Banyan Tree's Ho Kwon Ping on Asian pride and venturing into 'budget' travel
As Banyan Tree turns 25, the Singaporean hotelier reflects on surviving crises, the importance of diversity, redefining luxury, and his biggest regrets.
Ho Kwon Ping is easily one of Singapore’s most recognisable entrepreneurs, the face of an award-winning hospitality empire that comprises 49 hotels and resorts, 64 spas, 76 retail galleries, and three golf courses in 23 countries.
Late last year, the group announced the development of 26 new hotels. This figure has since jumped to 34 at last count. “It’s changing every day,” remarked Ho, speaking to CNA Luxury on the occasion of Banyan Tree’s 25th anniversary.
This sudden growth spurt, he elaborated, can be attributed to two main factors. The first was the decision to be a “multi-branded hotel management company” and grow the company beyond the Banyan Tree brand.
The second: The boom in Asian tourism – particularly Chinese tourism – in recent years.
THE ‘AIRASIA PHENOMENON’
“We’ve also seen tourism in Southeast Asia – Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Indonesia – take off due to the rise of the younger middle class,” Ho observed.
“I like to call it the ‘AirAsia Phenomenon’,” he says, describing a breed of consumers known to pair high street fashion with designer brands – and fly budget.
“They may wear Zara [clothes] and carry a Chanel bag and they would only go to Starbucks for their coffee. And they would fly AirAsia but eat at Michelin-starred restaurants,” he explained.
“So, while they may want to save their money for other things, they still want to stay somewhere that’s design-focused. I think there’s room for growth in that segment in Asia, and now we have brands that fit that very well,” he said, referring to Cassia and Dhawa.
The two brands debuted in 2015 and 2016 respectively. With creativity and fun at the centre of their value propositions, they targeted younger, design-savvy travellers.
NEW (DEMOCRATIC) BRANDS COMING INTO BLOOM
Ho’s ambitions to bookend the hospitality market is set to grow with the planting of three new brands – which will not be named after trees.
“Naming the first brand Banyan Tree was accidental,” said Ho. “Then, we wanted to keep it alphabetical so we came up with Angsana for the next one and they’re all symbolic.”
Angsana, for example, evokes a sense of adventure with its slogan ‘Sensing the moment’, because the flowers of the angsana tree bloom unexpectedly.
“So we have A, B, C and D, and soon we will have E, F and G. And I’m running out of names of trees to name them,” he joked.
Intended to cater to specific segments of the hotel industry, the three new brands will also help facilitate more seamless collaboration with property developers looking for a complete portfolio of hospitality products at various price points.
“We’ve found that there are a few more positions in the marketplace we haven’t filled yet,” noted Ho.
While he can’t disclose details at this stage, Ho does hint that the new brands will tilt towards the economical (read: budget) end of the scale.
“They may not be the most expensive but they will still be design-oriented, best in class, and focus on memorable guest experiences. Those are the common themes that link all our brands together,” he shared.
How is he going accomplish this with a budget hotel, though?
“That’s the very interesting challenge we have. It’s fun to do luxury but doing something really design-focused which has to be cheap? The argument is that you can do that but it’s not easy,” he said.
THE RISE OF ‘RAINBOW TOURISM’ AND ASIAN PRIDE
The future of tourism and hospitality, Ho believes, is going to look a lot like a rainbow – meaning more diversity.
“In the past, it has always been ‘white’ tourism, flowing in one direction,” he noted. “But now, we’re seeing an explosion of ‘rainbow tourism’ – you’ve got yellow, pink, black and brown – because of the change in geographical wealth. And this is happening not just in terms of guests but human talent, too.”
While he is quick to point out that he is not anti-Western, the collection of brands under the Banyan Tree umbrella is a source of Asian pride for Ho.
“As an Asian who wants to see our younger talent be able to compete with the best in the West, I’m proud to see our Asian talent grow. I see this as a trend that’s going to intensify and I want to be riding that wave when it really goes all across the world,” said Ho, who’s also founding chairman of the Singapore Management University, a role he accepted to help nurture Asian talent.
ON SUCCESS, REGRETS AND LESSONS IN RESILIENCE
If you had asked Ho what his definition of success was when he first started Banyan Tree a quarter century ago, it would have been avoiding going bankrupt within the year.
Today, he defines success as “a sense of relief at not screwing up so badly”.
“For an entrepreneur to survive 25 years in a pretty difficult global environment is not easy. So, there’s a relief and gratitude that we are thriving and continuing to grow,” he qualified.
And if there’s one thing he’s learnt in this time, it’s the importance of resilience.
“The tourism business, particularly luxury tourism, is one the most volatile businesses. Event risk can destroy everything quickly. In times of war, epidemics and tsunamis, who needs a holiday? Who needs a holiday home?” he asked rhetorically.
The sale of holiday homes, he says, makes up about 50 per cent of the group’s overall revenue.
On the topic of regret, he has but one: “It’s that 50 hotels in 25 years is very slow progress. It should’ve been faster. But having reached critical mass now, growth is really picking up.”
Viewing the 25th anniversary milestone as an opportunity to reflect, Ho said: “There were a lot of mistakes we’ve made but we’ve survived a huge number of crises and we’ve built a community of thousands of people who are really proud of what they do, and the brand is getting traction everywhere. Plus, we’ve had fun along the way.”
He is also proud of the fact that the family business is still independent, untouched by the consolidation in the global hospitality sector that has seen many hotel names and chains swallowed up by larger groups.
The company has struck two strategic partnerships to fuel further expansion, though: A co-development deal with French multinational hospitality company AccorHotels, as well as a joint venture with Vanke, one of the largest property developers in China. Both have taken a five per cent stake in Ho’s company.
LEAVING A LEGACY
As he approaches his 67th year this August, the thought of leaving a legacy does make Ho cringe a little.
“Legacy is not about people remembering you; who gives a damn how people remember you when you’re dead already anyway? If you want people to think well of you, do it while you’re alive,” he offered candidly.
“So, to me, legacy is about whether you’ve given what you’ve built a solid foundation to grow beyond your wildest dreams.”
To this end, Ho’s succession plan is already in motion. He has been consciously decentralising decision-making and implementing structures and mechanisms for the business to continue running independently of his involvement in future.
And on this 25th year since Banyan Tree first put down roots, he believes he’s “25 per cent of the way there” to achieving that self-defined legacy.