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Business News/ Companies / People/  Claire Chiang | Providing a sanctuary for the senses in Asia

Claire Chiang | Providing a sanctuary for the senses in Asia

The co-founder of Banyan Tree, one of Asia's most well known operators of luxury hotels and spas, on her success mantra

Chiang says every new resort is an opportunity to make a positive impact on Banyan Tree’s triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental success.Premium
Chiang says every new resort is an opportunity to make a positive impact on Banyan Tree’s triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental success.

Singapore: These days, when wealthy Chinese travellers look for a luxury holiday with an authentic Asian experience, many of them increasingly find a haven in Banyan Tree resorts and spas.

Located on sweeping seafronts and mountains, and along the spectacular beaches of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Maldives and China, resorts run by Banyan Tree Holdings, one of Asia’s most well known operators of luxury hotels and spas, are becoming popular with affluent Chinese.

One woman, along with her husband, is working hard to tap into their growing wallet, and succeeding following her own unique mantra.

“We provide a sanctuary for the senses in Asia, and bring alive its roots, culture and vibrancy, better than anyone else," says Claire Chiang, co-founder of the global hospitality brand. “And we do it by harmonizing local communities and nature, and not destroying them. I think the new and sophisticated Chinese customer appreciates it and pays for it."

Chiang is married to Ho Kwon Ping, the executive chairman of Banyan Tree and one of Asia’s wealthiest businessmen, who started his career working as the economics editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He joined the family business in 1981 and together with Chiang in 1994, rehabilitated an abandoned tin mine on 550 acres of land in Thailand, to develop it into Laguna Phuket, one of Asia’s first and most successful integrated resorts. The couple have not looked back since.

Listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange since 2006, and with a revenue of $316 million in 2013, Banyan Tree Holdings today operates more than 70 spas, and 35 luxury resorts in 28 countries around the globe.

Chiang—who has the seemingly incongruous qualities of an energetic cheerleader, a shrewd businesswoman and an idealist professor—has been a consistent driving force, alongside her husband, for the past two decades.

She is passionately engaged today in helping him build “the next frontier" for the group in China. Banyan Tree currently has over 20 big projects under development in the country.

“Three-quarters of our new resort openings in the next four years will be in China, putting us in a prime position to capitalize on increasing domestic tourism and international arrivals alike," she says.

Chiang knows how to do business in China better than most. She was one of the first two women to be elected to the board of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

She co-authored the book, Stepping Out: The Making of Chinese Entrepreneurs, which got the National Council Book Award and spawned a 30-chapter Chinese-language television drama in Singapore that won five broadcast awards.

A woman who is constantly re-inventing herself, Chiang has also served as a Singapore-nominated member of Parliament for two terms (l997-2001) where she raised many policy issues related to the social services sector, women, family, education and the disadvantaged.

Raising three children—two sons and a daughter—while overseeing a globally expanding business and debating issues in Parliament was not easy, but provided her, she says, with the mettle to “take on anyone" for the right cause.

Chiang is more feisty than the typical understated Singaporean woman business and political leader. She believes that one of the reasons for being so outspoken is because she grew up in an all boys household, with five older brothers, and learnt early “how to fight for her fair share!"

“It is easy for me now to walk into a room full of Chinese land-owners, bureaucrats and businessmen and drive hard bargains," she says.

“It is simpler and more profitable to clear the land and chop off all trees, or lop off mountain tops to build resorts and golf courses in our business, but we aim for ‘harmonious development’, something the Chinese are beginning to understand today."

Chiang is also the chairperson of the Banyan Tree Global Foundation and has pioneered the group’s retail business since 1996.

She personally oversees its 77 gallery retail outlets to promote “Community Capitalism".

“Banyan Tree works systematically with thousands of artists in Asia to tap into their cultural intelligence and skills to build beautiful, handcrafted Asian products for our resorts and spas," explains Chiang. “They are our signature products."

She adds: “I find it very rewarding to conserve and promote the rich heritage of Asia while also providing long-term sustainable livelihoods to a significant number of the impoverished local communities in which we operate."

For her efforts, Chiang was recognized by The International Alliance for Women “World of Difference 100" Awards for championing village-based entrepreneurship.

