With Banyan Tree Holdings now celebrating its 25th anniversary, founder and executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping delves into the genesis of his Singapore-based hospitality brand and where it’s headed next.
You were once a journalist. Has that informed your later career at all?
I always liked to ask questions and journalism was an easy way to get paid for doing that. This trait of asking “why?” of everything has been the source of all the problems in my youth, my moderate success in later life, and Banyan Tree’s innovations over the past 25 years.
What challenges did you face with your first property, Banyan Tree Phuket?
We literally stumbled onto what is now the 300-hectare Laguna Phuket. While looking for a place to build a summer house in 1984, [my wife] Claire, my brother, and I came across a desolate, strangely romantic moonscape; it was an abandoned tin mine. Only after we bought it did we discover that the entire site had been heavily polluted. We had to pump out the acidic water, bring in fresh topsoil, and plant thousands of trees. This was the birth of our own sense of environmental sustainability and CSR. Eventually, we built several hotels managed by other brands, but the final piece of land for hotel development had no beach frontage. Every brand we approached politely declined. And so I foolishly thought: why don’t we start our own? That was how two innovations that Banyan Tree pioneered in Asia were born: the all-pool villa resort and the tropical garden spa. We created them to keep guests from checking out of the Banyan Tree Phuket the minute they found that we had no beach frontage.
What were you hoping to achieve when you launched the company?
Claire and I had always nurtured dreams of bringing development to poor parts of Asia, and to infuse whatever we did with our values. For the brand name, we chose the fishing village in Hong Kong where we lived as newlyweds—Banyan Tree Bay [Yung Shue Wan]—because we felt it stood for authenticity, the romance of travel, being young and adventurous and daring to dream. My vision was to create a true Asian-origin brand that was not “ethnic” in nature but would travel around the world on its own strength, being proud of its heritage while extolling the beauty of each location.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the hotel industry these past 25 years?
One major shift has been consolidation. There are now a handful of mega-companies with a dizzying array of often indistinguishable brands; the challenge is to remain independent and yet able to benefit from consolidation, to maintain brand clarity amid the confusion. We think we have started doing this in our strategic relationships with Vanke and Accor.
Could you explain the philosophy behind your newest brand, Dhawa?
Across the world and particularly in Asia, a young middle class is rapidly emerging. They dislike pretension and want the freedom to mix and match low-cost stays with high-cost experiences. We created Dhawa to offer more affordable but experience-oriented and design-focused hospitality.
Banyan Tree is expanding to Japan, Spain, and Fiji in the next few years. What else is on the horizon?
We are also keeping our eyes on regions like Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. We have a new millennial brand to roll out too, and will be extending the Banyan Tree brand into new niches.
More information here.
—As told to James Louie
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Putting Down Roots”).