Skift Take

In episode ten of the Skift Ideas Podcast, Colin Nagy is joined by Ho Ren Yung of Banyan Group for a conversation around crafting spaces and experiences that seamlessly blend luxury, sustainability and wellbeing to shape an unparalleled guest experience.

In the latest episode of the Skift Ideas Podcast, Colin Nagy is joined by Ho Ren Yung, Head of Brand HQ at Banyan Group.

Banyan Group is one of the world’s leading independent, multi-branded hospitality groups, with Ren being responsible for Brand, Digital and Wellbeing across the Group’s multi-branded portfolio, having joined the Group in 2009. 

Listen in as we unravel the secrets behind crafting spaces and experiences that seamlessly blend luxury, sustainability and wellbeing to shape an unparalleled guest experience.

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Episode Notes

Host: Colin Nagy
Guest: Ho Ren Yung
Producer: Jose Marmolejos/James Magallanes

Colin Nagy: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to this Skift Ideas podcast. Thanks for tuning in for today’s episode. We’re joined by Ho Ren Yung, Head of Brand HQ at Banyan Tree Holdings. Banyan Tree Group is one of the world’s leading independent, multi branded hospitality groups centered on the purpose driven mission of stewardship and wellbeing while offering exceptional design led experiences.

Ren leads Brand HQ and is responsible for Brand, digital and wellbeing across the group’s multi-branded portfolio. She joined the group in 2009.

An active member in the creative and social business landscape in Singapore and the region, Ren is the has co-founder of pioneering businesses in the co-working and ecommerce space, as well as the founding chapter of Asia’s largest volunteer run creative network. She is also a Red Dot for Pink Dot business leader and a founding member of the AVP and Gender Network Supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Ren at Super Nice to have you with us today.

Ho Ren Yung: Nice to be back Colin and very excited about our convo.

Nagy: Cool. So I wanted to start off. We’ll get into the background and your history with the brand, but I’m really excited about two of the properties that have been kind of putting off a lot of heat in the culture and the conversation. One is your property that just opened in AlUla in Saudi Arabia. The second one is your property that opened in Bali.

And I just wanted to talk about these because it seems to me that they break some of the rules or they’re doing something different intentionally from potentially where your brand has been in the past. So I wanted to explain and unpack these a little bit.

Yung: Before we go into that. I want to ask and send it back to you Colin on why do you see that these properties are breaking the rules of what we do? I’m interested because for me, I see it as a kind of return to founding values and the core essence of the brand. So I love to hear from your perspective on like how it’s it’s counter to where you see the brand.

Nagy: With the Bali property, it just seemed very experimental, you know? No walls, very free flowing. And I think from an architecture standpoint, I think AlUla really stands out and is almost an exemplary version of, I think, what a lot of people are doing in the race to stand out in the Saudi ecosystem in luxury in Saudi.

So I think architecturally, for Saudi and then also just from an experimentation standpoint, it feels like you’re pushing a little bit of what the brand can do in Bali. So that’s that’s my take. But, you know, these much better than I do. So I would love to hear from you.

Yung: Thank you. It is kind of true. I would say that these two properties definitely are a departure from some of the more, I would say maybe conventional resorts that we’ve had in the last few years. The brand is 30 years old. Next year actually. And so they do seem different in that regard. The reason I say that it feels like a return to the roots is because we started with these kind of intimate properties that blended into the landscapes, right.

You know, small, intimate, architecturally very, you know, nature based in that sense. And from a destination point of view, I mean, when you have the Ashar Valley in AlUla and Buahan in Bali doing the work to make sure those stories and the sense of place comes out in every part of the experience is absolutely part of how we first started.

I think what’s changed perhaps, or what feels different is the the recommitment and the intensity with which we’ve gone into that in these properties. And a lot of that is also because of the extraordinary nature of the locations for Buahan and Bali. I think the reason it has also flourished so much is because we actually had the time of the pandemic to take that space to craft out every single small detail and be experimental.

So we gave ourselves the ability to break out of the boundaries. And because it was a brand extension, we had the mindset of rewriting the playbook, which was really enjoyable for AlUla, given it’s a desert environment, and I think it’s our second desert environment after quite a while actually, of the last ten years, that different landscape also gave us a different playbook, which was very liberating as well.

