Reflections with Ian Wilson

By Ng Yau Xuan and Teow Junhao

Ian Wilson first joined Marina Bay Sands in 2013 as the integrated resort’s Senior Vice President for Hotel Operations, successfully managing Singapore’s largest hotel (2,561 rooms and suites), as well as the iconic Sands SkyPark and Pool, Transportation, Call Centre, and Food and Beverage Operations. He was appointed Senior Vice President of Non-gaming operations in January 2018, and assumed leadership responsibility to areas including its Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Facilities, Sustainability, Security and Cyber Security, as well as Sales.

Ian began his career at the Banff Springs Hotel in 1983 as a bus boy, and has worked his way up through both Food and Beverage and Rooms before leading Global Reservations, Revenue Management, and Distribution for Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. In 2003, Ian was appointed Hotel Manager for the 1,365-room Fairmont Royal York, and he was subsequently promoted to General Manager in 2005. In 2007, Ian moved to Singapore in the role of Regional Vice President. In this role, he oversaw Fairmont’s growth and operations in China and South East Asia. His portfolio included the legendary Peace Hotel in Shanghai and the Fairmont Beijing which was voted the top hotel in China and Hong Kong on Trip Advisor. Ian holds Masters’ and Bachelor’s Degrees in Hotel Administration from Cornell University and is certified as a Journeyman Chef from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.


I love it, to be honest with you! It’s a wonderful industry. It’s an industry where I get to make people happy; it’s an industry where exciting things happen all the time. You get to rub elbows with the movers and shakers of the world and celebrities, and you get to host events that are exciting and interesting.  Every day is different, so you never feel like, “Oh, it’s the same routine.”

Even though the industry may be one of the oldest in the world – which at its core is about accommodating people, taking care of them and keeping them safe- it’s still an industry where we’re still figuring out how to make it better every day. There’s still a huge amount of opportunity to continue to improve. It is very dynamic and exciting.

It’s an industry that has always worked around change and you have to be adaptable. That can be easier for some and harder for others as every business will be. Particularly in hospitality, you will often move and work with different teams. Any time that happens the dynamics change. 

You also have to learn about all sorts of cultural sensitivities. I had the privilege of working with Premier hotels for a period of time before I worked China and Southeast Asia. I realised that everywhere is different and you have to learn about how you do business in different parts of the world. You have to ask yourself, “What are the interests and the concerns of our customers in different areas?”

Lastly, your environment is always changing in that the technology is changing. So, I think it’s a business where you have to learn fast. You have to have a passion for learning and you have to become very flexible. And I think that this takes practice!

To be honest with you, I’d be lying if I said I’ve never made mistakes because I’ve certainly made mistakes, but hopefully you learn from you as you go forward. So I think that that would be one of the challenges. 

I think if I look in this current time, the changing demographics are working against labour intensive businesses. You have to learn how to do more with less and how to work more efficiently which means you have to be quite creative and you have to try stuff. That’s a challenge as well: how do you continue to innovate and do things differently?

It is in many ways a challenging business because you’re also dealing with extremely high expectations particularly in luxury travel. However, it’s also incredibly a gratifying business because at the end of the day, you get so much positive feedback from people. You have a chance to meet people from all over the world and actually to make a difference for people’s lives. You can create unforgettable memories for people, be it through their wedding, other special events or just a small touch for a child. In that way, it’s incredibly gratifying!

I guess, a couple of things. One is to aim high and continue to aspire for bigger and better things. If you don’t aspire, you are not going to get into the industry. Two, would just be to enter the industry [without reservations]. I thought of a totally different career; I thought I was going to be a computer scientist. And so ultimately, I was glad that I’ve chose to follow my heart and do something that I love. 

The other thing would be that your key to success in this business, as with many other industries, is never going to be [reliant on] what you personally can do or not. It’s really about how effectively you can work with other people and Work collaboratively to achieve a goal. The better you get at that, the more successful you’re going to be.

I was, in high school! I found computers fascinating and exciting because they were, I hate to admit it, kind of new then. I thought the potential was unbelievable. I learned how to do some coding, and learned about how computers functioned.  I took a year off school, and during the course of that year, I started working in Hospitality. Initially, I wanted to learn how to be a waiter so I could make money when I went to University. I actually started as a dishwasher, and then became a bus boy and ultimately a waiter! It was through the course of that experience, that I decided that Hospitality was just way more fun than computer science was ever going to be. So I did a complete right turn and left computer science behind, but I’ve never had a regret.

