A city, a country, an island—Singapore is a singular destination where East meets West and the modern world rubs shoulders with the past. The beauty here is how the city-state balances these oftentimes antipolar ideals and promulgates them to the global meetings industry by incorporating venues of incomparable historical gravitas with the new and outrageously futuristic.
In a community of five million people comprised of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures, with over 40% of them expats, Singapore’s ability to bring together such disparate elements makes it the ultimate meetings melting pot. Or wok, rather.
“Singapore is a lush tropical island that is located at the crossroads of the East-West trading routes in the heart of Asia,” says Pieter Idenburg, CEO of the Suntec Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre, one of the largest exhibit spaces in Singapore. “It is equipped with the best of modern infrastructure, a world-class airport, sophisticated financial services, first-class hotels and fabulous food.”
And during a recent trip this summer, it seemed to be getting even more world-class, first-class and fabulous.
ROOFTOP POOL OF THE CENTURY
There are very few meeting planners in the world who don’t want to organize an event on top of the newly opened $5.5 billion Marina Bay Sands Singapore, a glimmering 2,560-room hotel, convention center and casino. It has singlehandedly reshaped the Singapore skyline with its SkyPark—a multipurpose cantilevered roofdeck extending over three football fields in length, perched over three 55-story towers overlooking Singapore’s harbor. If you want a “Wow” experience, go swimming in the world’s biggest pool that high in the sky, with views halfway to Borneo.
Back on the ground, the 4-floor casino warehouses 15,000 sf of gambling space and more than 600 tables, making it one of the biggest casino floors in the world. And for group get-togethers, there’s 1.3 million sf of convention center space, including 250 meeting rooms and a ballroom seating 6,600.
By September, Marina Bay had already signed some 370 events for the convention center, with planners equally floored by the shopping mall navigable by gondola rides through indoor canals, seven celebrity chef owned-restaurants out of a total of 50 restaurants, and a fully integrated art museum.
“No other single destination offers so many diverse attractions under one roof,” says Thomas Arasi, President and Chief Executive Officer of Marina Bay Sands. “We will deliver an entertainment, leisure and business experience unlike any other in the world.”
On what used to be a mere diversion located just off the main island of Singapore, Sentosa Island has become a MICE-related juggernaut that’s transformed the country. Just a 20 minute taxi ride from the financial district, the brand new Resorts World Sentosa is a $4.3 billion beach resort, casino, entertainment complex and convention center with Asia’s first Universal Studios. So, planners can book an outdoor New York street set for 1,000 pax, or seat 1,500 inside Pantages Hollywood Theater.
For fun on Sentosa, hit Singapore’s best beaches, surf the man-made waves at the Wave House, check out the view on the Tiger Sky Tower, race downhill on the Skyline Luge or visit the Underwater Dolphin Lagoon. For golf tourneys, the two courses at Sentosa Golf Course play host to Barclay’s Singapore Open.
Sentosa Resorts World has a combined meeting space totaling 60,000 sf, including The Resorts World Ballroom for 7,300 guests. Over 1,800 hotel rooms are spread over six hotels, ranging from the Hard Rock Hotel to the modern Hotel Michael, designed by American starchitect Michael Graves. The casino is connected to all six hotels by short underground and ground level walkways, so it’s all very manageable.
“We are not positioning ourselves as an exhibition facility but rather as an all-in-one destination for international conventions, regional and local corporate events and social functions,” says spokesperson, Robin Goh.
Also new on Sentosa, the 112-room Capella Singapore was designed by English architect Sir Norman Foster, considered one of the top five draftsmen practicing in the world today. A breath of sophistication and luxury, this is a hotel I never wanted to leave. Ever. The property is a converted 19th century British Colonial Army barracks with rainforest-like grounds overlooking the South China Sea. It accommodates groups with over 14,000 sf of meeting space that includes an 8,400-sf ballroom.
If you do nothing else, book group dinners at the Cassia restaurant serving haute Cantonese. Follow that with drinks at Bob’s, inspired by post-WWII Cuban bars from the 1950s.
Singaporeans celebrate food like nobody’s business. In fact, the National Museum of Singapore features a permanent Food Gallery exhibit where you can: “Discover how street food reflects the ethnic diversity, cross-cultural exchanges and cultural innovations of Singapore.” Built in 1887, the elegant museum offers venue space for up to 200 pax.
