Lion Heartlanders - Pivoting through COVID-19 as a small tour operator

Implementing small radical changes in company operations, technology, partnerships and innovation helped Lion Heartlanders survive the pandemic.

At the beginning of 2020, Lion Heartlanders, a small but rapidly growing Singaporean tour operator was looking forward to a bright new year. The company, whose core activity consisted of providing walking tours in the city to educate Singaporeans about their heritage and culture, was experiencing steady revenue growth.

At the beginning of 2020, Lion Heartlanders, a small but rapidly growing Singaporean tour operator was looking forward to a bright new year. The company, whose core activity consisted of providing walking tours in the city to educate Singaporeans about their heritage and culture, was experiencing steady revenue growth.

At the beginning of 2020, Lion Heartlanders, a small but rapidly growing Singaporean tour operator was looking forward to a bright new year. The company, whose core activity consisted of providing walking tours in the city to educate Singaporeans about their heritage and culture, was experiencing steady revenue growth.

At the end of January though, the omen of then the COVID-19 pandemic was already hovering over the city. In March, with the infections rate rising, the Singaporean government announced national circuit-breaker measures to contain the spread of the disease. All non-essential activities, including tours, were forced to close.

What initially looked like a promising year suddenly turned into the most challenging time for the company. The 'stay at home' advice and circuit breaker measures put into place by the government meant for the company massive cancellations of bookings and drying up of revenue. Despite these challenges, the company's founder Byron Koh did not want to give up, and already during the lockdown started to plan the way out for his business.

The implementation of small but somehow radical changes in the way the company operates, consisting in the adoption of new technology, the development of strategic partnerships and most of all the use of creativity and service innovation helped Lion Heartlanders not only to survive the pandemic but to pivot and become even more successful than before.

Photo source: Lion Heartlanders Facebook page

Facing the reality of a new world

Lion Heartlanders is a typical growing SME. The company provides educational tours for domestic travellers, intending to make Singaporean proud of their heritage by the rediscovery of their country. The tours are addressed to both individuals and groups, with schools and organisations representing a significant part of this clientele.

The company employs full time only three people, who are responsible for the coordination of the activities and collaborates with freelance tour guides to provide the walking tours.

Photo source: CNA Insider YouTube channel

With the news about the spread of the virus, the company's partners and guides started to be concerned already in February, as cancellations started to increase. As this was happening, he encouraged clients to postpone their tours rather than cancelling them, and even if some of them did, many ended up cancelling later on due to the unpredictable situation.

Trying to reassure his guides, Byron promised to his guides that for all the tours that were postponed instead of cancelled, they would have priority.

“I promised them that for all the jobs that were postponed instead of cancelled, the guides would have first priority for any future jobs, because I owe them a job or a tour,” - Byron Koh, on

With the circuit breaker measures coming into place, Lion Heartlanders faced a 100% drop in sales during April 2020, with cancellations up to $20,000 in just one day. With this trend continuing, he realised he was only able to keep his full-time stuff paid for about half a year. This is where Byron started to become really worried about the future of the business, with the prospect of shutting down always more realistic.

Luckily, thanks to the Jobs Support Scheme developed by the government to support tourism businesses, he was granted a 75% salary subsidy for himself and his employees. Byron soon realised that even if helpful, this support wouldn't have been enough to keep operations running: even after the lockdown, guided tours were still a no-go for many, and group tours were banned by government restrictions on social distancing. He needed to find an alternative way of providing his services.

Pivoting the business model

With Byron realising he couldn't rely just on government support schemes to keep his business alive, he soon started to think about alternative ways to provide his tours. This is when he began to explore the opportunities given by online experiences and remote tours.

Looking at other online experience platforms such as by Airbnb Experiences and Withlocals, he was at first sceptical about adopting the same approach. With his tours being very educational and focused on the interaction with local people, he was wondering how could he transpose this virtually. "How can you enjoy following a person for 2 hours online?" he wondered.

Photo source: CNA Insider YouTube channel

He realised that for such an experience to be enjoyable, the tour guide needed to be extremely entertaining and the tour even more engaging. Not to mention that an online experience requires excellent technical support to ensure reliable streaming. Individually training and giving support to all the guides was something unachievable given the small team. He realised he needed to team up with a partner that could give him this support. That's when he came up with the idea of joining forces with a competitor.

Teaming up with a competitor

With many local tour operators facing difficulties due to the lack of international tourists, Byron saw an untapped opportunity: Lion Heartlanders could have provided them links with the domestic market in exchange for technical support. Combining Lion Heartlanders' knowledge of the domestic market with stronger technical capabilities of another tour operator could have been a win-win for both.

Byron teamed up with Monster Day Tours, a competitor who was focusing on the international market, which employs young and dynamic guides for their tours. They could provide him with the support he was looking for, and at the same time, he could give them opportunities to engage with the local market.

