Arthur Tay On Asian Hospitality And Dealing With Disruption

Wealth & Giving

October 11, 2017 | BY Hong Xinyi

SUTL Enterprise’s Arthur Tay believes Asian tourism is growing in tandem with the region’s booming economies. 

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 Arthur Tay lights up when he talks about the life aquatic. “Each coastline is unique,” he says. “The colour of the water is different, there are different types of fish, diving spots and island landscapes.” It is a vivid picture sketched by a man who has a unique affinity with a lessdiscussed side of Singapore—not the gleaming city-state bristling with skyscrapers, but the sunny island set in the sea.  

The executive director and CEO of SUTL Enterprise describes himself as a “West Coast Teochew boy”, whose childhood in Pasir Panjang meant “I grew up loving the beach”. His late father, Tay Choon Hye, founded SUTL in 1968 as a ship-chandelling company, and Arthur tagged along with him to learn the business of supplying goods and services to the incoming and outgoing ships in Singapore’s bustling port. (Arthur’s first and second yachts, Hye Seas I and II, are named after his dad.) As a young man, he picked up waterskiing in the Punggol river. He remains an avid diver today. “I was always exposed to water and the outdoor life. You are at one with the elements, and really removed from the stress of life in the city.” 

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Today, we are chatting at ONE°15 Marina Sentosa Cove—his first foray into marina development when it opened in 2007. The club celebrated its 10th anniversary this year with a wealth of accolades and accomplishments under its belt, including being a six-time winner of the Best Asian Marina of the Year award bestowed by Asia Boating Awards. It has also hosted prestigious events such as the Volvo Ocean Race, the Singapore Yacht Show, the UIM F1 Powerboat Championship Grand Prix, the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, the Earth Race, the SB20 Asia Grand Slam and the Singapore Straits Regatta. 

SUTL Enterprise is now a leading developer, operator and consultant of integrated marinas all over the world, and the only marina business to be listed on the Singapore Exchange. Through its partnerships, the ONE°15 brand has been extended to marinas in Brooklyn in the US and Puteri Harbour in Malaysia, with upcoming developments in Pantai Mutiara in Indonesia and Guishan in China. If Arthur has his way, there will be many more ONE°15 marinas in the future, both in traditional yachting destinations in Europe as well as newer locations in Asia. In September this year, SUTL Enterprise announced a partnership with the Hainan Cruise & Yacht Association for the development and expansion of the Chinese island province’s yachting, cruising and marina tourism industry. 

“For each marina that we are targeting to acquire, or develop and manage through joint ventures, we are very sensitive and mindful that they must have different personalities,” he notes. To shape these distinct personalities, he takes his cue from each marina’s context—the culture of the surrounding communities, the topography of the coastline, and the nature of the water body that laps at its berths. “If it is a river, you can have cruises. If it is a lake, you can have romantic boat rides for couples,” he says. 

Essentially, a marina is about a lot more than mooring yachts. “It is actually a lifestyle,” Arthur believes. “It is a place to hold weddings, where you can wine and dine, and just relax near the water. You can see the seagulls coming close to you, and in a coastal area you can stay away from roads and traffic jams. That is what a marina really means.”  

In recognition of its long-standing excellence, the Asian Boating Awards had bestowed upon ONE15 Marina Sentosa Cove the Best Asian Marina of the Year award six times

Eye on Asia

Communicating the charms of this lifestyle to Asian travellers will be crucial for the growth of the ONE°15 brand. In China alone, about 128 million people holidayed overseas in 2015. “Paying attention to Chinese travellers is a no-brainer,” says Arthur. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, China’s travel industry is projected to grow at an average rate of 8 per cent annually from 2017 to 2027, outpacing other major economies such as India and the US. “Growing a business is about scalability. We are not focusing just on China, but it is natural that we expand into China as a first strategic move. Then, we will look at Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, and Japan, and the other Asian countries,” he says, noting in particular Indonesia and Thailand’s long coastal lines and the latter’s great diving and fishing spots. “Generally, I believe Asians will dominate global travel. They will be the ones indulging in holiday pursuits in Europe, America, Australia and Africa. We think Asians are the next influx of tourism, and I want to teach them that spending time at our marinas can be as much of an indulgence as shopping in a big city.” 

