT. Or in real estate. Or in any number of other industries that thrive – or, more correctly, survive – on in-person and on-site visits and meetings. Any time someone says companies will be all or [some made up BS percentage] virtual in the future, I just roll my eyes at their ignorance.

  15. Working in the meeting & event industry, I find this a fascinating concept. For board meetings, sales presentations, contract signing – this could be an interesting option. While video calls/presentations have their place – they certainly have their downsides (glitches, unstable internet connections, user error). If this concept was available in the US I would certainly have customers that would be interested in it.

  16. @ORDPLATAA: “While video calls/presentations have their place – they certainly have their downsides (glitches, unstable internet connections, user error). ”

    And international travel has no glitches?

    This concept is completely ridiculous. As someone mentioned above, business travel isn’t just for meetings in a board room. It’s to visit sites and factories, to have dinner and drinks with business partners and colleagues, etc. There is simply no reason I can think of to prefer an “in person” meeting separated by a pane of glass over videoconferencing.

    Like everyone else, I’ve spent hours and hours on Zoom over the last year, and while there have been a few problems, it’s been remarkable how well it’s worked. What I miss about work-related travel is meeting people and having fun together talking shop informally. That’s missing from both Zoom and this artificial “in person” system.

    If that becomes the “new normal,” I’ll eat my hat.

  17. As I was reading the article I thought “Hey, this is the solution for my problems!” (I have a client in Japan that needs training on a piece of equipment, and a trainer in Singapore).

    …Then I realised that trainer and trainees need to be working on the equipment TOGETHER.


  18. This surely is not an ideal solution to all business situations requiring physical presence, but it can be useful for some circumstances, and I would guess it does not cost too much to convert the facility to an airport hotel if things are really coming back to normal (which I’m still not optimistic given the current vaccination rollout and all the variants). In this world of uncertainty, we shall let the time to tell whether this is “the new normal”

  19. @JamesS

    Full vaccination may take 3-8 years, but people aren’t going to go for this “new normal” for close to that long. I just don’t think it will stick that long, though if there is an area it will stick it is international business where people meet from 2+ different countries. People will miss in-person interaction and just go for it despite the risk at some point, and I think that point is in 2021 sometime.

    At some point, people will rightly start asking themselves if it’s worth throwing away important chunks of their life to avoid a very low chance of death, and march depressingly year after year towards a death that is 100% guaranteed.

  20. This is not in-person but rather “in-prison”. SG correctional authorities could possibly make some use of it.

  21. Who in their right mind would travel halfway around the world, be treated like lepper, just to hold a quasi face-to-face meeting in what amounts to be a glorified prison visitation room? Thanks, but no thanks.

  22. Just because they are planning to expand the facility, have found investment to finance it, etc. doesn’t mean it’s a good idea or will play out as expected.

    Plenty of bad business concepts get funded and built every day. Most likely they will need to pivot this facility into something else sooner rather than later.

    I’m not saying things will be back to normal in a year’s time for all countries (far from it) – as mostly wealthy developed nations will be the ones fully vaccinated but I can’t expect enough folks feeling the need to do business in Singapore under these specific constraints will fuel sufficient demand. Meeting in alternate locations, the possibility that borders open sooner than politicians plan due to economic pressures and increased vaccination levels, etc. will all put pressure on the business model.

  23. This. Is. Amazing!!!!!!!!!!!

    I don’t understand all the hate. Why do you hate such awesome idea?

    First and foremost, face to face has many *many* advantages over video calls. For one, if you have prototypes, face-to-face allows you to handle them. For another, the personal connections cannot be replaced with video calls. And finally, hey, employee perks! (side note: given that this is Singapore we are talking about, “factory visits” may not be on the high list of business travels)

    It’s also worth noting that the earlier you restart business travel, the earlier (not to mention easier) it is to resume the old demand. As such, from various standpoints, even if the travels may not be essential, SQ and such would love to see some of them resume.

    Thus, fighting to arrange for business travel, in *any* shape or form, should be applauded. What’s the harm? If no one show up, well, not like the space is taken up with anything else. If some show up, hey, it works!

    Finally, I think it’s an excellent opening. If you can drive from airport to the conference space, what if they eventually expand it to drive *around* the city. Think of possibilities! You can now talk about real estate dealing and wheeling! Touring of new facilities! Or, you know, just gradual reopening of business travel. One can easily imagine that, after the pandemics kinda die down, the space can be used as holding place for “regular” trips. You can start your business right away with meetings, while you wait for test results and whatnot to clear; then, once everything is cleared, proceed to business-as-before-2020.