Photo source: CNA Insider YouTube channel

On his side, as group tours were still unfeasible, Byron focused his efforts on the education sector, finding new opportunities by collaborating with Singaporean primary and secondary schools. As for safety reasons students could not have traditional tours around the city, he thought to take students to the streets virtually instead.

Given the young audience, Byron wanted to ensure that the tours were engaging and dynamic. This is where the young and energetic guides from Monster Day Tours came handy to create the perfect mix of entertainment and in classrooms education.

Developing a new virtual experience concept

After experimenting with different formats, Byron came up with a concept that was going well beyond the 'standard' virtual tours offered by other companies, and that was offering a more comprehensive experience for the participants, including a mix of virtual and in-person experiences.

Photo source: CNA Insider YouTube channel

The new experiences were hosted directly in the classrooms, where the educational tour was streamed through a projector. To ensure a smooth experience, a Byron was taking care of the setup and introduced the guide and experience to the students. Whilst the guide takes the students through the streets of Singapore, a dedicate technical team supports the stream remotely.

The introduction of the classroom host was not only a way to ensure the best setup, but a way to enrich the experience. Thinking outside the box, Byron came up with the idea of creating corresponding in-classroom activities to the ones shown by the guide. For example, if the guide was showing students the spices of a local market, the host was providing students with individually packed spices to smell and touch. I this way, the virtual tour is enhanced with a hands-on sensory experience.

Photo source: CNA Insider YouTube channel

The reasons behind the success

After piloting the virtual experiences with a couple of classes, the initiative aroused the enthusiasm of many schools and organisations within the city. The experiences offered by Lion Heartlanders were particularly successful among schools because they provided a safe, cost and time-effective way of taking school trips.

With most of the schools facing the impossibility of taking students 'physically' out on trips, the virtual tours provided by Lion Heartlanders were the perfect solution to compensate for the cancellation of school trips.

"The students are in a safe environment and a familiar setting. All I have to ensure is... a Zoom or some online set-up for the students" - Anisia Teng, teacher, Frontier Primary School, on

The strong educational component of the experience paired with the high interactivity ensured by both the classroom host and the remote guide made the virtual tour extremely engaging and formative. This was a key differentiator factor that made schools so enthusiast about the initiative.

Thanks to the bookings coming from schools, Lion Heartlanders managed to recover the initial revenue loss faced at the beginning of the crisis. In fact, partnering with schools secured the company bookings through the whole autumn 2020, with more coming through December and early 2021.

Many schools recognised the potential given by virtual tours in the long term as well. Virtual tours are in fact considered a valid alternative to demanding trips within the region and abroad, even when the pandemic will be over.

From the business point of view, the company realised how selling to organisations like schools can be easier than selling to private groups, which still need to overcome the fact that they have to pay for attending a virtual experience.

Photo by Charles Postiaux on Unsplash

Succeeding through innovation and business support programmes

By switching the focus from private groups to schools and by re-designing the whole experience virtually, the company has successfully managed to pivot and adapt to the unprecedented situation.

The example of Lion Heartlanders shows us how innovation and thinking outside the box can be a critical success factor for any businesses who want to survive through an ever-changing market. Throughout the second half of 2020, the company not only managed to recover the initial revenue loss faced at the beginning of the crisis but created even more jobs than before.

Photo source: CNA Insider YouTube channel

In fact, the success of the virtual tours together with the wage support granted by the Singaporean government had made it possible for the company to grow the team, converting two of the company's freelancers into full-time employees. The government support schemes also allowed Byron to hire an extra person under the SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programme, which provides career reintegration to displaced mid-career individuals.

But supporting the marketing activities related to the new initiative comes with considerable costs. To support the launch of the new initiative Byron tapped into the opportunity given by the Singapore Tourism Board through the Marketing Partnership Programme. Part of STB’s COVID 19 Recovery Plan, the programme allows local tour operators to benefit from financial support for marketing activities covering up to 70% of the expenses.

The case of Lion Heartlanders is an exceptional example of how a small tourism business can survive and pivot through a crisis. To succeed, the business has adopted a multi-level approach, embracing innovation, creative thinking and partner collaboration.

The company was not afraid to redesign its business model and experiment with new offers and partnerships. By focusing its efforts on a specific target segment (schools and organisations) and making the offer unique, the company has found a new valuable business proposition. Joining forces with the competition instead of relying entirely on its own capabilities also allowed the business to create new business opportunities.

Also, Lion Heartlanders allows any business to see how much can be achieved by making the most out of government support schemes. Even if not all governments across the world have provided the same support to businesses that Singapore has put into place, the example of Lion Heartlanders shows how an intelligent utilisation of support schemes can support business innovation and drive business to success.

Key Takeaways

Published on:
May 2020
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