Well, I think you really want to try and put talent to task. Try and get people doing what they love to do and what they’re best at. I think we all spend too much time worrying about “Jimmy’s not so strong at X or Y, and so we have to help Jimmy get better at that.” But Jimmy’s never going to become the best in the world by focusing on what he’s not good at. How do we get Jimmy working in what he loves to do and what he’s really good at before we help him manage those weaknesses? 

That is part of the leading piece of learning: learning to surround yourself with people who are good at the things you’re not good at or love the things you don’t love, because that’s your only way to long term success. I think this factors into mentoring people, because you want to put people into challenging roles so that it stretches them.

However, you have to be careful about people as sometimes they don’t work out. I think you have to be careful not to discard somebody just because their position didn’t work out. Instead, reflect on it and say, “Is there a better place? Is there somewhere that they’re going to be more passionate about where they can be more effective?” Then, try that again. We all will have setbacks in life and just because you weren’t massively successful in one role doesn’t mean that you’re doomed forever. Instead, focus on what can you learn from that, and think of how you are going to apply that to something else where you’re bound to be much more successful. 

I think we all have to remember how many times has your average billionaire from the Silicon Valley failed in their lifetime before they were successful. So just because one role didn’t necessarily work, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good worker.

I must say I do enjoy mentoring people. I do enjoy trying to help them to learn and grow and I’m always inspired when I have the privilege of working with people, whether it’s my own team or someone I’m quote unquote mentoring. This is because I learn as much from them I think is as they hopefully learn from me. You get new ideas, enthusiasm and a new perspective on everything that you do.

Well, how long do you have? Our opportunities are very deep and wide, and MBS is a wonderful place to work for those reasons. 

We have a myriad of training programs available to employees here. We teach over a hundred WSQ courses in house and then we have 50 other courses, giving employees a great opportunity to learn that way. We also have cross-deployment programs that people where employees are working across multiple different job scopes, allowing them to learn a really huge amount as they go forward. 

We have management trainee and management associate programs, which we’ve had about 50 people go through over time. We also have internship programs and it’s not just hospitality interns we employ. We bring people from many different schools and disciplines. We have had interns from an analytics background or from a marketing track from different university programs, or from a culinary program, apart from interns doing more traditional Hospitality studies. So we had interns from a huge variety of courses that way.

I think the other thing is working here and moving from one department to another is a huge development and exposure opportunity. And we will supplement all of those things with external training where it is deemed appropriate. I have never worked anywhere that has more opportunities to develop yourself and to learn and to grow than here.

We work very hard to build a service culture called ‘OneMBS’, and this makes it a very special place to work. We all share a daily purpose to create unforgettable memories for our guests, and we are guided by our values which are key to our culture.  Everything ties in to the values which are Respect, Integrity, Teamwork, Passion and Creativity. They act very much as a guiding light on how we conduct ourselves every day and they’re broader than you might think.

For example, Respect incorporates the notion of how people respect themselves and others by learning and by teaching others. Integrity is not just about following the law and being honest, but also about doing the right thing – giving back to the country that we’re in, whether that be through the CSR opportunities or through our sustainability initiatives. Teamwork is how you work effectively across not just your department, but across the entire Integrated Resort and with Suppliers.  Our culture of ‘OneMBS’ speaks about the value of teamwork. We are a huge organization, spanning multiple huge divisions.  However, the customer doesn’t care that you are organised in different departments because they experience the organisation by traveling laterally across the property. And so ‘OneMBS’ is about being cohesive. We are an Integrated Resort, and the power of an Integrated Resort is how seamlessly those pieces work effectively together. This has really been realised in our culture, as you’ll sometimes hear people go, “We are OneMBS, so how can I help?”

I think passion and creativity is really about Innovation and never being comfortable with where you are. We are always trying to push the bar a little bit higher and always looking at how you can do things a little better every day, or try things that are new and different.

Of course, we’re still a relatively young organization. In comparison, when I worked at Fairmont, they were well over a hundred years old. But I think we’ve come a long way to build that culture in Marina Bay Sands and this culture is not something we should ever take for granted. It’s something we work on each  day and that as a leader, it’s something that you have to personify and you have to really lead by your actions. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of words that sit on a wall! I would saythat the culture in Marina Bay Sands is far more meaningful than that.