Nagy: Yeah, it’s interesting to me to observe because I think what we’ve been seeing with a lot of luxury brands with this desire to scale is a lot of things are getting stamped out like razor blades, right. And what stood out to me is, is it was a statement of intent to kind of break the mold, to kind of experiment and push the envelope a little bit so it just stood out to me as a progressive.

And it’s interesting that you say that the pandemic actually helped a little bit because, did that help you to kind of focus and dial things in from a service and detail standpoint before it was showtime?

Yung: Yeah, I think the pandemic was definitely one where we had, you know, usually property opens nine months, new build is in X years, depending on the property. But for Buahan, we had that time to go into every minute aspect of it. I think another part of growing, right, there’s two ways to approach growth. You can establish a cookie cutter approach or you can embrace the diversity of the different locations and make that a strength.

So, for example, one thing that’s happening here is opening of Banyan Tree Kyoto. Kyoto, again, is like it’s going to be like AlUla and Buahun, where the destination itself has such incredible stories. But to take the time to sieve that out, listen to what is unique there. Work with people and translate our, you know, brand standards and brand books to something that is relevant to Japan, that work needs to be done now. We can’t just come in and put across a specific approach.

Nagy: What’s exciting to me is, particularly with a market like Kyoto, is, you know, iron sharpens iron, right? You’re going in there, you have Aman, you have a very, very nice Park Hyatt Kyoto property. You know, even the ace there that King Akuma did just absolutely phenomenal. And so what’s interesting to me about the state of luxury hospitality and also innovation in luxury hospitality is this kind of healthy competition, right?

It makes people kind of dig a little bit deeper and sharpen the value proposition, but also, to your point, make them unique to the place and feel reflective of the environment. Because we’re an audio podcast and you can’t see beautiful photos of Bali. Tell me the vibe that someone experiences when they actually are pulling up into that property, and they get into their room.What are they feeling and what are they seeing?

Yung: Wow. All right. So for Buahan, when you first arrive and you come on to the arrival pavilion, you’ve driven, maybe about 2 hours from the airport. So you’re wondering, is this really worth it? This is really far. Is it worth it to come this far for an escape? But as you step out of the car and arrive on the arrival pavilion, you look out into the distance and you see a sea of green.

It’s a jungle, lush, a sanctuary in itself. You don’t see any other buildings. You see seven peaks on the horizon, seven mountains that in some way seem like a painting. But actually they’re just shadows in the distance. You then walk through an organic farm. And because everything is so quiet around you, you smell, you hear, your senses become heightened and the crunching of your feet as you walk down the path suddenly becomes something that you’ll remember continually.

Because everywhere in the property there is this particular sound of the path when you walk. When you go into your room, I think you’ll feel, oh wow, no matter where I’m at, it will literally hit you that there are no walls in this room. And while you’ve known that because you know, you were told several times before booking and on the website that this is the no walls, no doors, when you actually arrive there and you’re in a Bali or a villa that is on a cliff and recognize that there are no walls here and the wind passes through, when it rains, it comes through.

You see fireflies at night, you feel a little excited and a little bit like of a heightened sense of where you are. You feel very involved, you feel immersed. There might be for some a little tinge of apprehension. But then as night falls and you see the lights around you dim, you somehow feel safe because you feel part of that surroundings. In the middle of the night, you might wake up and see fireflies come into your bedroom. In the morning, what wakes you up is just the lighting of the sky at six and you might see clouds that pass in front of your room because we are at a high altitude and it’s cool.

Nagy: I mean, this is exactly. You painted a very nice picture. And I think what’s so interesting, too, is this notion that guests kind of want to break that sort of membrane. They want to break the concrete. They want to break the thing that is preventing them from actually feeling. And it’s something that, you know, we’ve come to understand with the power of like the canvas tent on safari.

But what’s interesting is from a design standpoint, we’re able to push that further where in this case the walls have been broken down and the environment is kind of one with your living space. And so, you know, it’s the it’s a new type of luxury that you’re at the framing of everything and the sensory elements are actually as important as everything else.

