Voices from the travel industry: Of survival, support, and self-discovery

By Clara How, Dec 10, 2020

If there was one word that felt most commonly used in the dictionary of 2020 (that is, other than “unprecedented”), it was “pivot”. When COVID-19 hit, businesses around the world came to a standstill. I saw companies dig their heels in to reinvent the wheel. Restaurants rolled out takeaway or delivery menus, stores turned to e-commerce, and everything that could go online did. 

But what about the businesses that solely rely on travel and tourism? What of the people behind these businesses, whose reason for waking up everyday was hit by a seismic shift, seemingly overnight? For those long months of Circuit Breaker and Phase One, what was motivating them to get through the days and the uncertainty? 

I could scarcely imagine, so I thought I would ask. 

The answers surprised me. I had imagined tales of despair, frustration, and stress. The people you will read about did experience all that, but their stories are also proof that in times of crisis, human resilience surprises you. Women from an airline, the hotel industry, a travel agency, and an attraction in Sentosa take us behind the scenes of their 2020. Their stories are in turns emotional, practical, and give insight into what it means to push through, and survive.

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This is Jenell Tan, who has been a flight attendant for over five years, but who has been facing inertia about her career path for a year. She reflects on how the uncertainty of 2020 sent her into limbo, but how it was also an awakening call. She still doesn’t have all the answers, but that’s okay. 

Jenell shares about her travels, being a small business owner and more on her personal Dayre. You can find her at @jenelltan.

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For much of this year, I was in denial.

I knew that there were other options for stewardesses, such as taking up temporary work. But I chose not to, because I kept wondering, “What if flights resume?” Perhaps that was my downfall; for so long, I was stuck in a rut. Strictly speaking, there were so many things I could have done to earn money, but I just didn’t want to do them. 

I have been flying for five and a half years, and I never expected to hold this job for that long. When I first started, it was so much fun and the money was good. But by the third or fourth year, I became aware that I wasn’t living a normal life. I live month to month, depending on my roster. It’s hard to maintain friendships and prioritise relationships when you don’t even know when you’ll be in town. 

While we want to make our passengers feel connected to the service we offer, as a result, we do lose connections of our own.

I knew that something had to change, but there wasn’t any urgency or push factor. Plus, as much as I complain, the lifestyle does have its benefits: I never had to bring work home, I get to travel, and once you are familiarised, the job is an easy one. 

The pandemic burst this bubble. We kept seeing flights get cancelled, and at the beginning, it felt like a much-needed break. But during Circuit Breaker, I had so much time that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t believe that this was now the life I was living. 

Aside from my regular job, I’m also a fitness instructor and run my own activewear label called Trybe Active. Since I couldn’t fly or teach, I poured everything that I had into my label. It did start to pay off, but ultimately, the looming cloud over my head was that I was digging into my savings. Without flights, I wouldn’t have sufficient income. 

On top of worrying about money, I also felt incredibly lonely. Even though I had a lot of emotional support from friends and family, I understood that everyone has their own life to lead, and jobs that they could do from home. 

I was so used to returning to Singapore and having everyone carve out time to be there for me. But now, just because I have so much time doesn’t mean that everyone else does.

I also felt so stifled by the endless speculation about the pandemic. It was all anyone talked about, whether it was friends, colleagues or on the news. When we did have flights, everyone wound up talking about how dire the situation was. It reached breaking point when I snapped at my boyfriend and told him not to talk about the news. I felt terrible, because throughout this, he has been such a trooper in his support of me.  He was very patient in telling me that we would get through this time. 

I finally reached the point where I had been struggling for so long that I was tired. It has always been part of my character to make decisions that are guided by what feels right, rather than what seemed logical. Eventually, I knew that even though it didn’t feel instinctive, I had to move along and find practical solutions to my problems.

I had to ask myself: “Are you going to find other things to do? What are your plans if flights don’t resume?”

I would say that I’m still crawling out of the trenches, and even though feelings of gratitude do not come easily, there are things that I am grateful for when I look back on this past year. I’ve realised that I need to save money, and that this job might not be forever. It was a personal step to acknowledge that I was struggling, and that things need to change. As for what, I’m still finding out.

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This is Maria Singh, 39, the Director of Public Relations and Communications at Regent Singapore. A mother of two, Circuit Breaker was a precious time for her to spend with her family at home, but it was also a time where she was buoyed by the strength of her work family. She tells us why in hospitality, the spirit of serving manifests itself in helping those who are standing alongside you.

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The first time I entered the hotel lobby during Circuit Breaker to pick up deliveries, it was very sobering.

At that time, we hadn’t been appointed as a Stay Home Notice facility yet, so the once buzzing lobby had become an empty shell. 

Usually, our lobby is a hive of activity. People would be checking in and out, having tea in our tea lounge, or getting treats from our Italian gourmet bakery. There was always an energy about the place. But during Circuit Breaker, the only thing that was left open was the bakery, and even then, only for takeaways. When I was working at home, there was still a sense of normalcy because there were always things to do in the house, but seeing the hotel as quiet as it was really hit home.