I think we’re trying to redefine how hospitality works and we’re doing that through a number of different things. However, I would say that our foundation is still our culture because the culture is so important. You can have the best technology or analytics in the world, but if you don’t have a culture that will adapt and change or embrace them, you’re not going to be successful.

On that, we really have a kind of a foundation in measurement. It’s a lot easier to manage things that you can measure. That differentiates us from most other hospitality enterprises in that we can measure an awful lot. We can really see cause-and-effect about how things operate, and we can start to get to the fundamentals. We can ask ourselves what is the 20% that drives 80% of guest satisfaction?  We strive to measure processes as well as the outcomes, to measure from the property level results all the way down to an individual level, and from historical to increasingly real-time data.

We also do a lot with innovative technology. This includes working with robotics, automation or just redesigning conventional technologies that we are using today.

I would say that we also do more to improve our team members as well. We’re trying to teach our staff Lean and Design Thinking through a programme we call ‘IGNITE’. We also try and look at how we can get better in choosing our team members.

In general, innovation increasingly penetrates all aspects of the operation. We want to behave very nimbly so that we can adapt to the environment. Things change extremely quickly, and we want to continue to provide outstanding customer service and as an employer, to provide a great value proposition for our staff. We want Marina Bay Sands to be a place that people aspire and are proud to work at.

Hospitality has changed so tremendously during my lifetime! The whole business model has changed from having many independent hotels, and small chains, to an oligopoly of hotel companies and as we move forward amazing integrated resorts.  Increasingly, we will challenge the old conventions about how things work and what people truly want, and we will focus on hyper personalization at scale. I think the speed of change has accelerated dramatically, but we would not be the only industry affected by that.

It was not that long ago that one used to make an expensive call or mail a hotel for a reservation!  Things then started to accelerate with Telexes, call centres and the birth of the airline led Global Distribution Systems (GDS). Hotels are one of the oldest e-commerce businesses in the world in terms of how you distribute a product. That made things go a lot faster. Fast forward to today, it only continues to accelerate and the expectations of your customers only continue to go up. There are so many platforms for customers to appraise your services, your calibre, your consistency and the quality you provide.

I guess my advice to anybody early in their career is to do what you love to do. And I know that sounds cliché, but I think many people fall into the trap of looking at which job will pay them the most money. The reality though, is that you’re going to be doing this for a long time. Getting a job that you don’t love, even if it pays you well, will put you in a difficult situation: the longer you stay there, the harder it is to move and so on.

When you’re young, you can move quite easily. However, as you earn more money; as you get a spouse; as you get a family, it becomes exponentially harder to make that change or to take the risk of making a change. I’ve known many people in their careers who ended up somewhere very different from where they really probably wish that they had ended up. So, if you do what you love and you’re passionate about it, the financial remuneration will eventually take care of itself. You may not be the next Warren Buffett, but you will be comfortable, happy and content because it’s rarely the money that justifies what someone wants to do. Focus on the pleasure you derive from what it is that you do.

The second thing is you need to be very, very flexible to change. If you ever think you’ve just finished school, you haven’t because you’re going to have to learn faster than any generation before about the environment that you’re working in. Have a passion for learning, a natural curiosity and keep yourself challenged. Remain flexible, and don’t get fixed in your ways. Remain curious so that you’re passionate about embracing change. I think that alone would help you to be far more successful in any endeavour that you do.

I would say that hospitality is an amazing business. I think people equate it to shiftwork and time away from the family, but it is an incredibly rewarding industry. What you’ll find is that people who embark on a career in hospitality often fall in love with it and they stay on doing it for a long time. At its core, hospitality is a business where you get to work with a lot of fun and interesting people and where you are generally making people happy.  There’re not many businesses where you get to focus on making people happy!

I think it’s a business that is also changing dramatically right now, with the advent of technology and analytics. You’re going to find that productivity will increase a great deal, which means that pay scales will go up. The complexity of many jobs in this industry will go up considerably over the next 10 to 20 years. I think that makes it a very interesting space to work in.

I would encourage anybody who is looking at where they want to go in their career to contemplate the hospitality industry, and also to think about how to shift paradigms in this business. The industry will evolve tremendously in the years ahead, and unlike many businesses, there is still tremendous opportunity to be part of that change and to be the innovator who makes things happen.