How Banyan Tree became the first Asian brand to enter the Cuban market in a big way

Since opening its first property in the 1990s, the Singapore-based Banyan Tree has grown into one of the world's leading luxury hotel brands. But for all its experience and expertise, the company experienced challenges entering Cuba -- the exotic and stunning Caribbean nation long closed off to the outside world. Thanks to IE Singapore, Banyan Tree has cracked the code. The brand will be opening four hotels in Cuba in the coming years. It’s the first Asian brand to enter the market in a significant way.

This article was first published on IE Singapore's website in 2016. Head here for more stories from its #SgGoesGlobal series.

In January 2017, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts opened the doors to its first hotel in Cuba, a country long considered a treasured, but “forbidden” gem for travellers all over the world. It was a significant milestone not just for the luxury hotel brand, but for Singapore too.

The hotel, the first of several Banyan Tree properties scheduled to open in Cuba in the coming years, was the inaugural establishment under its brand new Dhawa brand, a line of hotels catered for younger, hipper, design-savvy patrons. It was also the first significant foray of not just a Singaporean, but Asian, brand into Cuba.

Mr Ho Kwon Ping, Banyan Tree’s executive chairman, said the opening of the Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria in Cuba is a culmination of years of planning and anticipation. “We made the decision long ago to enter Cuba,” Mr Ho said. “It’s exotic, has beautiful beaches, and it has the size that a lot of Caribbean countries do not have.”

The company, which opened its first property in Thailand in 1994 and now has more than 40 hotels and resorts worldwide, has long identified Cuba as a potential market.

Mr Ho said good efforts had been made cultivating relationships and with IE Singapore’s support, doors were opened and networks established in the Caribbean country. “The Cubans appreciate government-to-government relationships, and Singapore and Cuba have always had good relations”, said Mr Ho.

IE assisted Banyan Tree to get a foot firmly in the door. Together with Mrs Mary Seet-Cheng, Singapore’s first ambassador to Cuba, IE introduced the company to relevant Cuban contacts, facilitated key relationships and suggested viable projects. These efforts eventually amounted to a partnership between Banyan Tree and the state-owned Gaviota Tourism Group, and Banyan Tree securing a 10-year management contract for four properties in Cuba.

An Angsana-branded resort is scheduled to open its doors in 2018, followed by two more properties, an Angsana and a Banyan Tree, in the picturesque resort town of Varadero.

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Banyan Tree currently has 43 hotels and resorts, 64 spas, 77 retail gallery outlets and 3 golf courses in 28 countries. "From the very beginning," said Mr Ho, "Banyan Tree knew it had to go global as it is fundamental for success."

IE, said Mr Ho, has been a “very powerful” partner of Banyan Tree’s in recent years.

“Generally speaking, IE’s support is greatest in countries that are centrally-planned. IE can open doors there where purely private companies cannot.”

“In China, for example, where we now have 15 hotels, IE helped facilitate relationships,” he said.

During IE Singapore’s Latin Asian Business Forum in 2015, the company held a media conference to announce its Cuban plans. Dignitaries including Mrs Seet-Cheng and Mr Roberto Dominguez, the Cuban Ambassador to Singapore, attended the forum, as did several Latin American journalists.

“With the keen coordination efforts from the IE Singapore team, the media conference was a success,” Banyan Tree said.

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In the coming years, Mr Ho said Banyan Tree has big plans for Latin America and the Caribbean. The company, which has already established a presence in Mexico, is currently in talks to open properties in Colombia.

Since 2015, when the United States re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba, interest in the communist nation has boomed.

In June 2016, IE and the Singapore Business Federation spearheaded Singapore’s first ever business mission to Havana, Cuba. Fourteen companies from the tourism, infrastructure, ICT and general trading sectors took part in the mission, which saw the signing of three memoranda of understanding (MOUs) on information exchange, trade and investment facilitation and technical cooperation.

“The partnerships formed at this inaugural Singapore business mission to Cuba mark a significant milestone in ties between Cuba and Singapore, and demonstrate the strong interest of Singapore businesses in Cuba,” Banyan Tree’s Mr Ho, who was appointed mission leader of delegation, said then. “We are excited about many areas of potential collaborations, and look forward to further deepening the friendship between our business communities.”

Mr Ho said he foresees many potential opportunities for Singapore firms in Cuba.

“Tourism is the immediate thought, of course. Cuba is going to be very competitive in tourism,” he said. “But there are other obvious industries too, like rum and cigars. There are also opportunities to reinvigorate the agricultural industry.”

“We knew the impasse in Cuba could not last,” Mr Ho continued. “And now, here we are. A lot of flights are already going into Cuba. It’s going to be a flood pretty soon.”

This article was first published on IE Singapore's website in 2016. Head here for more stories from its #SgGoesGlobal series.