It was a chaotic time both at work and at home. I treasured all the time I was able to spend with my children, but I was also facing the stress of having to cope with a pay cut, and my husband being out of his job as an early childhood teacher for six months. We also had to deal with the emotional difficulties of my father-in-law taking ill and my dog passing away. 

It was a little scary to see our savings decline, but there were several things that helped to tide us over. My husband received government grants, and we had saved a large sum of money for two year-end family holidays which we could now use. Groceries wound up being the only thing we were spending on.  

In my four years of working in the hotel industry (with two years at my current role), this was the first time that I had felt so shaken. Ironically, I had made the career transition from media to hospitality because I figured that this industry would be a more stable one. 

But what I realised and liked about this industry, and what also saw me through this year, was the family aspect of working in hospitality. A hotel is made up of all these different arms that need to come together. There’s no such thing as working in silos, because everyone works together to communicate a story to our guests.

When the pandemic hit, that spirit of service doesn’t go away just because we no longer have guests. Instead, we served our colleagues. It was a huge help in terms of morale.

Take our pastry team. Overnight, they were swamped in the Circuit Breaker period, because everyone was ordering deliveries and takeaways. They were a two-man operation providing all the baked goods for the hotel, and they were calling for volunteers across departments to help share the load. So even though many of us had no culinary experience, we were all encouraged to take a shift to help them. I took up two graveyard shifts (from midnight to 9am), and the bakers were so appreciative that they tried to make it fun for us newcomers, such as cooking us breakfast.

Nothing was mandated — everyone volunteered because it felt like the natural thing to do. When weddings eventually resumed, we also chipped in to help with banquet duty to save money on hiring external labour. This was what was keeping the hotel going, and it felt like our responsibility to help.

I can’t speak for all the members of the team, but when we were appointed as a SHN facility, it gave some normalcy to the whole situation and we were happy to resume operations. Even though the guests we now have might not have a choice in staying with us, we still want to make their stay special. We look out on social media for guests’ feedback, and if they have a special request or someone has a birthday, we try to comply or send a cake. We can no longer offer a full service like turning down the room or housekeeping, so it’s particularly uplifting when guests still leave us heartfelt notes of appreciation. 

Today, the lobby is back to being more lively: there are people who have started coming in for afternoon tea, or to work from our lobby. There is a giant Christmas tree and a gingerbread house display. We take comfort in that our restaurants are still open, and our rooms are still running. To see it evolve from the empty shell to what it is now really feels like we have come a long way, and see that our work is always reflective of the times. 

I believe that the most important lesson one can have is to always try to look at things with positivity. We have survived pandemics before, and I do feel confident that this too, will come to an end. We may not know when, but I’m positive that it will. Till then, it’s about holding out, and keeping faith. 

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This is Zelia Leong, 29, co-founder of online travel booking service Anywhr. Prior to the pandemic, their product focused on combining technology with trip planning and curation. 

To the public, it may have seemed like travel companies would have empty days with no customers to attend to. But Zelia and her team kept themselves busy. She tells us that when the going gets tough, you just need to find a solution — even if the solution is setting aside what you created.

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When the pandemic hit, there were people who told me to find other jobs.

They suggested that we send our business into hibernation until travel was able to resume. 

But I believe that if you hibernate, you lose motivation and traction — it felt like we would be giving up, and we didn’t want to take that option.

When the news broke that our borders would be shut, the first thought that came into our mind was our customers: I knew that we would have to salvage all the trips that we had planned for them. My next thought was: what next? What can we do to ensure that this business survives?

Like everyone else, we began to work from home. Fortunately, our office lease was ending, so it was an easy decision to discontinue and save on rent. The team and I gathered to have lunch, and together, we cleared out our office. It was sad to leave a place with all our memories, but I knew that for Anywhr to survive, we would have to be practical, and find solutions. 

Prior to the pandemic, we were organising several hundred trips a month for travellers. All of those trips and income ceased once the travel industry closed its doors. We were lucky to have investors and receive government aid, and we became very prudent in spending (like cutting down on extra manpower such as freelancers). The grants also meant that none of our full-time Singaporean staff received pay cuts. But we were, and still are, burning through reserves. 

Our product involves using technology to help people plan their vacations, and like any tech product, it needs to be used. But now with no one to try the product, it felt like we were stuck.

That’s when I realised: no matter how amazing my product is, if there’s no one to test it, we can’t move forward. That was probably the lowest moment for me.

But it showed me that it was time to look towards other things, and in the meantime, make sure the product can still be used again in the future. 

It’s surprising, but the first few months of Circuit Breaker turned out to be our most productive. We helped travellers salvage their trips or get refunds, researched the current climate to find possible solutions, and our writers continued creating social media content about things to look forward to once the travel ban was lifted, to keep our audience inspired. 

