Self-confessed “hotel junkie” Abid Butt is 18 months into his role as chief executive officer of Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts (BTHR), a company he first joined more than 10 years ago.
Back then, he managed the flagship Banyan Tree Phuket in Thailand and became the first vice president of operations. His career then took him to America, where he had previously studied and started his career, as vice president of asset management for Host Hotels & Resorts.
But the lure of Banyan Tree proved too much and now that Butt is in the driving seat, he has bold ambitions to grow the organisation, find future leaders and develop unique experiences for guests over the next five to eight years.
“That’s what in front of me so that’s what I’m focused on,” he says. “I’m told I’m a very driven individual. That keeps me going, I’m very results-oriented. I like to measure progress, I like to measure when things are getting done and not getting done.”
Expansion is one of the areas progressing rapidly since Butt’s appointment. When we speak, he’s just returned from opening the group’s first hot spring resort in Chongqing, China, and is set to travel through Europe in August, focusing on gateway cities, and embark on a major trip through south, central and north America in September, scouting out potential opportunities and meeting investors.
Banyan Tree Group also invests in some projects itself via its Banyan Tree Capital real estate fund management arm, currently committed in the Banyan Tree Indochina Hospitality Fund and Banyan Tree China Hospitality fund.
“My colleagues with Banyan Tree Capital are fairly busy quite candidly managing those two funds because we look for a project before we go out and raise the funds, unlike ‘line pool’ type of funds — that’s clearly one of the vehicles that we’ve used to grow and might continue to use that depending on location, and what partners might be available, so that will continue to be an option,” reveals Butt.
There are also further projects in the Middle East on the horizon, following the opening of Banyan Tree Al Wadi and Banyan Tree Beach Resort in Ras Al Khaimah, with talks underway in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
A complex comprising the luxury Banyan Tree brand and upper upscale Angsana is already under construction in Sifah, Oman. The region appeals, says Butt, because of its strong culture.
“Our brand fits into the cultural elements and the location that we look after and really delivers an experience because truly we are not about luxury positioning, we are about experiential positioning.
“We certainly would like to have other hotels in the emirates; between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, there are several places that one of our brands could fit perfectly. Places like Qatar or even Lebanon and Egypt when things stabilise; we would love to have our hotels there because culturally all this area is very strong and it will help us deliver a fabulous experience.
“That’s who we are; every location we go in to operate we have to bring in the sense of the place. That’s the filters that we put on new projects — we make sure we can actually deliver a true holistic experience.
“Hopefully by the end of the year, seeing how my trips go and what comes out of it, next time you and I speak maybe we’ll be able to talk specifically about a few more projects,” he says positively.
However, wherever Banyan Tree grows across the world, Butt is keen to “retain the Asian heritage of our organisation” and the “fabulous” Asian hospitality and core values.
“We wouldn’t want to lose that in any way, shape or form,” he asserts.
Connecting with Talent
As many hotel CEOs have lamented to Hotelier Middle East, Butt’s major concern with growing the company is the availability of talent.
“I think the biggest challenge that dictates some of the priorities to how we focus is the human capital. As we grow we need the future leaders of the company so there is a lot of emphasis being placed on developing talent that can operate these hotels,” he says, pointing out that the customised nature of the Banyan Tree product requires specific skills. “It is still a big task.”
Banyan Tree is tackling this by approaching graduates in new ways and progressing new and existing staff through its own Banyan Tree Management Academy in Phuket. Associates also benefit from job swaps at line staff as well as senior level positions to enable them to “get comfortable” with the different geographies and cultures the group operates in.
The company ties-up with hotel schools in US, Europe, Asia and GCC to attract and recruit graduates — with Butt on the hunt for more associations — and also partners with institutions to offer online training programmes, such as those from E-Cornell.
Butt is working with his own alma-mater, the Johnson and Wales Universty in Miami, to potentially develop some remote learning tools specifically for Banyan Tree.
“The way I learned growing up in a classroom setting, a sort of structured environment, is not necessarily how the new generation that is going to come into the workforce learns; they learn by videos on YouTube or they learn by watching podcasts,” proffers Butt.
“We just need to make sure that we can make these [online] resources available to our associates, and work across the language boundaries and time boundaries because a lot of people are working full time.”
The all-consuming nature of the hospitality business is something Butt believes employers must address when recruiting.
“Baby boomers were after a career path; that’s what baby boomers were sold from organisations. The younger generation, gen X and Y; work life balance is very important to them, they learn differently than the boomers did and I think the industry has to adapt to that.
We have to be able to make sure that we provide an emotional connection to the place of work that the current generation desires. A career is important but it’s not going to be the answer for all.
The industry almost has to sell itself to the younger generation to make sure we can attract the talent because it is very, very consuming on a personal level — as we all recognise when everybody else is on vacation, our industry has to work. When everybody else is going to dinner we have to work. So it is a special mindset that people have to have to enjoy this industry.
“The industry has to do a better job to make sure that we facilitate a connection,” he asserts. “We have to work to make sure they do have fun. That’s very hard at times. This industry can be very trying from personal point of view.
“My recommendation to new entrants is to learn as much as they can as they enter the industry, don’t ever lose focus of what they want to do or where they want to be. As long as they’ve kept that focus, people will get there and have a ball; have a great time because the industry is a fascinating industry.
No industry in the world would provide an opportunity to meet people from all over the world, work in different parts of the world and really experience different cultures, it’s a very dynamic industry.”
Recalling his desire to work in F&B and hotels, Butt reveals he actually left medical school to go to culinary school — so deep-rooted was his passion.
“I was aspiring to be a medical doctor so I’m a med school drop-out turned hotelier,” laughs Butt, with no regrets. “Some of my siblings have continued on in that profession; I tell them people have to go see them, they want to come and see me!”
Still, like many in his position, Butt admits that while his focus is the growth of Banyan Tree worldwide, he has a “long list of personal ambitions to fulfil”.
“Somewhere along the line if I can find a little more time I want to go back to school for education in law; it’s not so much that I’m ever going to practice law, it’s the discipline of law that interests me so I’d like to learn that,” Butt tells me.
“I do want to learn how to play percussion. As a matter of fact I have an electronic drum kit so I need to find time because I want to learn that; I think that would be very, very relaxing. I want to lower my golf handicap, I want to dive in some of the best dive spots around the world, my personal ambition list goes on and on and on and on,” he laughs.
“There are a lot of places around the world that I still want to go and visit with my family but all those things are on my list and I’m sure I’m going to be crossing them off over the years.”