He has seen his share of crises and survived to tell the tale, and Ho Kwon Ping, executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, assured the WiT Experience Week audience on 1 October that despite an unprecedented 2020 for global travel, the group was still in shape to weather the storm.
“If you’ve been through as many crises as I have, you’ll realise that the world is a lot more resilient than we give it credit for.”
“Thankfully we’ve extended our survivability past two years, even if it’s a worse-case scenario,” he noted. “For various reasons, we’ve reduced our burn rate, we’ve negotiated bank loans. We ourselves will be okay, that’s the good news,” he told both a physical audience gathered at Marina Bay Sands’ Hybrid Broadcast Studio and a virtual audience watching the event.
Yet this was a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak picture. “The bad news is: as everyone in Asia knows, everyone was hoping there’d be some sort of recovery ex-China within ASEAN for the high season. That’s gone. So while yes we’re okay, the industry is even worse off, I think.”
Digital decoupling will hit the budgets
Himself a former journalist, Ho refused to be drawn into predictions of doomsday—and nor would he be drawn on the victor in the US election. “Every time there’s a disruption in the world, everyone says the world will be changed forever. We thought it had after 9-11, but the only thing that really changed was toiletries in plastic bags at the airport,” he noted. “If you’ve been through as many crises as I have, you’ll realise that the world is a lot more resilient than we give it credit for.”
Some of Ho’s own previous predictions had, however, continued to show disturbing signs.
“I’m very concerned about decoupling of the world. And that’s going to get worse, regardless of whether Trump or Biden wins the election,” he noted, referring to the upcoming U.S. election. “I think digital decoupling is more scary than everything else, because it’s going to lead to high expenses for everyone.
“For governments in ASEAN it’s going to be very difficult because we’re going to be forced to choose sides. But it’s not as if this is the end of the world—we will all have to adjust to it, and every industry will have to adjust to it.”
ASEAN’s caution proves fortunate
Ho said that in strange ways, ASEAN’s conservative nature had been a blessing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“You can’t even get ASEAN to agree on reopening borders,” he noted.
“Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve always criticised ASEAN for being much less coordinated than the EU. I’d have to say that right now, ASEAN has probably handled the Covid crisis far better than the EU—we just have to look at how the EU has totally botched it up.”
Turning to what we must try to fix about travel, Ho emphasised that the challenges in the long term remained more than just a single pandemic.
“Airlines have much bigger problems: the carbon neutrality problem is going to be an even longer, bigger problem.”
Having attended more events this year than the last decade due to remote access, he was curious to see the lasting effect of the opening of access through digital means. Referring to WiT which was Singapore’s first travel pilot hybrid event for up to 50 persons, he said, “You do get a convergence of trends. You’ll definitely see a hybrid MICE industry: physical conferences, with an online audience also. Hybrid audiences which increase your reach to each market. You’ll increase your audience to increase interaction.”
Under a rainbow
Ho advised the next generation of entrepreneurs to target greater diversity of travel markets.
“One of the positive things about Covid is the fact that rainbow tourism is going to get a much bigger push,” he noted.
“This is only going to increase more. Asian practitioners who are younger have got a much bigger future than ever before. They can approach things at a corporate level where previously it was never possible.”
Likewise, he saw the industry increasing the wellness and well-being component a lot more—both in terms of culinary as well as through bedroom amenities. People since lockdown are also seeing far greater value in wellness that went far beyond merely getting a relaxing massage.
Motivation is the mover
Despite a voracious interest in trends, was there one topic that Ho would like to understand better?
“I’d like to understand what motivates people. I think it’s very important. Why am I doing what I’m doing?”
People have gone deeper during the pandemic in terms of the bigger questions.
“You ask yourself a lot of soul-searching questions during lockdown,” he noted.
“Am I in the right business—was what I was doing in the rat race the thing that really mattered?”
No matter how inconvenient, one major motivation would continue to spur people to travel far and wide. “My one takeaway regarding travel, and the relationship with Covid, is that people travel for meaning. Business travel will definitely reduce a lot more—so many people were telling me they used to do crazy travel, but now they are asking themselves why they’re doing this.
“People will seek more business travel with meaning, where you really want to something significant. The same goes for leisure travel—whether it’s the search for wellbeing or intimacy with their loved one,” he noted.
“And I think this search for meaning is actually healthy—for people to reexamine their priorities in life.”
This article was first published in Web In Travel.