The suite life away from town

The suite life away from town
PHOTO: Park Hotel Alexandra

Mention staycation in Singapore and the swanky hotels in Orchard Road, Marina Bay and Sentosa come to mind.

But of late, some Singaporeans have been going off the beaten track and booking stays in hotels located outside the city centre, such as the two-month-old Park Hotel Alexandra in Alexandra Road, which is next to furniture store Ikea.

The nearest major mall, VivoCity, is a 10-minute drive away. But business has been brisk, says Park Hotel Alexandra's general manager Angeline Tan.

Since the hotel's soft opening in June, it has seen a "steady influx" of business and leisure travellers throughout the week, with more local staycationers on weekends.

The Park Hotel Group has four hotels in Singapore. The other three are in the city - in Orchard, City Hall and Clarke Quay. A fifth hotel is set to open next year in Farrer Park.

In recent years, big chain hotels, which traditionally locate their properties in town, have been building hotels away from the city centre in places such as Changi and Jurong.

Two hotels that opened in the last three years are Days Hotel Singapore and Ramada Singapore. They are part of the Zhongshan Park integrated development in Balestier.

Days, which has a cheery vibe, opened in December 2012. Ramada, which has a more formal image and heritage design elements, opened in May 2013. In June this year, the two hotels housed gymnasts, shooters and footballers for the South-east Asian Games.

The 15-storey, 557-room Genting Hotel Jurong - run by Resorts World Sentosa and the first hotel in the Jurong Lake District - opened its doors in April this year.

Next year, InterContinental Hotels Group will open two hotels at Katong Square in East Coast Road - the 451-room Holiday Inn Express Singapore Katong and the 131-room Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong. The latter is the first local boutique hotel by the global brand.

These hotels are springing up at a time when tourist arrivals are falling. International visitor arrivals for January to May this year was 6.1 million, a 4 per cent drop from the corresponding period last year, according to the Singapore Tourism Board. Overall, visitor arrivals also fell last year.

Hotel operators say the reasons for picking locations outside the city accompany developments in the area and are also in response to travellers desiring more authentic local experiences.

Mr Tony Cousens, general manager of Ramada and Days Hotels Singapore, says Balestier was picked as the area is rich in culture and history. "There has been an upward trend in travellers looking for quality accommodation in heritage sites such as Balestier."

Both hotels are along the Balestier Heritage Trail, which features sites such as the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, pre-war terrace houses, traditional bakeries and a water kiosk used by labourers and rickshaw pullers in the past.

Upon check-in, guests are given booklets with details on the trail curated by the National Heritage Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), and supported by the Moulmein and Whampoa Citizens' Consultative Committees.

Mr Cousens adds that for those seeking a local foodie experience, the Whampoa and Balestier markets are less than a 10-minute walk away. Balestier is famous for tau sar piah (mung bean pastries), bak kut teh (pork rib soup) and durian.

Heritage, culture and food are also factors in the InterContinental group's decision to set up its hotels at Katong Square.

Mr Clarence Tan, the group's senior vice-president of development in Asia, Middle East and Africa, says the Katong and Joo Chiat neighbourhoods are colourful and culturally diverse.

In 2011, the Joo Chiat estate won the heritage board's inaugural Heritage Town award for its Peranakan and Eurasian shops and eateries and historical architecture.

Says Mr Tan: "People who choose to stay at Hotel Indigo appreciate design and locally inspired touches. Location does not matter as much to them as the experience."

Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong will pay homage to the Joo Chiat neighbourhood via its Peranakan- themed interiors.

For Park Hotel Alexandra, its location was chosen for its proximity to business parks in the area and commercial buildings at HarbourFront. Ms Tan says: "We want to support business travellers to this area, medical tourists to the Singapore General Hospital and National University Hospital, and visiting foreign academics to tertiary institutions in the west."

Genting Hotel Jurong is also well-placed to serve the needs of those looking for a venue in the west to hold seminars, corporate luncheons, dinner and dance events or wedding banquets.

It has well-equipped facilities for such events, such as a pillarless ballroom that can hold up to 300 guests and five meeting rooms.

A spokesman for Resorts World Sentosa says they are "very excited" to be part of the rapid transformation and growth in the Jurong Lake District, which has been earmarked by the URA as a new growth area with commercial, business and leisure facilities.

"With the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high-speed rail terminus set to be a stone's throw away from the hotel, it is well-placed to welcome visitors and commuters from Malaysia and the region," he says.

To boost their connectivity to central Singapore, most of these hotels have shuttle bus services.

For example, Genting Hotel Jurong has a 24-hour service that runs between the hotel and Resorts World Sentosa. Days and Ramada have daily buses that stop at either Novena MRT station or T Galleria by DFS in Scotts Road.

Industry experts say the locations of these hotels are a plus point rather than a drawback.

Ms Ong Huey Hong, director of hotels and sector manpower at the tourism board, says the diverse accommodation options in terms of locations adds to Singapore's "overall destination attractiveness".

"Having hotels in locations other than the city centre provides experiences unique to the neighbourhood the travellers are staying in."

Dr Michael Chiam, a senior tourism lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, agrees that such "niche area" hotels are ideal for those who prefer to stay away from the city. "They want to be immersed with the locals to learn about their lifestyles, like eating at hawker centres."

Room rates at these suburban hotels may be lower than those in the prime locations.

For instance, a superior room at Genting Hotel Jurong starts at $380++. A comparable room, such as a deluxe room at Resorts World Sentosa's Festive Hotel, starts from $570++ a night, while the one at Hard Rock Hotel, also on the same property, starts from $600++.

And while they may be further from the city, these properties do not pale in comparison with those in the prime locations when it comes to design and amenities. They boast sleek architecture and panoramic views.

For example, Park Hotel Alexandra has a 25m infinity pool and a view that overlooks the tranquil Southern Ridge.

These hotels have been attracting their fair share of Singaporeans.

Ms Shirley Wong, 40, who works in the finance industry, had a two- night staycation with her family at Park Hotel Alexandra in June. She had previously stayed in hotels in the city, Marina Bay and Sentosa.

"We wanted to try out this new hotel which has an impressive and modern-looking glass facade. We also like that it is in a different location - it is near enough to the city yet away from the crowds."

Indeed, she and her family had a different experience from their usual staycations. They went for a "local food fix" at the ABC Brickworks Food Centre, a short walk from the hotel, and discovered an old-school cake shop along the way.

"It was a very memorable experience, to be able to discover interesting places in our own city like tourists," says Ms Wong.

This article was first published on August 15, 2015.
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