Trade Talk: Ho Kwon Ping of Banyan Tree Holdings

The founder and executive chairman of the Singapore-based hospitality group speaks about the road to recovery and sustainability’s key role in his future plans.

Photo courtesy of Banyan Tree Holdings

Banyan Tree has weathered previous crises—for instance the SARS outbreak and then the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. What are a few lessons learned from those times that have helped you navigate the present situation?

From previous crises, one of the lessons I have learned is that the most important thing is to stabilize first, in all aspects whether that is human or systems related. This means immediately putting in place crisis task forces centrally and in each location for operational readiness and response. Following this, a laser focus on finances and cash flow stability is key. Putting in place monitoring and control systems that guides teams while giving them flexibility.

Throughout all this, constant communication at all levels especially when the outlook is uncertain is fundamental. Particularly for the service industry and also for any business, that transparency, honesty, and keeping faith with your associates in good times and bad, is the kind of social contract that really underpins the culture of a company, and that is priceless.

A bird’s-eye view of Bintan’s Cassia, Angsana, and Banyan Tree hotels. (Photo: Banyan Tree)

The hospitality sector has been especially hard-hit these past few months. How have you mitigated job losses and cushioned the impact of the pandemic on Banyan Tree employees?

This crisis has hit harder than any others in terms of its direct impact. We have never experienced such low occupancies with such limited visibility on recovery. Although we had to make difficult decisions with our people, we’re grateful they all understood that this was not just happening to our company, but to our industry and global economy. Everyone recognizes that if we didn’t do what we did, there would be no company for them to come back to later

We implemented unpaid leave a few months after the pandemic hit, learning from past crises where cash preservation is paramount to maintain some level of job stability. Eventually, we had no choice but to restructure. Adaptability will be key to survival given we foresee quite a long, bumpy recovery. In this process, you learn that there is no mitigating the personal, emotional impact of someone losing their job. However, we did find that managing them out with dignity, communicating individually as well as collectively, and ensuring they are supported with rightfully earned compensation packages was important.

We implemented two major initiatives that have helped in this time. We created our own jobs portal called Lagunajobs.com, and that will be in all our other integrated resorts in Phuket, Bintan, Lang Co in Central Vietnam. We registered our associates whom we had to let go immediately on this app. Once we need new temps it will be posted—and other hotels can also register with us. The second initiative we call Project T—where T stands for Teletherapy. We created an external network of certified wellbeing practitioners to provide stress management sessions to all associates. Anxiety levels are at an all-time high globally. It’s our job to help alleviate that for our teams.

A Laguna Beachfront Room at Angsana Phuket. (Photo: Banyan Tree)

What is the operational status of Banyan Tree’s global portfolio? Have most properties reopened?

We put some properties on partial operations over the last few months, but I am glad to say that as of now all our properties are fully re-opened for business. We spent the last few months focused on health and safety, of course, but also reaching out to domestic markets. It’s paying off and we are glad to see guests back in the properties. It’s great for morale and also to bring the spirit of hospitality back into the resorts. We are also glad to say that we have not had a single Covid case on property, largely due to the dedicated vigilance of our teams.

A Beach Pool villa at Banyan Tree Lang Co, in Central Vietnam. (Photo: Banyan Tree)

Banyan Tree operates 17 hotels and resorts in China, where domestic tourism is fueling a significant recovery. How are occupancy rates these days and what encouraging signs do you see there?

China’s recovery lends us great optimism, with August our best month this year at over 60 percent occupancies. We see a lot of demand for resorts in nature settings that are at easy driving distance from cities, but also have enough space that there is social distancing by design: popular destinations like Huangshan, Anji, Sanya for example. People are traveling to reconnect with small groups of friends and families, but want privacy and the security of knowing the hotel has high health and safety standards. It’s fortunate that we are well placed for this.

We see similar trends in Mexico, with occupancies also trending up, as well as in Thailand where domestic travel demand is strong while borders are still closed.

