The Family That Founded Banyan Tree On Their Entrepreneurial Journey Together
When it comes to erudite business families, the couple behind Banyan Tree Holdings is about as good as it gets. Ho Kwon Ping, the executive chairman of this hospitality group, is also the founding chairman of the Singapore Management University. Named the first Fellow of the SR Nathan Lecture Series at the Institute of Policy Studies in 2014, he published Asking Why, a collection of his writing, last year.
Claire Chiang, Banyan Tree’s senior vice president, chairs the company’s China Business Development division and the Banyan Tree Global Foundation. An advocate for gender equality and education, she was a nominated member of parliament from 1997 to 2001, and inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2018.
These two are obviously adept at giving cerebral answers to interview questions. So it’s quite funny to hear Ho slip into a more colloquial register at one point during this conversation—when daughter Ren Yung (the second of their three children) mentions the word “multi-hyphenate”. “Huh? Multi-what?” Ho asks, with some amusement.
“Actually, both of you are multi-hyphenates,” Ren Yung explains, enumerating all the different hats her parents wear. “I would say that I probably aspire to that as well.” A graduate of the London School of Economics (LSE), where she wrote her thesis on social entrepreneurship, Ren Yung has co-founded a number of businesses, most notably clothing label Matter, which focuses on collaboration with artisans and sustainable practices. She’s been exposed to the workings of the family business since she was a child, and today heads the group’s integral spa and retail units.
Since 2018, she has also been the vice president of Brand HQ, the unit responsible for brand development, alignment and strategy. “Expressing a brand today is multidimensional—there are so many different touchpoints, both internally and externally. It’s no longer something that can just be owned by one department. We have to break down the traditional department silos, and put in the processes that enable us to express our brands consistently to ourselves and our customers,” Ren Yung believes.
That’s a particularly crucial task as Banyan Tree Holdings prepares for rapid expansion. Besides the flagship Banyan Tree brand, which is known for luxury resorts, the group also includes the family-oriented Angsana, as well as Cassia and Dhawa for younger travellers. It also operates integrated resorts by subsidiary Laguna Resorts & Hotels.
Three new brands are currently in the pipeline, as are a total of 60 hotels and resorts, over half of which will be in China. “The target customers for these new brands are best defined by their beliefs and values rather than by standard demographics,” says Ren Yung. “Customers today want experiences they have a personal connection with, and that make them see their own lives in a different way. Brands that drive emotional responses will be the ones that last. We will be looking into unexpected travel destinations and delivering specialised experiences that are anchored by strong narratives."
The new properties will add to the group’s current total of 47 hotels and resorts, 64 spas, 76 retail galleries and three golf courses in 23 countries. Why embark on significant growth now? Ho cites the unprecedented tourism boom fuelled by the burgeoning middle-class in the non-Western world. With collaborations with global hotel group Accor and Chinese real estate developer Vanke, and Qatar Investment Authority providing investment capital, “we are now equipped to ride this wave with strong partnerships”.
“Having a portfolio of brands comes with its own challenges,” Ren Yung notes. “It’s our strategy for capturing different markets, so each brand needs to be distinct in order to relate to the target segment. But they also need to emanate from a common foundation.”
And what is that foundation? Well, let’s go back to this multi-hyphenate thing.
HOW BANYAN TREE STARTED
Ho and Chiang came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, when much of Asia was still mired in poverty. Like many youths of the period, they wanted to do their part to help create a better life for people in this part of the world.
“At that time, it was about building a foundation for Singapore, about education and jobs,” says Chiang. “We were in that era of what we called ‘the rugged society.’” Soon after they got married in 1977, they moved to Hong Kong’s Lamma Island, where they lived in a village named Yung Shue Wan—Cantonese for Banyan Tree Bay, and the inspiration for the name of the hospitality company they would launch years later.
Indeed, what at first seemed like a brief idyll actually had a profound influence on their lives. During their three years in Hong Kong, the couple travelled to many rural areas, seeing first-hand how tourism impacted local communities. At the time, Chiang was pursuing a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Hong Kong, while Ho worked as a journalist for the Far Eastern Economic Review. “Our dream was really to write, study, and talk about development issues—social development and economic development,” he tells us.
That dream seemed to end in 1980, when he left journalism to join Wah Chang Group, a business conglomerate owned by his family. But as it turned out, the dream was merely deferred, waiting to take on a different incarnation that would be informed by insights he gleaned as a businessman.
