Courtesy of Renyung Ho
I met Renyung through friends and from our first conversation, it was evident we shared the twin goals of educating and advocating for a more conscious way of consuming products. One of the early coincidences of our meeting was learning that we both spent two years seeking solutions to formulating beauty products without toxins – mine for DAMDAM, hers for Banyan Tree.
Banyan Tree is close to Renyung’s heart – it’s the luxury resort group founded by her father, Ho Kwon Ping. Still, Renyung is not one to rest on her parents’ laurels – apart from heading up Banyan Tree’s Spa and Gallery business units, she’s also developing a new eco hotel project on top her own start-up, MATTER.
At MATTER, Renyung champions local craft and artisans – textile heritage is reinterpreted into pieces made for the modern-day nomad. It’s at MATTER where Renyung channels her love for the artisanal print and the stories they tell. Here, she brings to life the importance of valuing provenance and process and sustaining the livelihoods of rural textile communities.
Hi, Renyung! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I currently live with my husband and dog in a shophouse in Singapore, which I love for its open ventilation. When it rains, it rains into the house and it provides a feeling of being connected to nature while living in the city.
I’m a lover of stories and culture. Growing up in Asia with its wealth of cultures and being able to backpack in these places gave me a real taste for our cultural treasures as well as the stark differences we experience. My work has always been about using business as a vehicle for social good. I operate in the area between social business, community, storytelling and, artisanship – I’ve always loved connecting the dots and disparate ideas and concepts, as well as creating platforms of opportunity.
The company I work in is called Banyan Tree, which is a hospitality company that develops hotels, spas and retail in the sustainable luxury sector. I joined the company recently with my startup, MATTER and run the Spa and Gallery business units; I am also working on a new eco hotel project. What I do in one sentence: providing new ways to think about what we wear, what we put on our bodies, how we define well-being, and the way and reasons we travel and see the world. I’m working on a shorter handle to explain what I do!
“It’s about creating experiences where people can connect with themselves and one another, whether through a morning ritual in the Spa that reminds them how to embrace being instead of doing; staying overnight on an open air floating deck in the ocean with a loved one; or cherishing the integrity of a supply chain they love in the clothes they wear and bodycare they use.”
What is a typical day for you like?
I travel quite a bit and cherish the days where I have a routine at home. I don’t have a typical day so much as a typical week, where I schedule open office hours, no meeting days, and regular team huddles across the projects I am working on. Mornings are precious for me. I start the day with meditation and reflection. Then the all-important first coffee and sometimes, breakfast. Most strategic thinking or creative work happens in the morning, and the afternoon is about communicating with relevant teams. I’m working on creating rituals to break up my day and cultivate an ongoing fuel of meaning.
What is your mission for Banyan Tree and MATTER?
The mission for these two brands is simple and the same: To drive positive impact for all stakeholders and to create shared value. This is our ‘why,’ the reason we exist.
In specific terms, it’s all about connection. For Banyan Tree, it’s about creating experiences where people can connect with themselves and one another, whether through a morning ritual in the Spa that reminds them how to embrace being instead of doing; staying overnight on an open air floating deck in the ocean with a loved one; or cherishing the integrity of a supply chain they love in the clothes they wear and bodycare they use.
I think this mission to build connection is important because we are increasingly becoming more detached from the impact of our behavior, our consumption and our influence on the world and people around us. It’s a strange but familiar paradox of globalization. Creating environments and products that cultivate more connection within oneself and each other is an integral step to more conscious choices and living in general.
“Creating environments and products that cultivate more connection within oneself and each other is an integral step to more conscious choices and living in general.”
Do you have a beauty ritual? Can you talk us through it?
I am a pretty minimal person in terms of topical solutions, believing more in a self-care routine around rest, nutrition and exercise which play the largest roles in overall well-being. Being quite active and in the sun a lot, I don’t use much makeup and simple cleansing and hydration are my main priorities. Facial scrub happens once a week. I’ve also recently gotten into using face masks regularly which has really made a difference, and use our lotus face mist throughout the day especially if I am in air conditioning all day long.
Are there things you look for in particular in your beauty products since your experience in reformulating Banyan Tree’s amenities to be free from toxins?