But what we also started doing was to run experiments that were both within and outside the realm of travel. We began working with major airlines and corporates to plan projects, and clinched partnerships (some of which I cannot divulge yet!). During Circuit Breaker, we created Keep Singapore United gift boxes consisting of products from local businesses (such as tea from a tea room). We also created Daycations where we organised a day out for customers, which was very popular but ceased because it didn’t make a lot of financial sense in the long run. 

While we are still known for being a travel company, in my head, I think of us now as just a start-up, with no label attached. The way I see it is: if travel resumes, we can definitely go back to what we were good at, which was trip planning. But if travel doesn’t resume in a year or so, this is where these little experiments will come into play. My team and I constantly brainstorm and discuss ideas about what we could potentially pivot to. 

Nothing is confirmed, but if we don’t fixate on trying to make things happen in an industry that isn’t going anywhere, it frees us to consider other options.

Right now, we are just taking things as they come right. I’m very proud of my team, because despite having to go through shock and sadness, we were able to look ahead and move on. There is always constant stress that comes with leadership, and I did my best to ask the team how they were feeling, to have honest conversations and to celebrate any small wins together. We have hustled and pulled through, and I count myself very lucky to have them with me.

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This is Hidatasya Zailani, 24, a full-time member of the Skyline Luge Operation Crew at Sentosa. Hers is a job that is impossible to be carried out from home, but that’s what she loves about it. She tells us what it’s like to work with thousands of people a day, and to have that suddenly be taken away.

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I remember tuning into the live telecast when Circuit Breaker was announced, even though my colleagues and I were still at work.

For some time now, we had been anxious, and hearing the Prime Minister’s words devastated us. We thought: “Given our job, what can we do now?” 

I’ve been working for the Luge at Sentosa for six to seven years, and I love my job. A typical work day can last for seven hours, and on average, we run 6,000 rides a day. That’s a lot of people to meet, but that’s what I like about what I do. 

I’ve alway been adventurous, and I’ve even gone to Indonesia for an Outward Bound camp! Being deskbound is not for me. What I get from my current job is the ability to meet people from all around the world. Even though we have to constantly explain safety precautions, it doesn’t feel boring because everyone’s reactions are so different. I’ve even heard children cry out that there’s a crocodile on the tracks (it was a monitor lizard), or mistake a peacock for an ostrich! No day is the same. 

So to have all of that taken away during the Circuit Breaker and Phase One period was extremely difficult. I thrive on human interaction and the outdoors, but for those three months I could only talk to my family, and find excuses to go to the supermarket for some sunshine.

Because this is a job that is impossible to work from home, I was the only member of my family who was not working. I was so used to talking to people and tried to get the same interaction with my family, but they were all engaged in back to back virtual meetings. It left me feeling extremely lonely.

I would try to talk to my mum, but she was so busy that I felt like I couldn’t catch her attention. Even though I told myself that it was okay, there were times when I would go into my room and tear up.

But it’s not in my nature to sit and do nothing, so I found several ways to keep me going. I organised online games with friends. I kept track of the news everyday, and sent updates about vaccines to friends and family. Knowing that scientists were doing something about the situation gave me hope that this would not be permanent. 

I’m also a curious person, and would always be asking guests questions, especially about their languages — I am able to give safety briefings in Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi and Turkish! The desire to learn never went away, so I downloaded apps to learn Korean and Hindi so I could prepare myself when operations resumed. 

Some of my friends considered looking for other jobs, such as working as a packer in a warehouse. But it wasn’t for me, because I had been given the reassurance by my boss that my job was secure, and counted myself very lucky. My mum also wanted me to stay home, and minimise contact with people. 

Once we settled into routines, the time at home became precious. Because of my working hours, I was always the first to leave my house and the last to come home, didn’t often have meals with my family. Circuit Breaker gave us this time to bond, and we were also able to break fast together every day during Ramadan. It warmed my heart, and did help me cope. 

I was excited to be able to return to work, though after such a long time without the scale of human interaction I was used to, I was nervous. But I got back into it, and now I have to say that my days at Sentosa are largely similar to pre-pandemic times — just without the language barrier! People still ask the same questions of where the best restaurants are, and whether anyone has died while riding the Luge (of course not!). My enjoyment of the job has not been affected, and I’m still very happy to be able to provide this service. 

Photos provided by Zelia, Hidatasya, Jenell and Maria. 

Writer’s Note:

My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I’ve written about adjusting to life alone with my mother during the Circuit Breaker period, travels of what feels like yesteryear, and how I’ve been hit hard by year-end blues (and I’m sure I’m not alone).

Join me and 15,000 other women on Dayre who share the big and small moments of their life with a supportive community. We write about travelling: our bucket lists, our travel hacks, our recommendations. This year, we write about daycations, activities out with friends and family, and being homebodies.

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