Twenty-five years ago, Renyung Ho’s parents founded the Banyan Tree hospitality brand. The name they chose for their new company is deeply symbolic. The couple lived in Banyan Tree Bay in Hong Kong in the 1970s—a time and place in their lives steeped in simplicity, intimacy and community. And in many Asian villages, the banyan tree is the center of community life, a place where travelers gather.
Flash forward to today and Renyung is the Senior Vice President, Brand HQ for Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts. She’s been instrumental in developing a global travel brand grounded in sustainability, well-being, service excellence and social good. I had an opportunity to connect with her about her journey—about how travel has shaped her understanding of the power of empathy.
When was your passion for travel born?
Renyung: I was very lucky as a child that my parents took us to many places. Traveling was part of what we did together as a family. At that point in time, travel was very much about inculcating a sense of curiosity about the world as well as adaptability—traits that my parents wanted to instill in us.
What is your favorite thing about traveling?
Renyung: As a child, it was the family togetherness—the way that we would bounce from place to place as a unit. We each had different roles as we traveled. Someone was the map reader. Someone else learned about the history of the place. And someone else was in charge of the food. It was a special way to bond as a family.
I also enjoyed meeting different people. My parents would encourage us to imagine the back stories of the people passing by. This taught us that as individuals we have a unique world view, but it’s one of seven billion other unique world views.
As an adult, I love connecting with nature when I travel. I live in Singapore, which has an incredible amount of green space. But there’s a sense of order about it. What I love about the great outdoors is the wildness, that sense of ancient land. You stand on a mountain or in a first-growth forest, and you feel a sense of timelessness. It’s very spiritual, and something that I miss a lot right now.
What are travel’s most important lessons?
Renyung: The first lesson that travel offers is never having assumptions. When you travel, you have to be ready for the unexpected. When things don’t go to plan, how you confront that situation and flow with it dictates the outcome of your day, even of your entire trip. This sense of not coming with your baggage and taking every moment as it is—of being truly present—is quite important.
<<< Start >>>
<<< End >>>
What do you think travel teaches us about connecting with others and how they live?
Renyung: Travel teaches that sense of respect that is so important. It comes down to seeing things from other people’s perspectives. Connecting with others and their choices is very much about having a sense of mutual respect for difference—even if people don’t necessarily agree with each other.
I think that so much of the world today is divided because we mistake dialogue as having to come to an agreement. Yet being able to create common space for two opposing opinions is fundamentally important. Mutual respect for all things as they are is a critical value for connecting with other people—and it’s something that travel teaches us.
You’ve talked about taking off some time at 18 to attend “the School of Life.” I would love to hear more about this experience.
Renyung: After 12 years of formal school and before attending university, I wanted to take some time to understand what I wanted to study—what value I wanted to bring. I traveled and worked in ten countries. This helped me decide that I wanted to study sociology and economic development. I wanted to spend time understanding how we organize as a society, and among different groups of people.
My most impactful experience was time spent working in Banyan Tree’s marine lab in the Maldives. Living on an island at that time was transformative. I lived on a tiny island where you could walk from one side to the other in five minutes—you could see the sunrise on one side and the sunset on the other. I got a sense of what it’s like to live “on a dot” in the ocean. Connecting with the marine life gave me a sense of life on earth being so much vaster than our everyday existences. You can’t replicate that.
What are your most memorable travel stories and lessons learned from an inclusion and diversity perspective?
Renyung: I spent time volunteering in an orphanage in China and developed a special relationship with a little boy there who was about three years old. I was exposed to the injustices of life, and I know that this has informed my world view. Where you are in life—what your life is like—depends on where you are born, and that’s unfair in so many ways. This understanding grounded me in what I wanted to spend my life doing in terms of equalizing and creating opportunity for people.
How is the hospitality industry uniquely qualified to champion inclusion and diversity?
Renyung: I don’t know that it is. But I do know that at the level that we operate, the service industry is about people and the individual interactions we have with each other. It is about understanding, anticipation, and creating value for another person. That is the dignity of service.
Are you seeing the industry make inclusion and diversity more of a priority?
Renyung: I think the industry is making this more of a priority. However, hospitality is a fairly “old school” and traditional industry in this sense. But it’s changing. For example, we are seeing a lot more female general managers. The nature of tourism and who customers are today is also changing. Excellent service requires an embedded I&D approach.
The Banyan Tree brand is uniquely grounded in the intersection of well-being and sustainability. How does inclusion and diversity factor into this equation?
Renyung: One of the first things that we did at the end of last year was launch a service culture program globally called “I am with you,” which we thought encapsulated our service ethos. It talks about how service starts with a grounded sense of empathy for the other person, hence the name of our program.
This goes beyond the notion of service as giving people whatever they want. It taps into this sense of whatever you are experiencing, I am experiencing it with you. I understand where you are coming from, and I am doing my best to create value for you.
I think that this idea of service excellence starting from empathy includes an I&D perspective even though we don’t label it as such. For example, we use active listening to help people empathize and suspend judgement, where they’re able to see every individual as unique. This is also a foundation for corporate I&D programs that focus on treating people as individuals.
You’ve said that you see diversity as a strength at Banyan Tree. What inclusion and diversity programs are you especially passionate about today?
Renyung: We see diversity in terms of nationality, gender, age, experience, opinions across multiple aspects. By virtue of being a hospitality company that operates across 26 countries with more than 8,000 associates, diversity is embedded in how we operate. Being able to celebrate and take advantage of diversity informs our core values and how we recruit.
I’m particularly passionate about our “I am with you” service program. It embodies the idea of empathy as a resource that we are investing in. This goes beyond the value we want to create in the business because it touches people’s everyday lives. The feedback we have gotten has been quite positive. The program gives people a sense of meaning and helps them connect better with the people around them.
<<< Start >>>
<<< End >>>