How Banyan Tree's 36-year-old scion is making her mark on the family business
What does it mean to be a second-generation leader? Ho Renyung talks to CNA Luxury on returning to the family business, redefining Banyan Tree’s sustainability strategy, and dealing with pressure.
It’s a rainy afternoon, and we’re in the home of Ho Renyung, the second daughter of Ho Kwon Ping and Claire Chiang, founders of hospitality group, Banyan Tree. It’s a beautiful conservation shophouse that’s more than a hundred years old. Art and vintage knick-knacks lie in various corners.
There’s a particular painting that captures my eye. It’s a Mandarin calligraphy of the word “smile”, placed by the sofa set.
“It was written by my uncle, then gifted to my grandmother,” Ho explained. “The word resembles a smiling face, and reminds me of my grandmother who was always quick to laugh at life, especially in her older years. It's a reminder for me to never take myself too seriously, and that humour is foundational to a life of joy. This flows into my view of wellbeing and my work.”
Wellbeing. It’s a word that we hear very often now, ever since the pandemic brought to the forefront important issues such as self-care and mental health. For Ho, it’s an important pillar to Banyan Tree’s business that she now oversees, and one that’s crucial for the future of the group.
A JOURNEY OF SELF-DISCOVERY
Captivated by the beauty of her home, we get a little carried away with taking Ho’s profile shots for this story. Once we’re finally done, she invites me over to the sofa for our chat, preferring to keep things free-flowing and casual.
I start off by asking Ho what she was like as a child, and what she dreamed of becoming. “The first time I ever thought of becoming something, it was a vet. I was in love with animals. I had so many dog books, horse books and so on,” she mused.
As a teenager, Ho spent some time working at the marine lab of Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, the group's property in the Maldives. “I was convinced then that I wanted to work in marine biology,” she said. “I was captivated by the whole idea of conservation work surrounding coral reefs, the ocean and its ecosystems.”
However, Ho eventually went off to university and ended up studying economic development and sociology instead. After writing her thesis on social entrepreneurship, Ho was convinced that business was the “right vehicle to create impact”.
Ask any scion and they’ll usually tell you they never expected, nor even desired, to join the family fold. Yet somehow, many of them end up doing so. But Ho’s path to joining the family business is a little different in the sense that she first joined the company, then left, then rejoined again.
After graduation from university, Ho worked as a management trainee at Banyan Tree Mayakoba, the group’s property in Mexico. She was promoted to Pre-Opening Manager, before taking on the role of Associate Director. Three years later, she left.
“My family has always positioned it as privilege to work in the family business,” shared Ho, who has two other siblings. “Meaning, it’s a choice. It’s not an obligation, and it’s not a birthright. Leaving was very important in order for me to understand what I wanted to do and why. To know myself outside of the small world of Banyan Tree, to know where my strengths and weaknesses lie.”
“My family has always positioned it as privilege to work in the family business. Meaning, it's a choice. It’s not an obligation, and it’s not a birthright."
Ho then embarked on several entrepreneurial pursuits, including founding Kennel, a co-working space for creatives. There was also a “digital business about crowdfunding in Asia”, which according to Ho, “didn’t make it past incubator stage”. She also founded Matter, a socially-conscious clothing company.
“What connects all the work that I’ve done is that I really enjoy doing what I call frontier work. Meaning work that creates value, or changes the conversation,” Ho said.
Before it fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic, Matter had been bought over by Banyan Tree in 2016, and Ho returned to lead Banyan Tree Gallery, the group’s retail business. She’s now the Vice President of Brand HQ, where she leads brand development and strategy alongside the group’s wellbeing and retail pillars.
Now at 36 years old, Ho is sure of her mission, sure of herself. On why she decided to return, the mother of one said, “I was old enough to know what I wanted and what I could contribute. My parents were also at the stage where they could see where I could contribute to the business, and invited that change.”
MARRYING WELLBEING WITH SUSTAINABILITY
In the past few months, Ho has had her hands full with redefining the Banyan Tree brand and its offerings. The COVID-19 pandemic has been undoubtedly disastrous for the travel and hospitality industry as a whole. But pandemic or not, Banyan Tree has been pushing on.
For one, in August 2020, it announced a collaboration with KrisShop, the flagship retailer of Singapore Airlines. Banyan Tree’s retail offerings, including its signature Essentials aromatherapy and body care products are now available for purchase on KrisShop, with the two brands looking at future synergies.