“I didn’t plan to be in the luxury business. I married a journalist who changed his profession, and I played my part in ensuring that we built something that we and everyone associated with us would be proud of," says the co-founder of Banyan Tree.

Her eyes shine with girlish glee when she recounts the journey of how they have collectively built a fulfilling life and business together.

She recalls: “We were students of development and pluralism, and while enjoying the carefree joys of backpacking, would also agonize and debate constantly over conflicting ideas on development and progress, the contradiction between capital and labour, between profits and justice, between efficiency and equity, between the roles of men and women."

“We had an insatiable curiosity to explore, inquire and absorb other cultures, to learn the traditions in their own terms, and this really laid the foundation for the Banyan Tree," reminisces Chiang.

She pauses to note with some melancholy: “The reality was and still is today that we live in a broken global economic system with great inequities, but in our own modest way, we are trying to do business for good."

And, by all measures, modestly succeeding at it, too.

Together, Chiang and her partner Kwon Ping have built Asia’s most sought after luxury resort and spa brand that has won over 1,000 awards. Many say it symbolizes the best of Asian hospitality, while also ensuring respect for the community and the environment.

“Across a negotiating table, my tendency as a typical sociologist is to challenge the convention to ask the hard question of must businesses be a jungle for avaricious survivors, leaving no place for responsible players," she says.

Even the hard-nosed Chinese businessmen, it seems, are slowly buying into her model and rewarding her and the Banyan Tree group with significant access into their lucrative market.

“You should never avoid profits and beauty in hospitality, but it can’t come at the cost of environment and communities’ well being," says Chiang. “This is the only way we will do business, and one resort at a time will hopefully change the paradigm."

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about the growth of your China market.

China is one of our most important markets today, for obvious reasons, and we were the early players there. Our room revenue from Chinese nationals grew 35% in 2013, demonstrating the increasing importance of China as a market. Our existing hotels and resorts in China have established a strong following among domestic tourists. Meanwhile, our marketing efforts in China are generating business overseas as well. In 2013, the numbers from room nights Chinese nationals spent at our properties outside China rose by 59%.

What are your plans for India?

We have ambitious plans for India and will hopefully get into the market once we clear the bureaucratic hurdles. Both my husband and I love India, and see its huge potential. We have to wait for the right time to enter the market.

Tell us about your roots and what you learnt from them?

I am a daughter of Singapore. I do business with the world, but this is where I derive strength. I’m from the generation that sang three different kinds of national anthems. Our leaders resisted the ignorant assumptions of cultural and racial superiority and developed in a way that gained us respect in Asia. This made an impact on me.

We also saw very tough times and went through food and water rationing and racial riots in the ’60s. As a result, I learnt early on the value of money, of family, of culture and, most importantly, of nature and never to take it for granted.

How did you get inspired to do the work that you do?

I taught and did research for 16 years in Hong Kong University and the National University of Singapore. My academic training and teaching experience on development sociology included years of travels in the region with my husband on motorbikes, trains and bus coaches, nurtured and sharpened our perspectives about diversity in real life, and continues to impact the way we have chosen to run our business today.

I owed my turning point from academia to business, to a Parsi woman by the name of Shirin Fozdar. In my eyes, she was a humanist, transcending time, cultures and place.

Give us an example of how Banyan Tree makes a social impact?

Last year, with the opening of our two new hotels at LangCo in Central Vietnam, we collaborated with hundreds of Viet Artisans, a cooperative championing the employability of women at the Mekong river delta.

From around $10 a month in the past, they are now earning 10 times more—still an admittedly small average monthly income of $100. But with that income, they are able to send their children to local schools and improve their home conditions by having floor tiles and concrete roofs to withstand the torrential monsoon and typhoons.

What does the business prospect look like for you, and others in the hospitality industry in Asia, in the coming year?

Besides enjoying the knock-on effects of an upturn in Europe and America, our markets in Asia should benefit from macroeconomic trends within the region, such as the growth in tourism and consumption.

Based on contracts signed to date, we expect to be managing more than 9,000 keys in 2017, as compared with 4,103 in 2013. We also plan to open 34 new spas by 2017.

Every new resort is an opportunity to make a positive impact on our triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental success.

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Published: 26 Sep 2014, 12:56 AM IST
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