Singapore built world's first bubble facility so people can travel for business without quarantine
- Singapore just opened the world's first bubble facility for business travelers.
- Travelers can bypass a 14-day quarantine by staying in the bubble facility, but they can't leave it.
- The facility has 150 guest rooms, gym pods, and 40 meeting rooms with air-tight glass panels and separate ventilation systems.
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As the world rolls out Covid-19 vaccines and international travel remains largely grounded, Singapore has opened up what it says is the world's first bubble facility for non-quarantining business travelers.
The facility, called Connect@Changi, will allow business travelers to bypass the city-state's mandatory 14-day quarantine - as long as they don't leave the facility. Inside, guests will stay in hotel-like rooms, have meals delivered to a cubbyhole outside their door, and conduct in-person business meetings with Singaporeans and professionals from around the world in rooms with air-tight glass panels and separate ventilation systems.
"Without such a facility, travel options are essentially binary - either stay at home due to travel restrictions, or fly overseas and endure long periods in quarantine," Robin Hu, head of international policy at Temasek and chairman of SingEx-Sphere Holdings, two of the project's developers, said in a press release.
The facility offers business travelers the option of resuming in-person meetings in a "safe and contained manner" while also boosting Singapore's economic recovery, he said.
The 780,000-square-foot facility opened this week with 150 guest rooms and 40 meeting rooms, but it plans to be able to host 1,300 travelers by the end of the year. Room rates start at 384 Singapore dollars, or about $287, which is based on a minimum 24-hour stay and includes meals and Covid-19 tests.
Earlier this week, I got a sneak peek of Connect@Changi just before the first guests arrived. Here's what travelers can expect from the world's first business travel bubble facility.
The Connect@Changi facility was built inside the Singapore Expo Convention & Exhibition Centre, a roughly one-million-square-foot complex near Changi Airport that's typically used for live concerts, conferences, and exhibitions.
In the pandemic, none of those events has been happening, leaving the expo centre sitting empty. Last spring, it was temporarily converted into a facility for patients recovering from Covid-19.
In December, the Singapore government-owned investment company, Temasek, announced it was teaming up with a group of Singapore companies including Changi Airport Group and Sheares Healthcare Group to open what they say is the world's first bubble facility for non-quarantining business travelers.
The first phase of construction was finished in about 14 weeks.
To stay at the facility, travelers must apply on the Connect@Changi website and await approval. Connect@Changi will coordinate with the Singapore government to approve the special visa for business travelers.
Right now, travelers coming from any country can apply, with the exception of those coming from the UK and South Africa. But approval is not guaranteed; Singapore will consider factors including the Covid-19 status of the traveler's country and the departure country of other travelers staying at the facility at the same time, a publicist said.
They may be able to skip a two-week quarantine, but those who stay at Connect@Changi should prepare their nostrils for multiple Covid-19 PCR tests.
Before leaving for Singapore, guests must take a Covid-19 PCR test in their country of departure within 72 hours of their flight. Once they arrive at the airport in Singapore, they'll be tested again. And while staying at the Connect@Changi facility, guests will be required to undergo additional PCR testing at the on-site testing center on days three, seven, and 14 of their stay.
That means that a five-day stay would require a total of three Covid-19 PCR tests.
After travelers land in Singapore and get their first PCR tests at Changi Airport, a shuttle will transport them to the airside entrance of Connect@Changi, which is reserved for international arrivals to the facility and staff.
The centre is a five-minute drive from the airport.
Once they've checked in at reception, guests will be shown directly to their rooms, where they must remain until they get the results of their arrival Covid-19 PCR test.
The facility currently has 150 guest rooms open, but 660 rooms are expected to be open when the first phase is completed in May.
When Connect@Changi is fully completed later this year, it will have the capacity to accommodate roughly 1,300 business travelers at a time, according to press materials.
Due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, project developers don't know how long the facility will be open, a publicist told me. But once it's no longer needed, it will be demolished and the expo centre will return to its former operations.
When a traveler first arrives, their room number will be illuminated red to indicate the traveler is awaiting the results of their PCR test.
The guest will receive their test results via text message in about six to 12 hours, after which the traveler is allowed to leave their room, a publicist told me.
If the test comes back positive, the traveler will immediately be transported to a medical facility in Singapore and the Connect@Changi will follow all of the Ministry of Health's contact tracing and testing protocols.
During their stay at Connect@Changi, guests will use a free mobile app to do everything from booking meeting rooms to choosing their meals and reserving a workout in a gym pod.
The facility has three types of rooms: an Executive Twin room with two twin-size beds; an Executive King room with one king-size bed; and a Premier King, with a king-size bed and the added perk of a view of the indoor courtyard.
While the king-size rooms are typically meant for one person, a married couple would be allowed to share a room if they were both traveling to Singapore for business purposes.
None of the rooms, regardless of its size, has a window to the true outdoors; all windows look into the expo centre.
The guest rooms are smaller than a typical hotel room but seemed to be outfitted with everything necessary for a short stay.
