How sustainability guides Banyan Tree Holdings' past, present and future

As Banyan Tree Holdings celebrates its 25th anniversary, the entrepreneurial family shares how sustainability guides the company’s past, present and future

CREDIT: Journalist, Hong Xinyi - Extract from

When it comes to erudite business families, the couple behind Banyan Tree Holdings is about as good as it gets. Ho Kwon Ping, the executive chairman of this hospitality group, is also the founding chairman of the Singapore Management University. Named the first Fellow of the SR Nathan Lecture Series at the Institute of Policy Studies in 2014, he published Asking Why, a collection of his writing, last year. Claire Chiang, Banyan Tree’s senior vice president, chairs the company’s China Business Development division and the Banyan Tree Global Foundation. An advocate for gender equality and education, she was a nominated member of parliament from 1997 to 2001, and inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2018.

In 2005, Banyan Tree became a founding member of the United Nations Global Compact Network—billed as the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative—in Singapore. Since 2006, it has been publishing annual sustainability reports to highlight its environmental efforts. In 2010, it chose advisory group EarthCheck as a strategic partner for obtaining external sustainability certification. Most recently, after two years of research, it committed to sustainably sourced packaging and ingredients for all the reformulated products used in its spas and sold through its retail platforms.

And protecting the environment is only one aspect of the group’s conception of sustainability. The other key element is about empowering communities. Inspired by the work of women’s rights activist Shirin Fozdar, Chiang conceived retail arm Banyan Tree Gallery as a showcase for items created by rural craftswomen.

“That idea of enabling local communities and showcasing their talents is something that is also very strong in our hotels in terms of how we source our artwork, the upholstery and fabrics that we use, and the design principles that underlie each of the hotels’ local sense of place,” adds Ren Yung.

The company initiates and supports a variety of education and humanitarian initiatives in the places where it operates, such as setting up the accredited Laguna Phuket Kindergarten and establishing the Phuket Tsunami Recovery Fund in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Since 2007, it’s been running the Seedlings programme, which provides youths with mentorships and scholarships. “It’s a yin and yang thing—we’re not just about embracing the environment and saving endangered species. We also want to help develop the people in the communities we work in,” says Ho.

We want to be a business that stewards the resources we are given in a responsible way, and we want to create value in the communities we work with.
— Claire Chiang

Both strands of this sustainability ethos will feature in the group’s 25th anniversary celebrations this year. “We will plant 25,000 trees this year, which means that by the end of 2019, our group would have planted half a million trees,” says Chiang. “In addition, we will support 25 local schools across different regions in capacity building.”

“We don’t approach this as philanthropy,” she adds. “Philanthropy tends to mean you give to causes when you have extra money. We want to be a business that stewards the resources we are given in a responsible way, and we want to create value in the communities we work with.”

To that end, the company’s Stay for Good programme invites guests to donate US$2 for each night of their stay. These contributions are then matched by Banyan Tree and disbursed to various sustainability initiatives through the Banyan Tree Global Foundation, the group’s non-profit arm. “So regardless of the profitability of the business itself, we match our guests’ contributions,” says Ho. “And our guests also realise that they are part and parcel of this whole sustainability enterprise.” Since its inception in 2009, this foundation has disbursed close to US$8 million.

To nurture its own staff (whom the company terms associates), Banyan Tree runs its own management and spa training academies, and pays out all service charges to employees, which is not the norm in many countries’ hospitality industries. “It’s about how we are all in this together, I think that’s the whole point,” says Ho of this choice. “Every little thing you do helps to build up a strong company culture.” For this year’s 25th anniversary festivities, for instance, staff got a chance to shine in a group-wide talent contest, whose finals were held in June at Banyan Tree Mayakoba in Mexico. In September, special recognition events for associates will also be a key part of the anniversary gala celebrations. “Other companies would bring in celebrities, big names. But people in Banyan Tree know what our celebrations are like. It is about thanking and celebrating our dedicated associates.”

With this new world, of course, comes new expectations. Ren Yung sees adaptability as one of the company’s core values, and one that is crucial today as guests become more diverse. “Previously, we would have a set of standards and created quite a uniform experience. But that’s not the case anymore. We now encounter guests with different needs and desires, and we need to have the capacity and empathy to understand how to adapt to them and create the experiences they would like to have. We believe exceptional customer experiences start with our associates, so we are spending a lot of time building that strong foundation of service culture and leadership from within.”

Another priority is improving the digital capacities of Banyan Tree brands. “From how guests interact with our website, to their preferences during their stay, there are a million touchpoints we want to capture and understand better,” she says. “We are a brand known for well-being and sustainability. How do we extend that brand presence in our guests’ lives beyond their stay at our properties? That’s something that is really on my mind. In every decision we make, we go beyond what is necessary because we are thinking about how to help people maximise their potential. This is a vehicle of purpose." To read more visit SingaporeTatler