“I came to realise that what Asia lacked was brands,” he explains. “Asian economies at that time were growing on the back of contract manufacturing. Factories were staffed by what was then described as thousands of nimble Asian fingers, assembling small electronic parts or sewing things—cheap labour making cheap things for Western markets. And when you assemble products for other people, you never own the marketplace. Creating a brand was about moving up the value chain.”
Banyan Tree was born from this entrepreneurial zeal, and shaped by the ideals of the couple’s youth, not to mention a dash of bad luck. In the 1980s, along with Ho’s brother, architect Ho Kwon Cjan, the couple bought a piece of land in Phuket, Thailand, at a pretty affordable price. They were captivated by the otherworldly beauty of what Ho described as a “desolate moonscape”, which was dotted with crater-like lagoons whose waters were a startling shade of cobalt blue.
They soon found out that the land was sold cheap for a reason—it had been polluted by tin mining, and that the cobalt colour was caused by acidic chemicals. “I felt a little bit foolish,” Ho admits with a candid grin. But they resolved to make the best of it, and started an extensive years-long rehabilitation process for this blighted wasteland. These efforts would eventually garner them an Environmental Award from American Express and The International Hotel Association.
“We had to get scientists and other domain experts involved, to understand the topography and soil condition,” Chiang remembers. The experience drove home for them how vulnerable nature was to human activity. The first Banyan Tree resort opened on this Phuket site in 1994, and environmental sustainability was enshrined as a cornerstone of the new brand’s ethos.
Since then, the company has continued to stay ahead of the curve in this area. In 2004, it launched the first resort‑based marine lab in the Maldives, which hosts visiting experts and helps to raise awareness of the importance of marine conservation. A conservation lab in Bintan, to protect biodiversity, followed in 2007.
ON BANYAN TREE'S VISION AND EFFORTS IN SUSTAINABILITY
In 2005, Banyan Tree became a founding member of the United Nations Global Compact Network—billed as the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative—in Singapore. Since 2006, it has been publishing annual sustainability reports to highlight its environmental efforts. In 2010, it chose advisory group EarthCheck as a strategic partner for obtaining external sustainability certification. Most recently, after two years of research, it committed to sustainably sourced packaging and ingredients for all the reformulated products used in its spas and sold through its retail platforms.
And protecting the environment is only one aspect of the group’s conception of sustainability. The other key element is about empowering communities. Inspired by the work of women’s rights activist Shirin Fozdar, Chiang conceived retail arm Banyan Tree Gallery as a showcase for items created by rural craftswomen. “That idea of enabling local communities and showcasing their talents is something that is also very strong in our hotels in terms of how we source our artwork, the upholstery and fabrics that we use, and the design principles that underlie each of the hotels’ local sense of place,” adds Ren Yung.
The company initiates and supports a variety of education and humanitarian initiatives in the places where it operates, such as setting up the accredited Laguna Phuket Kindergarten and establishing the Phuket Tsunami Recovery Fund in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Since 2007, it’s been running the Seedlings programme, which provides youths with mentorships and scholarships. “It’s a yin and yang thing—we’re not just about embracing the environment and saving endangered species. We also want to help develop the people in the communities we work in,” says Ho.
Both strands of this sustainability ethos will feature in the group’s 25th anniversary celebrations this year. “We will plant 25,000 trees this year, which means that by the end of 2019, our group would have planted half a million trees,” says Chiang. “In addition, we will support 25 local schools across different regions in capacity building.”
“We don’t approach this as philanthropy,” she adds. “Philanthropy tends to mean you give to causes when you have extra money. We want to be a business that stewards the resources we are given in a responsible way, and we want to create value in the communities we work with.”
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To that end, the company’s Stay for Good programme invites guests to donate US$2 for each night of their stay. These contributions are then matched by Banyan Tree and disbursed to various sustainability initiatives through the Banyan Tree Global Foundation, the group’s non-profit arm. “So regardless of the profitability of the business itself, we match our guests’ contributions,” says Ho. “And our guests also realise that they are part and parcel of this whole sustainability enterprise.” Since its inception in 2009, this foundation has disbursed close to US$8 million.
To nurture its own staff (whom the company terms associates), Banyan Tree runs its own management and spa training academies, and pays out all service charges to employees, which is not the norm in many countries’ hospitality industries. “It’s about how we are all in this together, I think that’s the whole point,” says Ho of this choice. “Every little thing you do helps to build up a strong company culture.” For this year’s 25th anniversary festivities, for instance, staff got a chance to shine in a group-wide talent contest, whose finals were held in June at Banyan Tree Mayakoba in Mexico. In September, special recognition events for associates will also be a key part of the anniversary gala celebrations. “Other companies would bring in celebrities, big names. But people in Banyan Tree know what our celebrations are like. It is about thanking and celebrating our dedicated associates.”