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To entice these Asian travellers, he is banking on the strengths of ONE°15 as a Singaporean brand that understands what the Asian customer wants, particularly in the realm of hospitality. “Asian hospitality is the best,” he declares. “We host better, we serve people better, we go all the way to make the customer happy. The Asian customer likes to be served, rather than have self-service meals, and we understand details such as the kind of breakfast they like to have. We want to provide all our members and visiting tourists with first-class service and attention, and that will be what makes our brand different. Whatever properties we manage and acquire, they will have the ONE°15 membership and service.” 

That means facilities that have excellent safety and security standards, “and good food”, he adds, true to his Singaporean roots. “We don’t do short-term thinking, because we are a longterm player. We know the right formula, and we are now moving ahead of a lot of other players.” Creating a string of marinas in the region and beyond will build connectivity for ONE°15 members, who want to be assured of consistent quality wherever they berth. 

“Growing a business is about scalability.
We are not focusing just on China,
but it is natural that we expand into China as a first strategic move. 
Paying attention to Chinese travellers is a no-brainer.” 

To accomplish this though, there remains the challenge of untangling complex regulations for marina development in overseas markets. But Arthur is confident about tackling these issues. “We know how to handle the local challenges,” he assures, pointing to his decades of experience in the world of business. “That is my skill. Through a lot of engagement, we can find a win-win solution and make sure that we can deliver what we want to do. I have been running my own business my whole life, and I have been exposed to all kinds of countries, from Mongolia to Afghanistan, you name it. I am sensitive to cultural differences and attentive to consumer needs. We can resolve these challenges.” 

Indeed, the SUTL Group, which is the majority shareholder of SUTL Enterprise, is one of the first Singaporean conglomerates to venture into Vietnam. In 1996, it established the first shopping centre in Ho Chi Minh City, Superbowl Vietnam Tan Son Nhat, introducing an integrated lifestyle entertainment concept that included a 32-lane bowling alley. “We are pioneers,” Arthur says proudly. “We went into Vietnam before the property and hotel developers, so we had first-mover advantage. We could secure better sites, better partners, and better licences before others did. I approach marina development in the same way. Don’t waste time, get first-mover advantage.” 

Arthur Tay has his sights set on the East, and is looking to develop marinas around the region and beyond

Dealing with disruption

What could throw a spanner into the works for all these grand plans? Arthur cites factors such as technological changes and the high cost of materials and labour as potential challenges that the company is prepared to grapple with. From a macro perspective, with climate change expected to create more challenging weather conditions in the years ahead, he also acknowledges that those in the marina business must plan for stronger infrastructure and make sustainability a keystone of their corporate social responsibility programmes. 

“Don’t waste time, get first-mover advantage.” 

In 2016, the Marina Industries Association named the Level 4 Clean Marina ISO 14001-certified club Southeast Asia’s first fishfriendly marina, and it was also named Green Maritime Company of the Year at the Asia Boating Awards 2015. Further afield, SUTL works with its foreign partners to implement eco plans for its overseas projects, which could include cleaning up the surrounding waters and launching education initiatives regarding local aquatic species. 

Closer to home, Singapore’s strategic geographic location—the same strength that made SUTL’s early ship-chandelling business viable—no longer seems like an inevitability. There is talk of the Arctic routes opening up, and some chatter about a potential Kra Isthmus Canal in Thailand. Meanwhile, ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea and new ports in the region competing for hub status all contribute to uncertainty over the continued vibrancy of Singapore as a key maritime trading node. “I believe Singapore’s port will continue to be relevant,” Arthur says. “We have the best security and very efficient infrastructure, so we score very well in terms of resources. We must leverage our strengths, and integrate and balance that with the strengths of our neighbouring countries.” 

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For enterprises here that are looking to expand, however, Arthur’s advice is that “you have to go overseas, because the market here is very limited in terms of size. You have to see business opportunities that are beyond Singapore. Don’t just stand still. Go out, travel, and take calculated risks”. 

He is certainly not standing still. “We are all ready for a new wave of opportunity. We have a lot in the pipeline that we will be able to share soon, and we are very excited,” he reveals. A clue: “We believe every club we own must have an iconic and unique event that will attract international visitors.” And where better to host such an event than ONE°15 Marina Sentosa Cove, the place where this whole adventure started? “It is one of the most unique lifestyle clubs in Singapore and we are very happy that our members feel we have delivered what we promised, and more,” Arthur says, at ease in his waterfront haven. “I want to create more of these assets around Asia.”  

Photography: Darren Gabriel Leow
Photographer's assistant: Darren Chan
Art direction: Matilda Au

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