The whole two-year reformulation journey taught me so much and opened my eyes not only to the amount of toxic load we put in our self-care products but also how much of that washes out to the oceans and soil. I used to have no personal buying rules whatsoever, but now from this experience I am learning to discern better and take longer to educate myself on a product before buying it, and also being willing to pay more for it.
The rules I apply to myself are now the same that we apply for our amenities: I’ve learnt to look out for nasties that are common in so many products like parabens, mineral oils, palm oil, dubious sulfates, and synthetic coloring. I only buy cruelty-free and vegetarian products, and generally go for brands that emphasize organic botanical extracts. Sourcing and packaging are also important considerations. Realizing that more than 20 ingredients go into each bottle really makes you think about what the individual chain of all these ingredients are and their own impact, and a company that states where their key ingredients are sourced from is a bonus.
In terms of packaging, there is just so much stuff in the world and so I look for either recycled plastic products or recyclable plastic. We decided on using recycled plastic for our fabric wraps to replace paper gift wrapping and in that used about 80,000 plastic bottles in 1 year alone. There is a lot of great technology and information that enables businesses and consumers to make better decisions – it just takes a while to get there.
What inspires your work?
Honestly, I’m inspired by so many things – I truly believe that there is something to learn from everyone and inspiration in the everyday. We just have to learn how to open our eyes to it. Travel of course is the biggest inspiration, because that’s when we drop our usual contexts and start to appreciate and respect both the difference and similarity that unite us across cultures.
I am also inspired by the people I work with and seeing them change and come alive when they align personal passions and paths to organisational mission and goals. Also, when they really fall in love with the brand. That’s magic.
“I’ve learned to look out for nasties that are common in so many products like parabens, mineral oils, palm oil, dubious sulfates, and synthetic coloring. I only buy cruelty-free and vegetarian products… Sourcing and packaging are also important considerations… A company that states where their key ingredients are sourced from is a bonus.”
Where are your favorite travel destinations?
I don’t have a favorite destination actually. I love the discovery of travel for its own sake. I believe that it’s a mindset of getting out of your context, doing things out of the ordinary and embracing spontaneity. In this sense, it’s the serendipity of travel, having coffee with an old couple by the tea house next door, the unexpected vista when you’re lost on a trekking route, the deer that crosses your path or child that asks you to play with them in the street – that is my greatest inspiration. Moments of connection across such different worlds that reminds me of the wonder, beauty and pathos of our diverse humanity.
“I like that you asked about sustainability, because although eco-tourism is on the rise, hotels that champion sustainable development are still not a majority… [At Banyan Tree,] we believe in leaving a place better than when we first found it, and making choices that are right for the long term.”
Where do you see the future of hospitality? How do you merge sustainability with this vision?
That’s a big question with a long and varied answer. A few factors are key: The advent of the shared economy and peer to peer marketplaces are changing the way that millennials organize, decide, and plan their travel. We’ve also seen both incredible consolidation with the larger hospitality players, while at the same time a huge increase in smaller niche boutique brands springing up too. Brand loyalty reduces as the tools and options for independent travel increase. The nature of travel is changing with the space around leisure travelers fragmenting hugely such that you have people travelling for many reasons, whether it is educational, well-being focused, food/wine/art appreciation and so on. The wellness industry, ‘welltality’ and medical tourism is a growing space as well with health becoming a main priority.
I like that you asked about sustainability, because although eco-tourism is on the rise, hotels that champion sustainable development are still not a majority. Nonetheless, there is great opportunity for this sector to pave the way in many areas. We believe in leaving a place better than when we first found it, and making choices that are right for the long term. We strive for green certifications around the way we develop and build, monitor operating efficiencies and outputs, capacity build the communities we work in with social programs funded by our Foundation, and enact environmental conservation and education programs for guests, associates and community stakeholders alike. We are also experimenting with new build models utilising passive design, renewable energy, and a coherent community and social audit – that’s for another interview!
Sustainability is a mindset. No vision can exist practically into the future without consideration of it. We all have to merge the idea of what it means to us personally in our everyday lives, the businesses we choose to support, and our own businesses that we work in. At the heart of it, hospitality is about providing exceptional experiences. If there is no longer a beautiful destination or thriving communities to frame that experience, that mission will be impossible.