Case study: Behind the Banyan Tree

A brand synonymous with private villas and tropical garden spas, Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts received its first guest in 1994 in Phuket, Thailand.

From that initial resort, built on what had been the highly-polluted leftovers of an abandoned tin mine, Banyan Tree has grown into a leading global manager and developer of premium resorts, hotels and spas.

Today the Banyan Tree operates more than 30 resorts and hotels and 70 spas around the world, both in beachside locations and more recently, moving its concept of discreet luxury into an urban setting as well.

phuketbefore280The brand name was taken from the fishing village Banyan Tree Bay on Hong Kong’s Lamma Island where founders Ho Kwon Ping and his wife Claire Chiang had lived for three idyllic years. With its modest and rustic setting, they remembered it to be a sanctuary of romance and intimacy from the nearby bustle of Hong Kong.

Likewise the banyan tree itself embodies the shelter afforded by Asia’s tropical rainforests.

Thus they chose the name Banyan Tree for their niche resort concept, positioning it as a sanctuary for the senses.

The idea of entering the luxury resorts business was inspired by what the two founders saw as a gap in the hotel market that the established big chains could not fill.

They saw the potential of a market niche that wanted innovative, private and intimate accommodation but without the expectation of glitzy hotels. With this in mind they developed the idea of building a resort comprising individual villas with locally inspired architectural design and positioned as a romantic and intimate escape for guests.

Ho and Chiang had backpacked across the world in their youth, and were seasoned travellers themselves.

This extensive travel experience is evident in their non-conforming beliefs that resorts should provide more than just accommodation, manifesting itself today in the company’s socially responsible business values towards caring for both the natural environments and the communities in which it operates.

‘Sense of place’

All Banyan Tree hotels and resorts are designed around the concept of providing “a sense of place” to reflect and enhance the culture and heritage of the destination.

This is reflected in the architecture, furnishings, landscape, vegetation and the overall service delivered to resort guests.

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Each resort also delivers its own local flavour in the services offered, based on local cultures, some of which are unique to certain resorts.

Employees are allowed – even encouraged – to vary the service delivery process according to local culture and practices, as long as these are consistent with the brand promise of romance and intimacy.

In Phuket, for instance, a couple could enjoy dinner on a traditional Thai long tail boat accompanied by Thai musicians instead of dining in a restaurant.

Another draw of the resorts is the Banyan Tree Spa, found at every Banyan Tree property, a service that has pioneered the tropical garden spas concept.

In addition the resorts have become home to outlets for the Banyan Tree Gallery, created by co-founder Claire Chiang, showcasing local and indigenous crafts in line with the brand’s ethos of conserving local culture and heritage through promoting cottage crafts.

Banyan Tree values

Chiang also heads a dedicated corporate social responsibility committee, supporting the values behind the brand such as actively caring for the natural and human environment and revitalising local communities.

In turn this has helped create pride and respect among staff across the brand’s resorts.

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Of course this approach also manifests itself in the construction of the resorts themselves, which are built using local materials as far as possible with a focus on minimising the impact on the environment.

At Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru and Banyan Tree Seychelles, fresh water supply was obtained by the more expensive method of desalination, instead of extracting water from the underground water table, which risked long-term disruption of the local ecological system.

The brand also has other initiatives such as the Green Communities programme and the Green Imperative Fund aimed at engaging local communities and guests, improve education over environmental issues and minimise environmental impact.

In the case of the Green Imperative Fund guests are billed US$2 per night which the company matches and the funds are then channelled to projects in support of the local community and environment.

In addition, recognising that the disparity in living standards between guests and the local community might create a sense of alienation, Banyan Tree has set up a dedicated Community Relations Department to develop and manage community outreach programs.

The road ahead

poolvilla280In little more than two decades Banyan Tree has grown from a single resort to a chain of successful, resorts, hotels and spas that is growing into new markets far from its beachside Southeast Asian origins.

The Banyan Tree has become a global name, while retaining a strong local flavour in each of its resorts that makes each one unique.

It has also been a strong practitioner of sustainable growth, both in terms of minimising its environmental impact as well as its approach to the communities in which it operates.

As a pioneer in the resort spa industry it has drawn many imitators – an indication of its success, but also a challenge as it moves forward.

As it continues to grow, Banyan Tree will have to decide how to nurture the culture of innovation that has made it so distinctive and successful.

This article is adapted from the case study Banyan Tree: Branding the Intangible by Professor Jochen Wirtz

  • Author Profile

    Jochen Wirtz is Professor of Marketing at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a member of NUS Teaching Academy (the NUS think-tank on education matters), and an international fellow of the Service Research Center at Karlstad University, Sweden. Click here for his full profile

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