So I feel like there’s a nice poetry to what you’re trying to do there.

Yung: I think importantly also there’s this nuance around a certain level of discomfort or unexpectedness. Maybe discomfort is not the right word, but unexpectedness that we want to bring the guest into or invite the guests into to bring them into that other state of being or new way of perceiving or something that is truly different, especially when we’re talking about in this realm of luxury travel.

There is so much out there that more and more and more is not always better. And for the places like this one, it’s definitely not a experience of excess, of having the most in the max. So, you know, being able to we had so many discussions around trading off expected luxury comfort for an experience that might otherwise not be received well, like, for example, blackout. I talk about being woken up at 6 a.m. in the morning. You know, there was a lot of discussions around if you have no walls, do we want to provide for that comfort? And I think being able to be bold enough to make certain decisions and why is also what makes certain experiences stand out.

Nagy: And I think strong brands kind of like lead their clientele. I like what you said about there is a little bit of apprehension right? It’s interesting because, you know, if you think about fine dining, the first time I spent time at Noma, there was a lot of things that kind of like made me slightly feel weird. Now there there was moments of apprehension and that was actually part of the thing because you were being pushed.

And I think that that’s actually quite, quite a powerful thing. And also, to be perfectly honest, many of the guests that are going there, they kind of know what they’re getting into. Right. It’s the same thing for for Saudi. You have, you know, so to see the stars under a desert sky in a context like that, it’s pretty rare experience.

And so the framing of that is kind of the art as much as the FFE and the build out.

Yung: I want to bring in also the people, because every experience is around the energetics of that experience, right? So like what you talk about seeing the stars under a desert sky, how you are brought into that, and the the energy and the presence of the people that are bringing you there or inviting you there is fundamentally important as well. Whether you’re ferried into a car and just like, you know, being shown the sky versus if you are told about the history of this location, the person that is sharing this with you feels intimately connected to the land.

And one of the feedbacks that we often get, especially in Buahan as well, is that the people that you’re surrounded by feel like an extension of a community and that place. And I think that as a traveler or as a person, when you’re entering that feeling, that connection is a fundamental part of the experience. It’s not just the provision of that, the availability of it or the design of the property.

And I think that comes back to culture, comes back to hiring, comes back to what the team is like on property.

Nagy: I like it because, you know, the Balinese hospitality and the nuance of it is part of the experience as as would be the sort of Saudi hospitality and the ingrained hospitality and a lot of that sort of operating system culturally.

Parlaying this into, into talking about people and talking about culture. You know what I’d ask you, it’s one of the big things you think about, is how to build a cohesive culture of service, but also, you know, ensure that your teams are well looked after and well-treated.

So very simple question, but a difficult one. How do you build culture?

Yung: Well, this is yes, like you said, simple but hard and the simple part is having consistent values that are truly believed, starting with that and I think then articulating those values repeatedly across multiple people, across multiple scenarios and then acting it out. I think last time we talked and we talked about culture, I said that we were at a kind of inflection point because when we started, we started small and then culture can be transmitted through interaction, through people, through conversations and organically. Now, as we’re growing that culture is the hardest thing to scale in that sense.

So then it’s going back to, I think, identifying and making sure that you have culture ambassadors that will share the same message and behave in ways that us both at the leadership level but also at the frontline level. It comes down to concrete things that I think have an impact. So on property, it would be things like with like I shared before around, okay, if we are a brand about wellbeing, then that’s something that we also want to share with our associates and we focus and demonstrate a lot of that because an inside out approach is key.

I think the strongest thing about culture is that it’s what you communicate externally must be the same as what you communicate internally and what you place value on externally has to be similar in what it seems like you place value on internally as well. Otherwise, there will be a gap and a disillusion between what you say and what you do.

And I think closing that gap as you grow is the most fundamental, important thing. So yeah, I’ll just take a pause there.

Nagy: Yeah, it’s a great point because I think there’s the whole, the sort of oral history or like the culture carrying that starts when you’re small, right? And I like what you said when you scale, obviously you need to have the SOPs and the frameworks and things like that, but you have to identify the nodes both at the GM level but also at the frontline level of who are those culture carriers.