The national dish is chili crab with a savory and sweet tomato sauce poured over whole crabs. We tried ours at the Long Beach Seafood Restaurant located in the East Coast Seafood Center, a row of one seafood joint trying to outdo the other. Another mainstay is sweetly spiced chicken rice, best sampled from street hawkers in Chinatown. In the stalls, all the vendors gather under one roof, each offering their own twist on a variety of Chinese specialties. Not to be outdone, in Little India just a few blocks away, they have their own hawkers market that offers as real a local experience, with spicy lamb curry second only to India’s. My favorite neighborhood was the Arab section of town featuring aromatic coffee shops, a mosque open to all, and small local restaurants and antique stores.
There are so many pockets in this cosmopolitan city to recommend that you should visit with your group. Love the old Peranakan district in Joo Chait, a mix of Malay and Chinese, who were Singapore’s first settlers. Food is a huge draw here and you have to try the kueh chang, a sweet tasting meat paste wrapped in bamboo leaves. Pop into 328, run by Lucy Koh, a local celebrity who keeps diners coming back for her popular dish of laska, a noodle soup with coconut curry spices.
In the heart of the financial district on the banks of Singapore River, the sleek and popular rooftop bar Orgo was a group favorite. It offers an incredible view of the city and has hosted events for 350-pax groups including Citigroup, Credit Suisse and the History Channel.
“Efficiency and productivity used to be the buzz words of Singapore, now it’s glitz and glamour,” says owner Nick Yen. “Now Singapore has become party central in Southeast Asia and somehow Singapore has managed to inject fun into what is still a very controlled environment. This may be the classic case of having your cake and eating it too.”
In the popular nightlife neighborhood of Boat Quay, Harry’s Bar is the oldest and one of the most popular watering holes. Owner Mohan Mulani, a native Singaporean, says Singapore today is, “A fascinating city with a vibrant nightlife, art scene and so much to do…. The business climate here is overly friendly and everyone speaks English. It’s so easy to do business here and very easy to feel at home.”
Outside the business district, there’s a variety of green spaces and relaxed residential areas with some of the most exciting restaurants for groups. Look into Dempsey Hill and the fine dining White Rabbit, a French-style bistro in a converted church, or the hip microbrewery Red Dot Brewhouse housed inside a 140 year-old colonial bungalow with event space for 300. Just sitting at the bar and looking out at the lush vegetation in the middle of Dempsey Hill, you feel a hint of what Singapore was like at the height of the British Empire.
SIR RAFFLES WAS HERE
Perhaps the most legendary hotel in Asia, Raffles Singapore has hosted every famous writer in the world since opening in 1887 due to its steamer trunk/rickshaw romance. The updated 103-suite hotel is located close to both the Suntec Convention Centre and the financial district, but the overall vibe still resembles what it was like to travel Rudyard Kipling’s fantastical Orient, with its teakwood floors, handmade carpets, 14-ft ceilings and filigreed colonial decor. A variety of different meeting venues, the largest of which seats 400, share the Spice Trail vibe. And no trip here is complete without a visit to the Long Bar, inspired by Malayan plantations from the 1920s, where the Singapore Sling was invented. Bring your group by to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway, Greene and Maugham, et al.
Next door to Raffles in a complex known as Raffles City, The Fairmont Singapore is a 706-room destination conference hotel catering to business travelers that doesn’t feel like a destination conference hotel. The experience starts in the lobby where guests walk into a grand room with high ceilings, comfortable couches and the sound of water running from the two waterfalls that fill the walls on both sides of the front desk. It’s modern and cool and makes you feel relaxed and not like you are in a busy downtown waiting room.
The property is adjacent to the Raffles City Convention Center with 70,000 square feet of meeting space. There are 27 breakout rooms with a capacity of 50-80 people per room and a ballroom that can hold up to 3,000 guests for events in a theater-style setting or 1,500 people for a formal dinner. A short walk outside the hotel and you can be at any one of three different nightlife areas. Closest is Chijmes a former convent turned concert hall, art gallery and home to several restaurants, bars and clubs, most of which open to a huge outdoor patio in the center of the complex.