Banyan Tree founder Ho Kwon Ping has had a colorful life and puts his and his firm’s success down to luck, perseverance and good people. As his brand nears the 50-asset mark, with 20 in its pipeline, he reflects on 25 experience-filled years at the helm.
HONG KONG—Resilience, a focus in life and being surrounded by the people you love and who love you are the three key ingredients of success, said the founder of Singapore-based hotel brand Banyan Tree at the recent 30th edition of the Hotel Investment Conference Asia-Pacific.
Accepting HICAP’s “Lifetime achievement award” is part of Executive Chairman Ho Kwon Ping’s celebration of the company’s 25th anniversary.
There has also been two internal celebrations this year, said Ho, who was involved with the original Banyan Tree hotel in Phuket, Thailand, that opened in 1994. One of the celebrations included former GMs and business associates, and the other was held at one of the company’s two Mexican properties.
“The Mexican party symbolized our global expansion, to fly in everyone to the most-distant resort from Asia,” he said.
Ho said the Phuket property is still in the portfolio, although its room count has expanded from 25 keys to about 150 today.
“(The Phuket hotel) embodies our values, but it is a sentimental attachment, not a superstitious one,” he said.
Luck and confidence
The brand developed from good fortune as much as from perseverance and vision, Ho said.
The firm today is listed on the Thai stock exchange, with Ho and his family as the largest shareholders.
Originally, the family business was varied, with Ho’s father being a diplomat and businessman. The family business concentrated on such commodities as TVs and shoes, but today it is Thai Wah, which produces starch-based goods such as pasta and sweeteners, and is run by Ho’s eldest son.
Owned land—on which hotels were run by third-party operators—also brought in income. The Banyan Tree brand developed from Ho not knowing what to do with a piece adjacent to, but not directly on, the beach.
“It was purely entrepreneurial,” he said. “We rode the wave. I tell business students that success derives at the confluence of hard work and luck.”
Ho’s eureka moment was when he realized that to own the customer, he had to create a brand. That parcel of unwanted land became the first Banyan Tree.
“No one wanted to manage it, but I at the time had no idea I would create a hotel chain,” he added.
That beach-less piece of land led to innovative ideas, such as poolside villas and tropical spas.
“These were designed to keep guests on the farm, so to speak,” he said. “Innovation is a response to individual situations.”
The brand grew quickly from 1994 to 1997, before being stalled by the calamitous Asian recession.
Ho said those first three years showed good performance as the product was in demand and no new supply was coming in due to the dire economic situation.
“It still took four to five years before the brand started resonating,” he said.
Today, Banyan Tree, which also includes spas, shopping and golf courses, has six brands and 49 properties, with another 20 in its pipeline, the greatest number pencilled in for China and Southeast Asia.
Japan is another expansion target.
“China is the only country in the world with First World characteristics in terms of its economy and society but Third World ones for tourism. There is a great deal of potential development opportunities,” Ho said.
Other help comes from French hotel giant Accor, which owns 5% of Banyan Tree.
“That investment signals an interest in partnership,” he said. “It is a strategic deal to co-develop hotels. We have seven or eight development people; Accor has 250 or so.”
One change coming from that partnership will be the increased development of urban hotels, as opposed to the brand’s stock in trade of beach properties.
“Accor wanted us to do one in Paris. There will be other urban Banyan Trees,” he said.
Two new brands are in stages of development, too.
Conviction, no conviction
Patience and innovation have played a huge part in both Ho’s life and his firm, he said.
One anecdote that displays those attributes came when Ho’s career was in journalism, a discipline his author mother also excelled in.
“Writing for the Far Eastern Economic Review, which is no longer published but was very respected, I wrote some articles critical of the Singapore government,” he said.
That was in 1977, and for his pains Ho spent two months in solitary confinement under a British-legacy act known as “preventive detention,” being released without any convictions when he “confessed” to being pro-Communist.
Before then, in the earlier 1970s, Ho was ejected from Stanford University for what was deemed political dissent during those turbulent years.
“I consider that quite the achievement. Thousands and thousands have graduated from there, but only 10 have been thrown out,” he said.
“I find it amusing, because now they ask me for donations. Somehow I am considered alumni,” he said.
Both these incidents taught the young Ho not to be so headstrong, he said.
As a safer sideline, Ho has joined the board of whisky company Diageo.
“My favorite whisky is Mortlach. Traditionally it was one of the ingredients for (Johnny Walker) Blue, but it was so popular they now produce a few bottles as it is,” Ho added.