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Ho Kwon Ping - rooted in success

Ho Kwon Ping
rooted in romance
by Adeline Chong
January 31, 2005

With hotels and luxury resorts throughout Asia-Pacific and more to come in Europe and the Americas, Singapore-based Banyan Tree Holdings is slowly but surely achieving its goal of “stringing a necklace of resorts around the world.” The brand is also growing through the setting up of standalone spas, sister brand Angsana Resorts & Spa and a tie-up with Oberoi Hotels for Banyan Tree-branded spas. Competing in the same realm as the Four Seasons, Aman resorts, Como hotels and Six Senses resorts, Banyan Tree has achieved a certain cachet, garnering top accolades from travel media such as Conde Nast Traveller and Travel & Leisure.

Prior to the Asian earthquake and tsunami of 26 December 2004, brandchannel caught up with Banyan Tree's charismatic chairman, Ho Kwon Ping, a father of three who oversees


more than 4,500 staff, comprising over 30 nationalities. The Laguna Phuket property he refers to below escaped largely unharmed from the devastation of the tsunami. The company reports that guests at all other properties are accounted for; Ho is now personally involved in the relief effort.

When my wife Claire and I backpacked in Asia or Europe during our younger, budget-conscious days, it was the romance and intimacy we remembered and associated with our accommodations, no matter how humble. Surely, other people would also cherish such memories, even if they had more money? That was my starting hypothesis. So, with intuition and a hankering to recapture the magic of romantic and intimate holidays in a culturally evocative and exotic setting, Banyan Tree was born.

The name Banyan Tree comes from the fishing village on Lamma Island in Hong Kong where Claire and I lived for three idyllic years before I joined the family business. Yung Shue Wan, or Banyan Tree Bay, despite its modest, rustic village setting, symbolized for us a sanctuary of romance and intimacy. Yung Shue Wan is hardly luxurious, but it proved that when two people have a wonderful experience, the place they had it in acquires a magical quality. Our hotels aspire to be the Yung Shue Wans, or sanctuaries, for our guests whatever their age or origins.

As a development economist-cum-journalist backpacking in the region, I was distressed by irresponsible tourism—destruction of the physical environment; exploitation and degradation of the cultural environment. My subsequent experience in rehabilitating the 600 acres of land that Laguna Phuket stands on today, from an abandoned tin mine into an award-winning environmental showcase offering five resorts, showed me what responsible tourism could do. These experiences—one negative, one positive—taught me that as tourism practitioners we have the immense responsibility and yet also the power to do something positive about our physical and human environment.

Through activities like the Green Imperative Fund and a group-wide committee to coordinate corporate social responsibility initiatives, we have been able to uphold that commitment. Larger-scale projects, such as marine conservation initiatives in the Maldives and the little things (refillable containers for non-toxic, biodegradable toiletries) ensure the continued preservation of our ecological environment.

Our conservation efforts extend to the communities we operate in. After all, we are part of the ecosystem too. By hiring and buying locally, and engaging indigenous communities to produce cottage crafts, we help keep cultures alive.

From the start, Banyan Tree embodied romance and intimacy. It was certainly not luxury or exclusivity, because I have always disliked pretentiousness. Banyan Tree is indeed luxurious and exclusive as a consequence of the product, but that is not what defines it.

Building a powerful brand was the prerequisite to, rather than reward for our success; it gives us the proprietary advantages for competing globally. From the outset, the objective of our brand-building was to create a sustainable platform upon which to grow—even if cheaper competitors and copycats were to step into our space. The only way we can remain above price wars is to leverage the brand to generate a price premium and customer loyalty. Much of our decision making regarding a new venture is determined by its impact on our branding.

The three core components of the Banyan Tree brand are our hotels, spas and the retail galleries. In our initial years, these components were physically co-located and reinforced each other to deliver the Banyan Tree Experience. As we grew, we wanted the components to stand on their own. Our spas set up shop independently in Guam, Sydney, Hong Kong, Shanghai and elsewhere, and the galleries led to independent ventures like the Museum Shop—building new markets and extending the brand into new areas. This allows diversification and growth within our brand strategy.

We are mindful of the risk of diluting and overstretching our brand. So instead of creating Banyan Tree Inns or Grand Banyan Trees to cover the lower and higher market segments, we created the Angsana brand in 2000. Its brand image is more contemporary, trendy and affordable than Banyan Tree and we are very pleased with its success.

To remain a powerful brand, we work to ensure consistency and innovation. Innovation, and inspiration, are really often born out of necessity. At the Laguna Phuket, we built pool villas at Banyan Tree because we didn’t have any beachfront left after locating the other properties. My widowed mother admitted she likes to skinny dip in our pool villas, because she’s never been to a place where she can be sure that she has total privacy. At 82 years of age, Banyan Tree evoked romance in her life!

When we pioneered the tropical garden spa pavilions, the guiding principle was that couples on holiday want to experience things together. So all our spa pavilions are for couples—a first in the industry. We went a step further and abolished the separate lockers, steam and Jacuzzi facilities, and put these in the spa pavilion. Again, innovation driven by our brand values and brand promise. We ignored consultants who told us we needed air-conditioning to create a European environment. Instead, we decided to highlight the tropical greenery, humidity and Asian culture with therapists working barefoot. That ‘high touch, low tech’ approach was to become the cornerstone of our service philosophy.

Our staff must see Banyan Tree as more than a means of livelihood, if I want them to start each day with enthusiasm, to treat each other with respect, and to handle each guest with true friendliness. Efficiency and service means nothing if people do not have their hearts behind their jobs. So, yes, passion is an attribute I would like to see in my employees.

I have sometimes said Banyan Tree is like a theater setting: we create a magical atmosphere for our guests to create the unfolding drama of their lives. Banyan Tree in its own small way is a demonstration that in life, dreams can indeed come true. We want to evoke an emotional response from our guests. We have to own our customers by building brand loyalty.

We see ourselves as proactive facilitators of memorable experiences. Within Banyan Tree and the industry, we are starting to examine every job function and increase autonomy and authorization limits, so individuals can exercise greater initiative in problem-solving and in enhancing the guest experience. Structured empowerment, I have found, can be the most powerful way of creating a sense of ownership within a large organization.

I admit I’m still a bit of an iconoclast—Che Guevara was my hero when I was a student—and do not particularly like to accept something simply because it’s accepted wisdom or because somebody says it must be so. But that does not necessarily imply rebelliousness. I suppose it’s reflected in my management style to the extent that if someone says something cannot be done, I always ask ‘why’ and insist on being convinced.

In a talk I gave at a recent convention for civil service personnel, I tossed up the concept of encouraging institutional insurgency as a means to elicit big ideas and deliver big changes—creating small, quasi-independent units of (young and energetic) people drawn from a cross-section of the organization to deal with specific issues from new perspectives. These guerilla outfits should perhaps report directly to the CEO.

Advice for young entrepreneurs? I've learned that you shouldn’t try to be a copy or a poorer version of others. Turn what others may see as a weakness or constraint in your favor. As I grow older, I appreciate the adage that one has to pay one’s dues. Often, you can only learn through sheer experience, good and bad. There is no better teacher than yourself, if only you learn from your mistakes and grow from your successes.

Adeline Chong lives in Hong Kong and dreams of one day finding her very own sanctuary.
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