By Michael Adams
Photography courtesy of Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts
Head shot courtesy of Russell Wong
Claire Chiang, senior vice president, Banyan Tree Holdings, founded Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts with her husband, Ho Kwon Ping, in 1994. Today, the Banyan Tree portfolio consists of 21 properties in 10 countries, as well as the contemporary Angsana Hotels & Resorts brand. Here, Chiang discusses the collection’s “accidental” beginnings, as well as its rapid current expansion, and the vital importance of spas in enhancing the overall guest experience.
When you and your husband started out, what did you hope to create? One hotel? A collection?
Banyan Tree started out rather innocently with the purchase of a large tract of land in Phuket that was an abandoned tin mine. We are accidental hoteliers, never intending to create a brand or collection. I am a sociologist by training and my husband is a journalist. We have spent considerable resources rehabilitating this land into the vibrant integrated resort community it is today—Laguna Phuket—and growing our group to now encompass hotels spread across the world. It’s been quite a journey since the early days.
Can you tell us the story of how that abandoned mine turned into your first hotel project?
When we purchased the tract of land in Phuket, it was with the intention of building a holiday home. Only upon purchase did we discover that it was entirely uninhabitable, and in fact, had been deemed toxic by a UNDP report. Through significant investment of time and financial resources, we brought the land to life. When we decided to build our own hotel on the property, which had already housed resorts operated by other groups, we devised a few key elements that would soon become hallmarks of the Banyan Tree experience: the pool villa concept and the tropical garden spa. As the common saying goes, ignorance is bliss. Our past ignorance led to our present state of pride and joy in how we added value to a destination judged useless and hopeless.
Why the name Banyan Tree?
Banyan Tree references two things: It references Banyan Tree Bay in Hong Kong—that was the first place my husband and I resided—and signifies a place of nurture and family. Also, the tree’s expansive leaf span is said to shelter travelers on their journey, and we appreciated the sense of roots as foundation and comfort that this connoted to make a sanctuary for rest and rejuvenation; fundamentally, we were inspired by this ancient tree with its deep roots and Asian heritage. As indicated by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Trees are earth’s efforts to reach out to the listening heavens.’
Capturing the essence of location is extremely important to you and Banyan Tree’s designs. Can you explain why, and some examples of your hotels that speak most to this?
Though there is a common thread to the Banyan Tree experience aesthetically speaking, each hotel takes inspiration from the unique and natural environment in which it resides. You’ll see local materials indigenous to regional environments used throughout each resort, along with menu items that reference traditional ingredients and dishes. Our galleries showcase items that are sourced from surrounding villages, along with other communities around the globe. The sense of place is further reinforced by our staff, many of whom come from the main towns and villages in each location. A good example is at Banyan Tree Ringha, in which we artfully reconstructed all thirty-two lodges and suites from decades-old Tibetan farmhouses log by log, without the use of nails or other modern materials.
You are in a serious growth period. How many hotels are you opening in the next five years and where? Why now?
In the next five years alone we are opening at least ten new hotels, many of them in China. The explosive growth in Chinese domestic tourism is unprecedented, and we are favorably positioned to meet this hyper development.
Can you tell us a bit about your first hotel in India slated for early 2013?
Banyan Tree Kerala is a very exciting project for us, as it signifies our first Banyan Tree hotel in the subcontinent. Situated on its own private island, it will boast our very first Ayurvedic center, along with a boat-up lobby.
And you just opened an urban resort in Shanghai. Can you give us some highlights of that hotel?
Banyan Tree Shanghai on the Bund has just launched, and is our fourth urban resort project. The hotel is sited right on the Huang Pu River, and each room has gorgeous panoramic views of the river and Bund thoroughfare beyond. We have an expansive three-story spa featuring our signature wellness therapies, and a new concept called the Banyan Tree Host, which is an end-to-end concierge service that will guide and customize each guest’s stay.
You have a design arm, Architrave. How did that come about? Why is that important to your brand?
We have control over the architectural vocabulary by aligning the way we build and how we build to reflect local culture and heritage. A desire to align our product to the local visual vocabulary first motivated the foundation of Architrave.
Which hotel are you most excited about that’s in development and why?
While each hotel is unique, at the moment Banyan Tree and Angsana Lang Co in Central Vietnam is very exciting. As a late developer in tourism in an emerging economy, Lang Co holds the promise of providing an experience to tourists that will be different. There is an old charm that is unspoiled, yet there is sophistication to the region and its people. Our proximity to several world heritage sites will also be an enriching experience for guests.
Your tagline is ‘Sanctuary for the Senses.’ Can you explain that and what it means for you and your company?
The tagline is meant to invoke the idea of our resorts serving as a high-touch mental, spiritual, and physical retreat for our guests. Whether for business or leisure, our guests stay with us because they seek a certain peace of mind. With our elegant yet not over-the-top architecture and interiors—which soothe and comfort—to our pampering spas and wellness programs, we believe that our resorts offer a space in which to relax, restore, and recover.
Spas: they are usually a major part of your hotel/resort experiences. What are the keys to a successful spa?
Spa means ‘self pampering art.’ It is a wellness experience where alignment of the heart, mind, and spirit is achieved by one’s body being pampered sensorially through herbal remedies and treatment programs. A well-trained group of therapists is also key; we groom our staff in our proprietary Spa Academies.
Which spa trends are you paying attention to? What are guests looking for today in a spa?
Innovative spa products and treatment programs are key. It is the service and skills that our therapists display in relieving the stress and pain of travelers so they leave our spas feeling rejuvenated that is vital.
What are luxury hotel guests looking for today? How has that changed since you started out?
Luxury travel connoisseurs are much more interested in experiential travel which affords them unique, enriching experiences rather than just a plush hotel room or expensive getaway. The value proposition has changed; they are curious, eager to explore and to give back. While this was certainly the case in some of the guests we saw at the beginning of our company’s history, this philosophy has been adopted by a much wider audience today from all walks of life. Luxury is about creating privacy and intimacy. It is about being pampered and enjoying an experience that is different from what one can find at home. Good service and enriching experiences that you don’t receive in daily life is luxury.