Before the pandemic, most business travelers to Singapore stayed for under five days, so Connect@Changi expects most visitors to the facility to stay for a similarly short duration.
In the Premier King room, the bed takes up most of the space.
But there's also a desk and a 43-inch, wall-mounted TV.
Phones in each room allow travelers to make free local calls.
The bathrooms have no bathtubs. Toiletries are provided in the showers.
There's also a mini-fridge, kettle, and microwave.
Each room also has its own thermostat so travelers can adjust the temperature to their comfort — no small benefit in Singapore, where the weather is hot and humid but the air-conditioning can be aggressive.
On the bedside table is a pop of greenery in the form of a live plant with ionizing technology that claims to clean airborne pollutants and reduce anxiety and lethargy.
The Premier King rooms overlook the courtyards, where live plants are mixed with glowing optical fiber lights designed to resemble fields of lalang, a type of grass native to the region.
Despite the careful details, however, there's no disguising that this is still in the middle of an expo centre.
The nightly rate at Connect@Changi includes three meals per day delivered to the guest's room. For a contactless delivery, the food is left in a cubbyhole right outside the door.
Guests can also order food from any of the hundreds of restaurants at Changi Airport through the mobile app, or through local delivery apps like Foodpanda or Grab.
Travelers can choose from a menu of Asian and international food, as well as vegetarian options. Below is one of the typical lunch options: a "hawker style" ocean king prawn with kang kong vegetables.
One of the project's partners, SingEx, which runs the expo centre, will provide the meals.
In the facility's common areas, travelers are allowed to mingle with other guests while maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.
An executive from Germany, for example, could meet with their colleague from Switzerland and work together at the table above.
The facility's two courtyards were designed to resemble tropical outdoor spaces in line with Singapore's "City in a Garden" nickname.
The floor is carpeted with artificial grass, but the greenery surrounding the courtyard is real.
Two dome-shaped pavilions serve as additional work spaces.
Free WiFi is available throughout all common areas, meeting rooms, and guest rooms.
A posted sign indicates that 30 people can be in each courtyard at a time.
In the courtyard and throughout the rest of the facility, other signs remind travelers to maintain a distance of one meter from other people.
Each courtyard has a gym pod, which travelers can reserve for a private workout.
Up to two people can work out in the gym pod at a time.
Guests reserve the pod via the Connect@Changi app and scan a QR code to unlock the door.
Inside, there's a treadmill, a cycling machine, a bench press machine, and free weights.
Each courtyard also has vending machines and a Starbucks coffee station.
The key component of the facility is, of course, the business centre.
Connect@Changi expects business travelers to use the facility for things like meeting a job candidate in person before hiring them or signing legal documents.
The facility opened with 40 meeting rooms of varying sizes, but Connect@Changi expects to have a total of 170 meeting rooms open by May. Notably, none of the meeting rooms has a window.
Guests can book meeting rooms through the mobile app for an additional cost of between roughly $15 and $150 per hour, depending on the size of the room.
The smallest size room, which accommodates up to four guests, is $15 per hour to book.
This room is available only to guests staying in the facility, not outside visitors.
In the meeting rooms that are designed to host outside visitors who are meeting with Connect@Changi guests, the two groups will be separated by an air-tight glass panel, and each side of the room has its own separate ventilation system.
A microphone system allows the two groups to hear each other through the glass.
The largest meeting room available is a board room with a videoconferencing setup that can host up to 11 people on each side.
If they want to conduct a lunch meeting, travelers can arrange for meals to be sent to the meeting room.
When not eating or drinking, however, both guests and visitors are required to keep their masks on at all times.
The board room also includes a UV-sanitising document transfer box so that two groups can pass documents back and forth.
The bubble facility has its own on-site Covid-19 testing centre, where all travelers are tested on the third, seventh, and 14th days of their stay.
Staff is regularly tested as well.
There's a small socially distanced waiting area ...
... and two testing stations.
Once travelers arrive, the facility's cleaning staff will wear full PPE.
For safety reasons, there will be no in-room housekeeping throughout a guest's stay, although guests can request extra towels.
Visitors based in Singapore are not required to undergo Covid-19 testing before coming to meet with a guest at the facility, as they will have separate entrances, exits, and ventilation systems.
The travelers staying in the facility are responsible for booking meeting rooms and inviting any colleagues from the Singapore side.
Connect@Changi is purposely not being called a hotel - partially because that's not what it is - but also to manage expectations, a publicist told me. When a traveler hears "hotel," they expect a cocktail bar and a pool, she said.
That's certainly not what travelers will find at Connect@Changi. But they will find what appears to be an efficient, Covid-free bubble that could be a model for other countries hoping to open up safe business travel. The facilities are not luxurious, but they are comfortable enough and provide the necessary amenities for a short work trip.
"Ideally, you would like to have people free to move around, do what they want to do and spend where they want to," Temasek's senior managing director, Alan Thompson, said at a media briefing in December. But, he added, Connect@Changi is a "good alternative option" as the world works to eradicate the virus.
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