Published April 27, 2007

Affluent and flaunting it

The super-rich in Singapore are spending more on their desires as lifestyles change, reports GEOFFREY EU

THE integrated resorts are still a couple of years away, but the high rollers are already in town - and they're ready to play. They're also prepared to pay big bucks for the privilege, whether it's the fancy sports car, the luxury vacation or the top-end restaurant.

Along with a thriving stock market, ever-increasing property prices and predictions of continued financial health, newspapers are full of reports about how the good times will keep on rolling. As a result, wealthy people in Singapore are not just looking for new ways to spend their disposable income - they also want to do it in extravagant, tailor-made style.

According to an American Express report on high-end consumer habits, titled The New Ritual of Luxury, affluence is booming in the Asia-Pacific region, and Singapore is leading the way. Last year, the credit card company conducted a survey on the lifestyle habits of well-heeled consumers and concluded that the lifestyle attitudes, behaviours and expectations of affluent consumers are changing.

Luxury has gone beyond individual brands, says the survey, and has evolved to include the intangible, while the new definition of exclusive is something that is made just for me. It asserts that, 'for the affluent, a desire to go beyond what exists to what is new and 'different for me' is a driving force in shaping the lifestyle they want'.

The stakes for American Express and other companies involved in the business of providing lifestyle services are high, because the pie is only going to get bigger. In 2004, there were some 28,200 millionaires (those with liquid wealth of US$1 million or more) in Singapore - that number is expected to grow to 40,050 by 2009, just as the first integrated resort is due to come onstream. Amex has commissioned similar studies in other Asian cities, under the series Inside the Affluent Space.

The World Gourmet Summit (WGS), which ends its three-week run tomorrow, is an annual lifestyle event that has played its part in redefining high-end culinary habits in Singapore. As part of this year's activities, a roundtable discussion was convened to discuss the impact of burgeoning wealth on dining habits.

WGS and Amex officials invited a few chefs to provide some insight, including one-Michelin star chef Sang-Hoon Degeimbre from L'Air du Temps in Belgium and Philippe Mouchel, chef at The Brasserie in the Crown Casino in Melbourne.

Demands unfettered

'The WGS fits strongly with the customer segment that we cater to,' says Shailesh Baidwan, vice-president for card and lending at American Express, adding that the company's survey detected three key points about the Singapore market. 'Talk-value is the new luxury,' he says. 'It has gone beyond the brand and is more about the experience and the story you can tell.'

The next insight, says Baidwan, is that passion has no price. 'Whatever your passion is, you will indulge in it. If you love single malts, then you'll do anything to pursue it.'

Thirdly, he says: 'Privilege is not having to think - people are getting more money-rich, time-poor, so they are looking at service providers as experts who can put it all together for them, create it end-to-end to make it happen.'

Many restaurant-goers, for example, can talk about their experience of meeting Michelin-star chefs, says Baidwan. 'This, then, becomes the story - we see more of this across every segment we deal with.' Adds Mouchel, who worked with celebrity chef Paul Bocuse for 25 years: 'For Bocuse, the business was not just delivering good food, it was about being seen in the dining room and meeting the customers.'

Degeimbre, on the other hand, has a different perspective. 'Our reputation is based on our own style - we propose a unique experience to our customers and we give them a great one. Every country has its own identity and for us, it's the cooking technique, which is about going back to the simple basics.' He points out that customers are no longer just interested in brand name wines. 'They want to have a small wine from a little town that nobody knows.'

Very often these days, it's not even about the restaurant experience any more, says WGS co-organiser Peter Knipp. Rather, its about creating a one-off experience. 'One segment of the super-wealthy are at the stage where they want a star chef to come to their house,' he says. 'They don't necessarily want to sit at the gala dinner; they have their own wine cellar, service staff, and one gentleman in Singapore even has three different professional kitchens in his house.'

The one-off experience can take many different forms, especially if money is no object, says Angelo Sanelli, executive chef at home-grown Michelangelo's. He recounts the story of a birthday party for one 16-year-old whose parents brought Bollywood stars in for the occasion. Another parent paid for the Taiwanese boy band F4 to fly in and perform.

Then there was the wife who called her Amex Centurion card concierge to ask for a birthday cake in the shape of a yellow Lamborghini for her husband, who liked the idea so much that he went out and bought her a real one.

According to Baidwan, a teenage student at a British boarding school was homesick for chicken rice, so her family arranged for a serving to be delivered from a restaurant in London. 'When I opened my restaurant 12 years ago, it was typical to see perhaps three glasses of wine on the tables, the local customers would only order water,' says Sanelli. 'Now my biggest customers for wines are locals. At Zambucca (another restaurant in the Michelangelo group), 2,500 wine labels to select from is still not enough - it's just amazing how the change has come around.'

In the Amex survey, a personal concierge relates the following story: 'There is this chef - one of the most renowned in the world - and even though he's trained about 36 other chefs, I have a client that follows him around to wherever he is cooking, in Singapore or anywhere else in the world. She has a passion for his food and the way he cooks, and in her mind there is no substitute.''

Luxury is no longer simply defined by expense, the survey concludes, but more by how accessible (or un-accessible) it is. One affluent consumer (or simply 'affluent', as the report refers to them) feels that the best choice is not having to choose at all: 'One of my favourite restaurants is a little place tucked away in an obscure part of the city. You cannot choose the menu. The chef chooses what you eat, and it's always out of this world.'

Of course, luxury all the time can be monotonous, and affluents are also happy to enjoy ordinary culinary pleasures as well, such as making a trip to a hawker centre to indulge in a favoured dish. Beyond the WGS discussion group, Singapore service providers have also noticed the change. 'People are eating out a lot more and spending more when they do eat out,' says hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng. 'In the past few years, it's no longer just a cocktail or a gin and tonic, it's a specific single malt whisky.'

Money no object

He adds: 'By and large, restaurants are not equipped to tailor-make a super high-end experience. It's not just a private dining room these days, it's a special yacht for the day - there are more and more experiences like getting a top chef to cook at your home. You're reaching out to a certain set of customers and there is still going to be price-sensitivity, but people are willing to pay more.'

The disparity in income will always be there, says Mr Loh, who owns the New Majestic Hotel and Hotel 1929, each of which feature popular destination restaurants. 'Those who have more to spend have a lot more - they will spend pretty outrageous amounts for us to organise everything,' he notes. 'In certain areas, the brand is important but with a lot of things there's no real brand - it's more about doing things that no one else can do.''

Beppe de Vito, owner of Il Lido, an up-market Italian restaurant which also offers an off-site dining experience aboard its own luxury catamaran (which comes with a minimum spend of $3,000), says customers are not as concerned with how much a special dining experience costs. 'They still want maximum value, but they are definitely willing to spend more.'

Four years ago, customers at his previous restaurant Garibaldi would typically order wines costing below $100, he says. 'Now, it's not a problem to recommend $150-180 bottles. Diners are also going more for higher-priced tasting menus, which are representative of what the restaurant does best.'

He adds: 'Even among those who have always had money, there are less objections about flaunting it now - it is not a problem to show up at lunch with a bottle of 1989 or 1982 first growth. Last truffle season, we were selling it by the kilo. We do a lot of dinners for people who want something special, like a $500, food-only menu - they truly want great quality.'

Says de Vito: 'I think Singaporeans are getting closer to people in other big cities in the world. The desire for better quality is driving up the average cheques - even smaller restaurants are bringing in special ingredients.' The current upsurge in the food and beverage industry still has a long way to run, he feels. 'We're not even in the middle of it yet - we're still at the beginning of a very good cycle.'