ADAPTING TO CHANGE AND TRANSFORMING WITH NEW POSSIBILITIES
With this new world, of course, comes new expectations. Ren Yung sees adaptability as one of the company’s core values, and one that is crucial today as guests become more diverse. “Previously, we would have a set of standards and created quite a uniform experience. But that’s not the case anymore. We now encounter guests with different needs and desires, and we need to have the capacity and empathy to understand how to adapt to them and create the experiences they would like to have. We believe exceptional customer experiences start with our associates, so we are spending a lot of time building that strong foundation of service culture and leadership from within.”
Another priority is improving the digital capacities of Banyan Tree brands. “From how guests interact with our website, to their preferences during their stay, there are a million touchpoints we want to capture and understand better,” she says. “We are a brand known for well-being and sustainability. How do we extend that brand presence in our guests’ lives beyond their stay at our properties? That’s something that is really on my mind.”
WORKING TOGETHER AS A FAMILY
Ask Ho and Chiang when they started talking to their children about their roles in the family business, and the latter jokes: “When they were born.” She clarifies, though, that “as parents, we hope they will join the company, but it’s okay if they don’t because they will always be custodians of the business even if they don’t manage it. We introduced our work to them, we talked to them about the business, but we never forced them to join”.
Eldest son Ren Hua, who formerly helmed the group’s China operations, is now CEO of Thai Wah Group, a family conglomerate, while youngest son Ren Chun is currently pursuing a master’s degree at LSE.
“I think we were always brought up with the sense that this is an opportunity we can personally take on if we feel it fits our personal purpose,” says Ren Yung of the Banyan Tree business. “And it’s also something you earn by demonstrating your ability, not something that you are able to just take up whenever you want.” She returned to the fold in 2016 because “I felt the timing was right. I wanted to contribute to something greater, and Banyan Tree has always been a vehicle for that. I think the dynamics with my parents was also in a good place. There’s more synergy and we can work together as a team”.
This prompts another joke, this time from her father: “You’re becoming the boss, and we’re becoming the retirees. That’s what she’s trying to say.” All kidding aside though, it’s clear that this is a company that means a lot to her, filled with people she regards as her larger family.
“The values that our family has are very much expressed in this company,” says Ren Yung. “Respect for individuals, no matter what station of life they are in, is one key value. I see that in the actions of my parents when they go to our properties. They know the names of every single person, and really show them care and concern. In every decision we make, we go beyond what is necessary because we are thinking about how to help people maximise their potential. This is a vehicle of purpose.”
And they intend to hold fast to that foundational core of idealism for the action-packed journey ahead. One highlight among the slew of new brands and hotels coming up over the next few years is the first Singapore resort operated by Banyan Tree. Slated to open in Mandai in 2023, the eco‑friendly resort will be owned by Mandai Park Holdings and will number among the attractions designed for the northern precinct’s new incarnation as an ecotourism hub.
“I think giving people an unprecedented access to nature in such a small and highly urban state is probably going to be an experience that’s quite unparalleled in the rest of the world,” says Ho. “It’s a natural alignment between Mandai Park Holdings and Banyan Tree in terms of like‑minded values regarding the protection of nature,” says Chiang. “When it opens, guests will have a glimpse of a world that’s truly immersive.”
Indeed, a brave new world awaits, not just in the tropical wilderness of Singapore, but perhaps also in the self-perception of this homegrown brand as it starts a new chapter. “An analogy I use is that of animals crossing a river where they are in danger of being eaten by crocodiles,” says Ho. “Sometimes I feel we’re like an antelope in the middle of the stream right now. We’ve left the home bank, but we haven’t reached the safety of the far shore. And we need to be aware that in this zone, we don’t yet have the economies of scale of a global company, and neither do we have the comfort of being a mom-and-pop operation. It’s very exciting, but dangerous too.”
Ever the optimist, Chiang extends the analogy to new terrain. “Nevertheless, I think the past 25 years have been very entrepreneurial, and the next 25 years will be about consolidating existing resources, strengthening and deepening the infrastructure, as well as looking at brand delivery—in order to cross the river and look at new pastures.”
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