    This is utterly amazing!

  24. Contrary to the wrong facts that Ben has provided, Singapore has never closed its border to any business travellers, only leisure. The Air Travel Pass there allows anyone to apply online with ease and they provide all required quarantines and tests at a single price which is clearly specified in their immigrations website unlike our ambiguity. This just adds on to the flexibility to go into the country for meetings and have no quarantine required.

    Until we start to take things seriously and stop getting ourselves infected we cannot blame Singapore, Australia or any other country who has covid control down to a science in viewing us with suspicion.

  25. @JW

    Good public policy entails taking ALL needs of society into consideration and making holistic decisions based on these.

    Science can ENLIGHTEN policy making, but when science alone is used to make decisions, government becomes a technocracy.

  26. Good on them!

    Whilst Singapore isn’t quite open to our level here in Australia, things are basically back to normal. In Australia over Christmas, I was able to travel on flights across the country with no mask and no risk of getting or spreading COVID (they now require masks but that’s a new thing as of just a month ago).

    Tonight after work, I’ll be able to go down to the bar again with no risk/no mask (and very limited social distancing) thanks to the strict lockdowns we’ve had. There still isn’t enough evidence to show that those vaccinated don’t spread it and until this can be proved or the virus burns itself out then expect this type of thing into the future.

  27. Prior to covid, Singaporean people used to spend about double internationally on tourism etc. compared to what people coming into Singapore spent on tourism etc. Put simply, closed borders can be maintained indefinitely as the money going out of the economy for overseas tourism has trickled to a halt. So in budget terms, that’s a sustainable situation.
    The Expo facility is quite extensive and has excellent transport but doesn’t now fit with reality, so this business worker repurpose is worth a try. If that doesn’t pay the way, it could be replaced with perhaps migrant worker accommodation.

  28. @haz

    “Whilst Singapore isn’t quite open to our level here in Australia, things are basically back to normal. In Australia over Christmas, I was able to travel on flights across the country with no mask and no risk of getting or spreading COVID”

    Not sure what you mean by open when Australia’s international borders remain shut and is having problems readmitting its own citizens due to a lack of organised quarantine facilities. What you are perhaps describing as ‘openness’ is simply a function of the size of the respective countries. With international borders closed, Australians can naturally (and happily) travel interstate with minimal to no risk. On the other hand, there is literally no domestic/interstate travel to speak of within Singapore (and Hong Kong for that matter) due to the size of the city-state.

  29. 1. They need to become partnered with some of the major hotel groups for more people to care.
    2. They need to work with the Singapore government to create this as a travel bubble with other countries, so that quarantine and other requirements could be reduced or cancelled if you are just going to to this special secure area. It’s still a drawback for many that would have to quarantine anyway upon their return.

  30. @JW, I guess you are generalizing by saying that “Singapore has never closed its border to any business travellers, only leisure” cos I remember in the early days borders were pretty much closed to everyone except Citizens and PRs. They gradually started re-opening a few months later when all the quarantine facilities were put in place. Also saying “The Air Travel Pass there allows anyone to apply online with ease” is misleading cos while anyone can apply, it doesn’t mean anyone will be approved. Perhaps you are in an industry that is highly sought after but I’m in Singapore and I know of applications that have been rejected. I work here and can’t even travel out cos application to return is not guaranteed.
    As for the concept, I imagine it may work for people in the Asia-Pacific region with a 3-4 hour flight time, cos I don’t see how anyone will fly half way around the world to be met with this arrangement. You might as well stick to zoom

  31. The jury is still out on whether Asia-Pacific or Western/Northern Europe has the more effective and efficient Covid response strategy prior to mass vaccination.

    But what too many (presumably US-based) commenters are underestimating is the interconnectedness, small size, and population density of a global business hub like Singapore that prevents it from unreservedly opening its borders to international air travel.

    Whether such caution will come back to haunt Singapore or place it in good stead for the post-vaccination global recovery is yet to be seen.

  32. There is nothing “in person” about this kind of meetings. It’s equal to a video conference, which is much cheaper.

  33. Maybe it’s just my hypocrisy sensors tingling, but I don’t think commentators from countries which are regularly killing dozens if not hundreds or thousands or their own countrymen daily from their own incompetence and illiteracy in public health have a right to be lecturing a country on what’s the right way to play it safe after having salvaged both its economy and population from the ravages of this pandemic.

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