SINGAPORE – Even from behind a mask, Lionel Yeo's broad smile was discernible.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a major disruption to the plans the new chief executive officer of the Singapore Sports Hub had hoped to carry out when he started work in February.
But, in an interview with The Straits Times on Thursday (Aug 20), the 46-year-old former public servant is still filled with optimism that he can elevate the Sports Hub to fulfil its role as a "national asset", while also striving for commercial profits.
It helped, he said, that he "came in with my eyes open on the challenges and potential" of the $1.33 billion Singapore Sports Hub.
Yeo, who was chief of the Singapore Tourism Board from 2012 to 2018, is the fourth man to helm the Sports Hub after Frenchman Philippe Collin-Delavaud (March 2011-December 2015), and Singaporeans Manu Sawhney (October 2015-May 2017) and Oon Jin Teik (January 2018-April 2019).
The challenge of balancing commercial interests and the government's vision for the Hub was reportedly a difficult issue for his predecessors, and Yeo said he is well aware of this and up for the challenge.
Said Yeo: "I represent the private sector that operates and runs this space, and we are very mindful of our responsibilities as stewards of this national asset, which means at the end of the day, we need to understand quite intimately and be aligned with what our stakeholders are seeking from this asset, and yet we have to make sure we are commercially sustainable… it's a very interesting balance."
His appointment, announced last November, came on the back of a year where three senior management staff – chief executive officer (CEO) Oon, chief operating officer (COO) Wong Lup Wai and chief financial officer Sandy Tay – resigned. Its chief commercial officer, Adam Firth, left in February while chief experience officer Jacqueline Lau also departed this year.
Yeo said that the Sports Hub has built a "strong" team since, who are "very energised" about what they can deliver.
"It's important for us to have that internal cohesion, to ensure we can effectively engage with external stakeholders," he said. "Talent retention is an issue, but it's also about how well we work as a team… (and) it's something I've been working on."
The pandemic has affected the Sports Hub's operations acutely. Overall footfall from January to June declined 54 per cent from the same period last year, while event attendance saw an 85 per cent dip, with many international sports events – such as the HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens and hugely popular International Champions Cup – forced to cancel, and entertainment acts doing the same or postponing to 2021.
The crisis also saw the Sports Hub convert the National Stadium and OCBC Arena into temporary accommodation for migrant workers. The unique sight of hundreds of purple tents lined up across the stadium pitch provided a surreal backdrop to Yeo's interview on Thursday.
But this pivot to aid in the national relief efforts, said Yeo, has had "positive consequences"for the Sports Hub.
He explained: "It forced us, in a very short space of time, to have that internal alignment – I needed my facilities partner, venue operations partner and catering services partner to come in, and together we worked with the government (on) their requirements, to deliver the project."
The pandemic is still raging but Yeo has not lost sight of the need for the Hub to recover in a post-covid world.
"One encouraging thing is that we haven't seen a lack of appetite from event promoters and organisers," he said.
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