And it’s like the osmosis can happen from there, right? So it’s, it’s thinking about this in an organic way. T

he other thing I wanted to talk to you about is hotels are always talking about, you know, wellness. They’re coming up with lots of different concepts. They’re really playing into every iteration and variety of wellness.

But obviously the people that are facilitating these have their needs, the staff, mental wellbeing, sort of economic empowerment, you know, social mobility or mobility at your job. How have you aligned what you do for the guest and what you do for the employee, and what does that mirroring look like?

Yung: Our approach to wellbeing is a salutogenic one, meaning that I think that the wellness world goes through several trends and fads about different kinds of expertise and intervention. When I say salutogenic, I mean that we provide environments and our philosophy is around supporting what is naturally health supportive. So we have eight pillars of wellbeing across your traditional ones of movement, mindfulness, nourishment and so on, but also connection, learning and growth that are more, I think about your connection to self, others and nature.

So with this eight pillars, which is a very specific approach, what we deliver to our guests and how we think about our products and services there, and the consultations that we take them through is mirrored to how we evaluate our associates wellbeing and the environments that they are in. So in practical terms, it means that the consultation that a guest goes through in terms of wellbeing and the associate wellbeing index and survey that we look at at a property level are mirrored on the same pillars.

The nuance that is different I think is that and I’ve had this question several times when people ask about, for a guest you’re delivering wellbeing as a service. For an associate, is their wellbeing your responsibility or not? And where does that lie? The way we think about wellbeing and in our survey that we sent out to associates, it’s about the practices that individuals do on a daily basis or regular basis that support their wellbeing.

It’s not a snapshot of how they feel about their wellbeing at any point in time. So it’s questions around like how connected do you feel? How how much opportunity do you feel you have for learning and growth? What is your nutritional intake like? And so on. So it’s related to practice and we look at how we can create environments that support that while they’re at work with us in the workplace.

And that being said, I think that the area of like how much support we can give or should give and how much expectation there is and so on, role is a is a moving kind of space of discussion, which I think is a healthy one as well. I think the whole associate and company or brand relationship is evolving and will continue to evolve quite a lot in the next few years.

Nagy: It’s a great point and I think the dialog is where you can kind of find the balance, right, because this is a this is a conversation in corporate America, right? You know, this is a conversation in big tech. It’s like, what is the role of this company? You know what is too touchy feely and are we forgetting what we actually do?

I think in the hospitality world, it’s much more nuanced because you know, the wellbeing of the team directly affects the product. And, you know, I think that there’s probably tools and education that you’re giving guests that are also very applicable to to the team.

And so it’s like that empowerment, knowledge, education is it’s nice to see that someone’s thinking about both sides of that trade because we’ve all felt it where there’s luxury marketing and decadence and excess, but then you feel that the team’s not happy and it diminishes the experience completely, you know? So this is something that I’ve been really interested in.

You know, I loved what the former GM of Beverly Hills Hotel did, and maybe it’s like the staff entrance. They made it as nice, you know, I mean, they can make it as grand, but they made it as nice as the front entrance and and the hospitality and the accouterment in the morning was was kind of to show that same alignment which I really appreciate.

And it’s something that’s very hard to crack, especially when some brands are just in it for the Excel spreadsheet, the PNL, the real estate gains rate. They’re not thinking about the soft, the soft diplomacy and the nuance that makes this industry interesting and also special.

But I wanted to pivot out from the nuances of teams and and their well-being into a little bit more kind of corporate strategy.

So zooming out, understanding, you know, the group and how that is looking. And, you know, you guys are coming out with new brands, new iterations. So I just want to understand what the all up vibe is with with the group at this point.

Yung: Well, next year is the 30th anniversary for Banyan Tree, our luxury brand, but also Banyan Group, as you say, which is our mothership brand, as we call it. A lot of people have asked, you know, like, why not just focus on buying tree? And what is the thought behind going across all these different brands?

We now have 12 brands and the rest of the brands actually were born in the last three or four years. So the last four years across the pandemic, we’ve grown about 40%, not just in portfolio but in just footprint. And the reason behind that, I think that, you know, going wide in this way has given us the ability to increase our footprint, but also just become more diverse.

