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Banyan Tree embraces Samui lockdown

Banyan Tree Samui is the latest property to receive certification from the Thai tourism authority for its commitment to guest safety. Carolynne Dear speaks to general manager Remko Kroesen about surviving a pandemic.

Banyan Tree Samui general manager Remko Kroesen (third from left) accepts Amazing Thailand Safety & Health Administration certification from Tourism Authority of Thailand governor, Yuthasak Supasorn (second from left).

The luxury Banyan Tree Samui resort cascades down lush slopes to a sandy cove fringed with coral reefs. The emerald Gulf of Thailand stretches invitingly into the distance.

Despite the pandemic, this stunning, 88-villa resort on the Thai holiday island of Koh Samui has managed to remain open. The resort was excluded from closure by the Thai government earlier this year because it had guests in-house who had booked from March through to July as they were unable to return home.

“They ended up having a beautiful safe haven all to themselves,” says general manager Remko Kroesen, who has also remained in situ this year.

Koh Samui was locked down along with the rest of Thailand and has only just emerged. For the moment, the island is welcoming domestic visitors while the country remains off limits to overseas guests.

“It was a surreal experience,” says Kroesen of the lockdown. “Things that previously were certainties have now become ‘who knows?’.”

The resort's villas are set amongst 38 tropical acres overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.

The impact of COVID-19 has been deeply felt on this holiday island that relies so heavily on visitors. Kroesen fears that certain elements of island life will never recover.

“The local elephant sanctuaries are struggling to feed their animals as revenue dries up,” he says. “We’ve heard stories of street dogs starving, the dogs who would hang around the restaurants waiting for late-night scraps. With no tourists in town, the restaurants have closed their doors.

“Ultimately, I fear the smaller ‘mum and dad’ businesses will no longer be able to sustain themselves. This really claws at my heart as it often means a family’s life savings will be wiped out, affecting multiple generations, even if COVID-19 does disappear.”

His own staff have kept themselves busy during the strict lockdown period by carrying out improvement works around the resort.

“We compiled a full list of all areas that we thought needed to be tidied up, with landscaping a priority. The resort covers 155,000sqm so we had plenty to get our teeth stuck into. We split into teams and created a fun, team-building atmosphere. New skills were discovered; our bell boys helped with the villa maintenance programme and quickly became adept at painting,” explains Kroesen.

Meanwhile, the resort’s Learning Department rolled out self-learning programmes for everyone to get involved with.

The resort also reached out to the local community. The property’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager coordinated various activities and made donations to help those in need. These ranged from food donations to support with water stations. The resort also invited the local blood bank over and the team donated an impressive 8,400cc of blood.

Kroesen takes his turn to donate blood during lockdown.

Kroesen indeed believes that CSR will be an important cornerstone of future travel consideration. “As a company, Banyan Tree has been at the forefront of placing CSR as one of our core values for the last quarter of a century,” he says. “Over the years, we have put our money where our mouth is when it comes to corporate and social responsibility.”

For now, the domestic market is beginning to drift back, slowly but surely, with domestic flights in Thailand increasing month-on-month. Kroesen firmly believes that the island will bounce back.

“There’s a certain amount of confidence in the long-term outlook for Koh Samui based on its successful history,” he says. “Ever-more large international operators are investing in the island and completing resorts that are set to open later this year and next. Koh Samui has been the darling of overseas markets for years; it’s such a unique luxury island escape destination.”

Just when the international market returns remains to be seen. But in the meantime, Kroesen believes that Thailand has done an “incredible job” of containing the virus and by doing so, enhancing its reputation as being a ‘safer’ destination. “I’m hopeful that globally this is being recognised.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently chose Thailand along with New Zealand for a film documentary on successful models for handling Covid-19. At the time of writing, Thailand was reporting 3,269 cases and 58 deaths. Not bad for a population of nearly 70 million. However, the challenge now is attracting back the 20-odd million annual tourists who contributed a whopping 20% of the country's gross domestic product. Approximately 4.5 million Thais were employed in the tourism industry when the pandemic hit.

As for Banyan Tree Samui, it has just been awarded the Amazing Thailand Safety and Health Administration certificate (SHA) by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in recognition of the hotel’s upgraded health and hygiene standards and commitment to guest safety.

SHA certification was introduced by TAT in May to encourage hotels, resorts, spas, restaurants and other tourist attractions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and to reassure visitors. All properties must meet the hygiene and quality controls following a rigorous inspection. Approved businesses can display the SHA logo for two years.

At Banyan Tree Samui, updated protocols include a ‘Safe Sanctuary’ policy which guarantees guests a contactless stay from check-in to check-out, enhanced cleaning regimes and appropriate distancing in restaurants, the spa and the fitness centre.

Each guest receives a Portier smartphone from their ‘villa host’ on arrival. This can be used throughout their stay to make requests, order food and drink, book tours and coordinate housekeeping services. Features are delivered in English, Chinese, German, French and Russian.

Dinner with a view. All resort restaurants have been arranged for adequate distancing.

This is perfect pandemic holiday territory. Each villa has an infinity pool and with requests channelled through the smartphone and villa host, guests can concentrate on the serious business of relaxing, cocooned with their nearest and dearest. Not surprisingly, the resort is popular with multi-generational families looking to reconnect.

“Our motto at Banyan Tree is ‘Your Sanctuary for the Senses’,” says Kroesen. “The property has just 88 villas set on an incredible footprint of 38 acres of lush, tropical space. Guests often remark that they feel they’re the only ones staying here, such is the sense of space and privacy.”

But for now, it’s a waiting game for the day when Thailand finally welcomes back its international visitors. And with everything now seemingly in place, that day can't come soon enough.


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