Dorm operators get more creative

MIRED in slower takeup rates and falling occupancy, dormitory space providers are getting more creative in offering value-added services to set themselves apart from the competition.

Tighter controls on foreign labour inflow, coupled with companies choosing to rightsize in the current climate of slowing economic growth are some of the road bumps faced by the sector. This is compounded by employers turning to onsite workers' quarters as a lower-cost alternative, said Steven Lee, president of the Dormitory Association of Singapore Ltd (DASL).

While the situation is not dire yet, filling beds is taking longer.

S11 Capital Investments, for instance, has a total of 14,000 approved bed spaces at PPT Lodge 1B at Seletar North Link and another 4,000 approved bed spaces at Changi Lodge 2. Current occupancy at PPT Lodge 1B is 12,000 (about 85.7 per cent) while Changi Lodge 2 is near full capacity.

Centurion Corp's dormitories in Singapore, on the other hand, are about 90 per cent full. According to Kelvin Teo, chief operating officer of the group's accommodation business, this figure was closer to 98 per cent in previous years. Centurion has a total of 27,600 beds in Singapore, and expects to have 35,500 by 2018.

Other major players in the market, including MES Group, declined to be interviewed while Vobis could not be reached despite multiple attempts.

Said Adrian Tang, business development manager at S11: "With the economic outlook bleak, we expect the situation to remain extremely challenging with the added pressures of increasing operating costs as well as a glut of dormitory bed spaces flooding the market."

Under the Foreign Employees Dormitories Act (FEDA), operators of dormitories that can house 1,000 or more foreign employees need to obtain a licence from the Ministry of Manpower. DASL's Mr Lee says the licensing framework imposes a range of security, safety, and public health requirements that include computerised access systems and provision of sick bays. Licensed operators are also required to provide social, recreational and commercial amenities, and facilities such as a gym, minimarts, a canteen, TV rooms, and wifi.

Indeed, some dormitories have gone beyond the basic requirements and looked to improve their facilities and programmes.

DASL member companies are now reaching out more to both government and non-government organisations including the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), Singapore Police Force (SPF), Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), and Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ACMI) to conduct enrichment roadshows and outreach programmes in the dormitories.

"These amenities, facilities, services and activities cater to the basic wellbeing of foreign workers," said Mr Lee.

This is the route S11 has taken. Mr Tang said: " We have increased our efforts to create an even better living environment for our residents as well as include more value-added services and accommodation solutions for our clients.

"These include more leisure activities, entertainment options and amenities for our residents as well as transportation solutions to better cater to our clients' needs. We are increasing our efforts to find more innovative accommodation solutions to improve efficiency and provide our clients increased value," Mr Tang said.

But while DASL member companies are encouraged to provide such value-added services, companies still worry about keeping operating costs low as they fight to keep rental prices competitive to attract tenants.

To that end, DASL is working with the Centre of Innovation for Electronics (COIE), a joint establishment by Spring Singapore and Nanyang Polytechnic to develop new solutions and exploit innovation, in view of working towards the Smart Dormitory initiative - which aims to increase efficiency and reduce operating costs to keep rental rates competitive and attractive.

Centurion meanwhile is working with the authorities to "further improve the productivity" of its upcoming Westlite Papan. Developed in partnership with the Association of Process Industry (ASPRI), the 7,900-bed purpose-built workers' accommodation will also contain an ASPRI training centre. Despite the site already being located with convenient access to Jurong Island, Centurion's Mr Teo says the group is looking to make it even more convenient for workers, by locating a checkpoint station at Westlite Papan.

He explained: "Today, workers going to Jurong Island have to get off the bus for security checks when they reach Jurong Island. So every morning, from 6.40am onwards, the whole place is jammed. It takes 8-10 minutes for them to be cleared.

"We are in the final stages (of discussions) to build a security point in our dormitory so that workers can board the bus from the dorm, we seal the bus, and they go straight through to Jurong Island."

Centurion is concurrently working on expanding the range of services it provides to clients. Several options it is mulling over include sending foreign workers for their medical appointments, picking up of work permits, and training courses. They are also looking to take over the transportation of workers to job sites.

"If you look at the model at the moment, every employer relies on its own transport to pick up its workers . . . (the vehicle is not) filled up to the maximum capacity, so there's wastage there," said Mr Teo, who is also DASL's first vice-president.

Such an arrangement will also allow Centurion to pool workers going to work sites in the same area together, thus increasing the efficiency of the transport service.

"This is something we plan to do this year," Mr Teo said. "A team has been set up to look into all the details and explore whether it works or not, and we are most likely going ahead with it."

This article was first published on April 4, 2016.
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