We appreciate the diversity of the destinations that we’re in and there’s no way we would have been able to explore these locations without these different brands and the opportunities that are coming up. There’s now nine countries in which we are multi-brand, which is very exciting for a lot of us. And coming back to the people part, all associates, because we’ve focused very much on internal mobility, talent development and the kind of opportunities that we can provide.

This is one of the most exciting things for them as well, because, you know, last year, for example, I went to our GKyoto property and met a chef there that was from AlUla and from from Saudi working in Japan and being part of the buying group family was absolutely like exciting for him. And I think that’s one of the things that we also are excited about because, you know, the travel, I mean, everyone who is in travel loves and believes that travel has potential to be, you know, places and people better.

For us to be able to provide that for our associates is also exciting.

Nagy: I like that point because I’ve been saying for a long time that the hospitality industry has to almost make a renewed case to the next generation of hoteliers. And when you have this scale, you have the potential mobility to create that global career. That’s interesting, right? And, you know, I love that my friend James McBride met a chef that was with him on Kilimanjaro and he brought him to Nairobi, you know, to work at Nihi and start building his career there.

And then from Nairobi, you have your choice of going to lots of other places. And so all of a sudden that life that might have probably stayed within Tanzania has built a pretty interesting global perspective and is probably much more interesting, you know, in the culinary fields. So I love this. And also, you know, AI is going to disrupt those first and second year analyst positions at Goldman Sachs faster than we we know.

But you guys are in the business of the human touch and experiences and these are things that actually are not going to be disrupted anytime soon. So there actually is a new case to be made for this as a very viable and future proof profession. So I think that’s quite exciting.

Yung: And it doesn’t have to be something that is, you know, like you said, it’s a kind of rebranding of the the gap here in a different way, right? This global career, this portfolio career that you can build as opposed to thinking about yourself being in this industry forever. I do agree with you that the industry needs a rebranding from an employer point of view on what makes it attractive, because what people think about now is that I need to work on special occasions and holidays as opposed to this like access to a world of experiences and a broadening of your horizons that you wouldn’t otherwise get.

Going back to your point around culture carriers and how we built culture and the group. Identifying culture carriers and then and bringing them to different properties to ensure that there is that osmosis and cross fertilization, is one of the key aspects that I think has been part of our success and post-pandemic meaning well now and into next year, we’re focusing a lot on creating more of these in-person gatherings and interactions.

I mean, you and I are talking across the screen, but for a lot of our trainings and being in over 23 countries that we do a lot through digital, but we are purposefully investing in like just gathering people across different locations in person because I think there’s nothing that replaces that in terms of culture.

Nagy: It’s a great point. And what I wanted to ask you is on a great day, what are the things that you think represent the best parts of, you know, Banyan Tree, culture service, right. We know Four Seasons is known for a certain thing. Aman is known for a certain thing. You know, there’s lots of different interpretations of luxury.

But on your best day, how would you characterize what you’re trying to do and how you’re making a guest feel?

Yung: That’s a great question. I want to take that to a Banyan Banyan group level because I think purposefully what we have instilled is a service culture across the group, across all the brands. And of course, as a stacking of delivery around those service cultures based on the different brands. But we’ve purposefully built a Banyan Group service culture of empathy, active listening with the tag of ‘I am with You’ across the different brands because we want to encourage that mobility of associates across the brands and also the sense of the dignified level of service no matter the brand.

It’s not just about luxury or category and so on, but that aspect of service culture that exists no matter what brand expression or brand category you are in. So on a good day, I think that service culture, of I am with you, is one where in the back of house in the front of house, no matter where you are, you feel a sense of community, you feel a sense of belonging, no matter if you’re a guest or an associate and you are able to sense that connection to place, to community, but also discover something different about yourself and discover something about that location that you had not known before.

And whether that’s and also through a very personalized aspect of storytelling from a very human point of view, you know that the person that you’re interacting with is telling you a story from their life, from something that they know, from something that they’re connected to, and they’re not just delivering a script or a wrote response to interacting with you as a person and with true authenticity.