Lakeside villas at Banyan Tree Anji, in China’s Zhejiang province. (Photo: Banyan Tree)

June saw the launch of Banyan Tree’s SafeSanctuary program. What can guests expect when it comes to new health and safety measures? Will buffet breakfasts remain unavailable for now?

Our health- and wellbeing-oriented SafeSanctuary program is co-developed in partnership with Bureau Veritas and incorporates over 40 areas of enhanced protocols. Besides screening procedures, it includes hygiene stations, deep sanitization, and redesigned processes throughout the guest and associate experience, including for example, no buffets, contactless options, and quotas for public spaces. Every hotel has rolled out the protocols since June.

I think these are a given now in our industry, and our brand reputation for excellence gives that trust and assurance. What’s unique about our SafeSanctuary program is that it places a differentiated emphasis on wellbeing and nature-focused offerings. What has been surprising to us is from the questions our customer service teams get, these considerations have been more top of mind than health and safety, which is taken as a given.

Saffron, the signature Thai restaurant at Banyan Tree Phuket. (Photo: Banyan Tree)

Sustainability and wellbeing have always been in Banyan Tree’s DNA. Now that this pandemic has made our need for both those things even clearer, what new eco-friendly or wellness-oriented initiatives do you have in the pipeline?

One of the positive things that have come out of this pandemic is the realization that sustainable practices and our wellbeing are truly interconnected. We all are now experiencing the very real linkages of deforestation, wildlife habitat destruction, and zoonotic diseases. Sustainability is no longer something “out there” but a situation that we all need to think about differently, in our own individual choices.

For us, we’re combining these two threads of sustainability and wellbeing to drive a connection between self, others and nature. In our new Wellbeing Sanctuaries, the flagship of which is in Phuket and with four more in the pipeline, we focus on Eco-therapy—using nature in simple ways to bring us back to balance. For example, one of our most popular sessions is Conscious Grounding, where it’s a simple guided and sightless experience of walking barefoot. We are also launching a new brand soon which has a “no walls” experience for a deep nature escape—this one will really push the boundaries for what it means to be a hotel.

Another key pillar is mindfulness and mental health. We have so many distractions daily, and deep relaxation requires a shift. We’ve innovated two experiences that cater to this. One is the White Room, which is essentially a sensory detox space. Another is our Weightless Flotation Experience, which by eliminating gravity induces the body’s recovery and relaxation response, promoting healing. The team is very excited about these.

Lastly, we’re placing a lot of emphasis on food. We recently launched our own Ori9in farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is a Biodynamic Retained Farming operation. Part of a group-wide effort to innovate in the plant-based cuisine space, it’s also a way to reduce carbon footprints by in-sourcing our own high-value, organic crops.

Farm-to-table cuisine at Ori9in’s zero-waste restaurant, Waiting for May. (Photo: Banyan Tree)

Here in Southeast Asia, Banyan Tree Krabi in Thailand and Angsana Teluk Bahang, Penang in Malaysia are slated to debut in the fourth quarter of this year. What can you tell us about these two new properties?

We just had our black-tie celebration in Banyan Tree Krabi, where our management team did our customary jump into the pool to inaugurate it! It’s an exquisite property. Imagine your own villa in a lush tropical rain forest setting of waterfalls, streams, and caves. Especially now, it’s the perfect nature escape.

The Angsana Teluk Bahang in Penang will open soon next month, and being just on the beach the sea views are incomparable. Being in the food capital of Malaysia, we will have five restaurants that we spent a lot of time on to curate the most representative cuisine of the area, with a touch of diversity.

We are glad to be opening these properties as planned this year. Our position is, people will always want to travel. It’s enduring. So, it’s not “if”, just “who” and “when.” We in the industry have a part to play in making it safe to travel, and encouraging confidence again.

The main pool at Bali’s Banyan Tree Ungasan overlooks the Indian Ocean. (Photo: Banyan Tree)

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