The collaboration is one of the ways Banyan Tree is exploring different customer touchpoints in the digital space, a critical venture for a hospitality company at a point when travel is uncertain. Ho admitted that prior to the pandemic, “our digital channels were not our most revenue-contributing channels”.
"As a customer, you’ll probably think of Banyan Tree maybe once every year when you’re going on holiday. We’re not present in your daily life, especially now,” she said. “Venturing into e-commerce and retail gives us an opportunity to add value to our customers’ lives on a regular basis. With our products, they can create their own self-care rituals at home. These are ways for us be present in our customers’ lives on a daily basis.”
Sustainability has always been at the core of Banyan Tree since its founding. But what’s changed since Ho came on board is that “we have married the idea of the concept of wellbeing and sustainability together”, she shared.
"A lot of our foundation work was external as opposed to directly concerning the customer. For example, we did a lot of resource waste conservation initiatives, we did a lot of tree-planting, a lot of community development, which are important. But now, we are weaving sustainability into the notion of wellbeing. We’re basically saying that sustainability is not something that doesn’t concern you. For all our guests, it’s important to your wellbeing,” Ho continued.
One of Banyan Tree’s most popular activities, available on its properties, is a session called Conscious Grounding. Guests are blindfolded, and are guided to walk on a patch of grass barefoot. Ho describes it as a simple activity that lets guests connect with nature.
“We see a million guests through our doors every year. That’s not a large number, but it’s also not small. If we can affect their mindset or change their lifestyle preferences in any way for the better, that’s powerful,” she enthused.
For Banyan Tree, promoting wellbeing includes prioritising mental health. This begins at an internal level with its staff and associates. In May 2020, Banyan Tree rolled out several group-wide initiatives that sought to promote mental wellbeing among its employees. One of these initiatives was an Organisational Wellbeing Index, a set of 64 lifestyle questions that helps the company assess its employees’ state of wellbeing.
“From there, we can identify vulnerable associates who might need help, and we can see what practices we need to change at an organisational level,” shared Ho.
"We see a million guests through our doors every year. That’s not a large number, but it’s also not small. If we can affect their mindset or change their lifestyle preferences in any way for the better, that’s powerful."
CHARTING HER OWN PATH
Sustainability, wellbeing, mental health. These are buzzwords that have emerged in the business world ever since second-generation leaders began taking the helm. I asked Ho if she believes being a millennial leader has made her prioritise these issues.
She takes a moment to think before saying, “I think it comes from me being a leader in this time. The fact that I have maybe 20 to 40 years to go in my working life probably does play into the fact that my considerations when it comes to business does look at that horizon.
“The level of degradation that we’re seeing as a planet, as a human race, coupled with consumer pressure, these mean that sustainability is not an option. From a business point of view, if in five- to ten years’ time you don’t do anything, you’ll be hit with carbon taxes, consumer activism, all kinds of expectations that you haven’t been preparing for.”
Through the course of our conversation, it’s evident that Ho is putting her own stamp on the family business. I asked her if being the daughter of two prominent entrepreneurs has come with pressure.
“What do you think?” she answered with a smile. “Do I feel pressure? I think I give myself the most pressure. I do feel that sometimes people are judging me because I am the daughter of so-and-so. But I recognise that I am being judged because I don’t represent myself. I represent more than that.”
So how then does she try to forge her own identity?
“I don’t make a conscious effort to distinguish that anymore. When I was working at Matter, I felt that that identified me. Now, that I’m in Banyan Tree, this identifies me. In a way, labels always exist. I think less around how to distinguish that, and think around how I can make the best use of my time, and the best use of my resources, towards what I’m passionate about,” she said.
"I do feel that sometimes people are judging me because I am the daughter of so-and-so. But I recognise that I am being judged because I don’t represent myself. I represent more than that."
“I’ve also come to a place where I enjoy working with my parents,” Ho continued. “The first job that I took at the company was in Mexico. It takes 35 hours to get to Mexico. But now, I see my parents every day. I feel happy and privileged to be able to spend time with them and learn from them. And I feel that that gratitude is a fresh perspective.”
As the outlook for tourism recovery remains uncertain, the next few years are sure to be one of the most crucial for Banyan Tree. But Ho is confident of the group’s direction. “We’re making big moves into wellbeing that I think will really strengthen and redefine our brand experience for both our customers and associates. I’m looking forward to eventually welcoming international guests back onto our properties to experience what we have developed.”
In the meantime, I’m certain that Ho will be sailing through the tough times, all while keeping a smile on her face.