SINGAPORE — Being the new chief executive officer of a billion-dollar sports complex must seem like one of the toughest jobs to take on in a year when the global sports, events and concert industries were battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lionel Yeo, who took on the hot seat as the Singapore Sports Hub CEO in February – just before the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country – admitted that there are plenty of uncertainties ahead for the $1.33-billion complex.
Nevertheless, he believes the road out of this crisis lies in one word: relevance.
“We are keen to ensure that the Sports Hub remains relevant, no matter what,” the 46-year-old told Yahoo News Singapore in an interview on Thursday (20 August) at one of the executive suites in the National Stadium, where the football pitch is currently converted into temporary quarters for healthy migrant workers.
“It means, during a period like this, how do we make use of our facilities to be part of national (COVID-19) relief efforts? That explains why we went into what we call ‘Project Dorm’, which is providing temporary housing for for migrant workers.
“We also want to be relevant as Singapore emerges from COVID-19. To the extent that we can gradually, safely and responsibly organise events, we want to do so. We may initially be restricted to local content... so we’re actively engaging local stakeholders to develop a calendar of activities and events both from the sports side as well as a non-sports side.
“When the time is right, we can gradually open up and take it to the next stage.”
‘Three-legged stool’ of success
Yeo is the fourth CEO of the five-year-old Sports Hub, which overcame initial teething problems to record a prolific 2019, with 225 events being held amid its premises, garnering three million in event attendance and venue activities, as well as 15 million in total footfall.
The COVID-19 pandemic has slashed overall footfall from January to June by 54 per cent from the same period last year, while event attendance has seen an 85 per cent dip. Popular global sports events as well as top entertainment performances were forced to cancel or be postponed to 2021.
With the Sports Hub being a public-private partnership between the profit-making goals Sports Hub Pte Ltd and the social objectives of the Singapore government, it has already been seen as a tough balancing act for the CEOs in the best of times, let alone the current coronavirus situation.
So how is Yeo tackling what he calls “the three-legged stool” of success: policy success in hitting the governments policy objectives for the Sports Hub; commercial success in achieving commercial stability for the private-sector entities; and most importantly, public success in being relevant to how Singaporeans feel about sports?
“All three kinds of successes need to come together, and what’s key is alignment across all stakeholders,” he said.
“It goes back to engagement. Ever since I came into this role, a big part of my job is to make sure I reach out to the different sets of stakeholders and say, ‘Let’s talk about what the sports hub needs to achieve for everybody.’
“We need these conversations because there will come points in the future where we will have to make trade-offs, and we need to do so trusting that every stakeholder knows that it is the right decision for the community. They may not be the right decision from some of the stakeholders’ perspectives, but they accept it as part of the community.”
Provisional event bookings in 2021
Yeo’s passion for the outdoors grew from joining the Outdoor Activities Club in his school days. Nowadays he still enjoys hiking and trekking, and has picked up running in the last five years because “it helps to clear my mind”.
He has had over 22 years of experience in the public sector, and was the chief executive of the Singapore Tourism Board from 2012 to 2018.
During his tenure then, he helped to secure several popular sports events into Singapore. They included the Women’s Tennis Association Finals, which ran for five successful years from 2014 to 2018; the Singapore Rugby Sevens, revived in 2016 after a 10-year absence; and the International Champions Cup, a pre-season football tournament featuring top European clubs such as Manchester United, Juventus and Bayern Munich.
Getting back to those heady days of a packed National Stadium will be gradual and painstaking, as the Sports Hub tries to work out elaborate safe management measures to ensure the safety of whatever crowd sizes they are permitted to host.
Yeo draws encouragement from the fact that there are already plenty of provisional event bookings for 2021, meaning that there will be events for the public to enjoy should the government give the green light to host them.
Again, he goes back to the idea of being relevant.
“We’re building the affinity with Singaporeans that the Sports Hub is a place where, even as they deal with living with COVID-19, they can come and get their sports fix, get a little bit of entertainment fix,” he said.
“If they don't feel that we are relevant or feel we are serving their needs, then something is missing.”
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