Nagy: Which is interesting because it kind of goes against perhaps the more codified, you know, luxury standards of old, right, You know, in the sort of palace, the palaces of France and things like that. I also find it very interesting what you’ve said, that you want to have continuity across brands, price points, etc., because I think that is also another problem with some of like the large mega conglomerates is that in this category you get turned down and they remember to do this.

But in this category, at this price point, you just are asked for your license and you know, your ID and whatever, you know. So it’s like having a thoughtful through line that unites various price points is interesting, you know, sometimes hard to do. But I love the aspiration.

Yung: I think there’s also a difference between what you said about service culture and service steps or service standards, right? So you can have a common service culture and across the different brands, then layer or stack on different service standards depending on expectation, product, facility, category. But when we talk about culture I think that base culture of service culture of how we treat each other and how we treat our guests is a fundamental foundation.

And then from a people strategy point of view and, then after that, thinking about, okay, what is brand expression look like, and then what the service standards look like on top of that.

Nagy: So it’s some interesting layers. And I think what’s also very important is the management culture as well. And I always love the example of there’s an interview with Simon Sinek. Someone said he was talking to the coffee guy working at the Four Seasons in Vegas. So what’s it like to work here? And he’s like, I have a couple of jobs.

But what I like about working here is because when my boss comes over, they say, what can I do to make your job easier today? You know what I mean? It’s like that sort of empathetic approach as opposed to did you clock in, did you wipe, you know, anything? And so I think that there’s there’s something very interesting about the role of management, you know, with with what you’re trying to do what constitutes a great manager, you know, whether it’s obviously a GM or people that are managing housekeeping or things like that, what is the management culture that you think is strong?

Yung: Well I’ll relate it back to your story. I’d say the great question is maybe not a daily question, but what would personify that for us as a manager or a leader that asks the team at the right time, right at the beginning or in the middle of their time is what do you want to do with your life?

What did you want to do with your life that I can support with and help with and help facilitate? I think that aspect of facilitating purpose is key. It comes back to looking at the whole person when they’re doing it, when they’re in that role and that job that it’s not just about the function, but it’s about who that person is.

Other aspects of culture that I think are unique to us and that we want to preserve is the family feel. We actually recently asked our associates like, you know, what do you love about working in Banyan? And number one was growth. Number two was our commitment to sustainability. And number three was the family feel.

And breaking that down I think family feel is not just about the fact that we’re independent and majority owned still by founding family. Perhaps that’s probably a factor, but I think the family feel is about informality and about flat hierarchy. The pain point to that is that you don’t sometimes have the bureaucracy and SOPs to scale efficiently. But the good thing about it is that things can happen quite fast.

It’s informal. It’s always a why not as opposed to a no. And I think that that kind of pioneering spirit around doing something, even though we may not have done it before. Or try and then we’ll see. Loading character and attitude over actual experience. These are qualities that even in our stage of growing a bit faster now, I think we we need to retain.

And it’s also what I hear from people about why they join us. I mean, in the world of hospitality, we are a small player. We’re kind of medium, I suppose small to medium against the larger groups. But when I speak to people about joining Banyan Group, they always talk about because we’re growing and yet they can be a total individual here. They’re not just a role, they’re not just in a big box kind of category fulfilling a function. That’s what’s exciting for them.

Nagy: True. And I think what’s also interesting about independence, I think the best luxury or the best experiences sometimes come from like what I’ve been calling, like irrational generosity, right? Where it’s like this type of stuff that you do that probably wouldn’t get past the auditors at a generous company or these is these subtle kind of intuitive things, you know, that might not always be the MBA decision.

And so I love that notion of independence is a differentiator when it comes to corporate culture and also decision making.

Yung: Yeah, I think along with that, that sense of global mobility, exposure to different places as part of your horizon, this ability to craft your own path. That’s something that’s a very strong reason for for people joining us, because people really just want they truly want to make a difference in their work right? So providing the space and flexibility for that is important.

Nagy: Awesome, well Ren I think we’re running low on time, but we’ve covered some really good ground here. We’re super happy that you can join us.

Yung: Thank you Colin, as always a conversation with you is intense and enriching.

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Tags: design, guest experience, hotel deals, hotel design, luxury, luxury hotels, sustainability, wellbeing

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