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Driving growth in sustainable tourism: The Banyan Tree Story

Find out how a Singaporean brand drives growth in sustainable tourism.


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Published by Think Business from NUS Business School
on 18 Jun 2015

By Alison Eyring

Established in 1994 by former journalist Ho Kwon Ping and his wife Claire Chiang, the Banyan Tree has grown from humble beginnings to a highly respected brand in the hospitality industry, and a destination treasured by travellers the world over.

The group started out with a resort built on an abandoned and - they subsequently discovered - highly-polluted tin mine on the Thai resort island of Phuket. 

From such unlikely beginnings - and after and extensive clean up - sprang an environmentally-conscious luxury beach resort, which in turn has spawned a chain of spas and hotels that today spans from the bustling heart of downtown Shanghai to the coast of Mexico.

Today Banyan Tree operates in more than 30 resorts and hotels and a chain of luxury spas in 28 countries. And it is looking to expand further, with a particular focus on new markets in the Americas and China.

Recently, as part of our continuing series Driving Growth, I had the pleasure of speaking with Abid Butt, who took over in 2012 from Banyan Tree founders as the group's first professional CEO.

Watch the interview here: Part One | Part Two.

Abid is a veteran of the hospitality industry, starting out with the Sheraton group, working at the frontline managing hotels around the world, before joining the Banyan Tree in the late 1990s. Here are some key takeaways from our conversation.

Banyan Tree achieved its growth in large part due to innovations with water features, amazing service experiences and an obsession with bringing out local uniqueness at each of its properties. As the first CEO taking over from the company founders, Abid clearly sees that his role is to continue to support ongoing innovation as a way to preserve the founders' legacy.

Successful growth leaders find the right balance of innovating and starting new things, with driving constancy and preserving what has worked in the past.

The pressure to grow also creates pressure to adapt to new markets and customer expectations. This is a good thing. 

Growth leaders ensure their business never forgets what loyal customers most love about the brand and their brand experience.

In our own work, we see growth leaders increasingly giving these important stakeholders a voice in defining ways to continue to make the brand great. 

The really good ones are able to share power AND steer their business into the future.

Growth in any service industry depends upon consistently creating experiences that deliver on the company's brand promise. Employees need technical skills to do their job, and good hiring and training practices can address this.

But more importantly, they have to understand the meaning of the brand and translate this into behaviour and decisions made every day. This requires a strong culture that brings the brand to life, and empowers employers to act like owners of the brand.

Growth leaders demand high standards of performance and at the same time, empower their staff to deliver on the brand promise.

As companies expand into new markets, they face pressure to act quickly and behave in ways that have led to success in other markets. This applies to products, services, channel partners, and even physical design of workspaces.

Banyan Tree is an example of a company that starts by taking time to understand what is unique and different in the new market and seeks to integrate this uniqueness in its properties.

This mindset of "go slow to grow fast" is one that we are much more likely to see amongst Asian MNCs than Western MNCs. Global growth leaders find the right balance between driving global standardisation and local relevance.

Too often, a track record of success creates arrogance and an inability to adapt for the future. Like other growth leaders, Abid takes a humble attitude about the success of Banyan Tree. This humility is what keeps him and his team looking out and looking ahead. In an evolving business environment, this attitude encourages adaptation.

Abid's view of business planning and detailed business plans as a way to anticipate and rehearse for the future is a perfect example of this attitude. Growth leaders do a great job showing confidence in the future and their plans for it, whilst at the same showing humility and openness to adapt their plans.

Interviewing Abid was such a pleasure. He embodies many of the characteristics our own research has shown on growth leadership. As you lead growth in a services industry, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do our most loyal customers love about our brand? How do we preserve this? How can we adapt around this?
  • What has contributed to our success in the past? How can we continue this? How must we adapt to be successful in the future?
  • What is the promise of our brand in terms of an experience? What are we doing to ensure every employee understands and can act in ways that deliver on this promise?
  • What are the critical few things that we must do in a globally standardised way? How do we ensure we do this well? How do we ensure the rest is locally relevant? How can we collaborate across markets to achieve local relevance in a cost-effective manner?

Last Modified Date: 11 May 2017