SONIA CHENG, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, ROSEWOOD HOTEL GROUP

Posted in People on 12 February, 2018

Can Faik meets Sonia Cheng, the creative visionary behind Rosewoods’ world-renowned success…

Established in 1979, Rosewood is a distinctive collection of highly individual, luxurious, residential-style hotels inspired by the culture, history and geography of each locale. Sonia Cheng leads a team of seasoned industry professionals to spearhead the regional and international expansion of Rosewood Hotel Group.

What was your background in hospitality prior to working for Rosewood Hotel Group?

You could say that I’ve been surrounded by the hospitality business my whole life.  My family has been developing hotels for many years and was one of the first to open a five-star hotel in China; in fact, my father also spent time as a hotel general manager.  As that side of the business grew, hotels featured in the conversations taking place around me growing up and I was fascinated by it.  We travelled extensively when I was young and I was fortunate to experience properties around the world from an early age, of course in addition to staying at those owned by my family.   

However, when I graduated from college, I wanted to carve my own career path so I decided to work in investment banking with Morgan Stanley and then in private equity at Warburg Pincus.  As it turned out, this experience was invaluable to me later in evaluating and negotiating hotel deals.

What does your current position involve?

As CEO, I like to take a very hands-on approach across the entire business and key functions – in sales and marketing, operations, people development and internal culture, driving expansion strategy, innovation and so much more – but above all I always prioritise and try to live the concept of ‘relationship hospitality.’ This is the overarching philosophy for all our brands and is very important to me.  This means that, alongside with everyone who works with me, I strive to create and nurture meaningful, long-term relationships. I want to champion this approach with all our associates, especially among our senior managers so they can drive the same ethos with their colleagues, which then cascades to our guest relationships as well.   

What are the complexities of meeting the demands of shareholders, fulfilling the growth of your management team and delivering the brand’s values to the guests?

It can certainly seem complicated and challenging to meet the demands of so many stakeholders, especially when each has its own special interests and priorities, which often seem to be competing.  But ultimately, we all want the same thing.  We want to have strong brands that are innovative and industry-leading, and that deliver a differentiated and valuable proposition to our guests.  We want a culture in which our people are valued and can grow and shine with us.  We want our local communities and guests to adopt us as their own.  We want to be thankful and be able to give back to our societies and our world.  And of course, we want to be profitable, which is the fuel to achieve our objectives.

What does Rosewood Hotels & Resorts have to do to stay one step ahead of its competition?

We are always looking to the future.  We call Rosewood guests ‘affluential explorers’ and these are people who are influencing and leading the evolution of luxury travel.  They demand not just the trappings of luxury, but look for more personal, authentic and meaningful experiences, and a deeper connection with destinations.  Wherever they go and whatever the purpose, travel is a part of their lifelong journey of discovery.  I believe it’s our ability to connect with this group and its mindset and our specific commitment to create experiences that fulfil their needs and desires. This keeps us ahead of the curve. One of our most recent examples of this dynamic is the launch of Asaya, Rosewood’s new pioneering, holistic wellness concept. Asaya taps into new attitudes and commitments to wellness as an integral component of a fulfilling life – being in tune with the  Rosewood guest led the way to this new initiative.   

With a number of new Rosewood Hotels & Resorts opening across the world, which one in particular are you most excited about?

For me, Rosewood Hong Kong is a real passion point and its opening in September 2018 is one that is extremely close to my heart. Hong Kong, as well as being my home, truly is one of the world’s greatest cities with a unique and iconic character. It is a destination in which Rosewood will thrive in expressing the brand’s A Sense of Place® philosophy. Our aim for the hotel is to capture and translate for our guests the elegance, vibrancy and distinct culture of the city while delivering the world-class service for which Rosewood is known.

What are your plans for Rosewood Hotels & Resorts in Europe and Asia?

It has been a key focus to expand globally. For Asia Pacific, following the success of Rosewood Beijing, which opened in 2013 and really lit a fire of anticipation for new Rosewood properties in this part of the world.  In 2017 we opened our first Asia resorts, in Sanya and in Phuket.  Rosewood Phuket also debuted our new wellness concept – Asaya – which will be rolled out at other global properties too.  In addition to the opening of Rosewood Hong Kong, 2018 will see the opening of Rosewood hotels in Phnom Penh, Bangkok and Luang Prabang.  These are all highly distinctive properties that  will create an exciting and varied Rosewood Asia portfolio.   

For Europe, following the openings of two very different yet equally exquisite properties – Rosewood London and Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco in Tuscany – we re-opened the iconic Hôtel de Crillon, A Rosewood Hotel in Paris in the summer of 2017, an important milestone for the brand on multiple levels. In addition to establishing a significant presence in one of the most important global capitals, the new Crillon is a perfect expression of the Rosewood brand values and our vision of luxury hospitality. We are looking to build on this momentum in Europe and have recently announced upcoming openings in Vienna, Munich, and our London property at 30 Grosvenor Square, on the site of the former American Embassy. 

We also continue to develop our presence in the Americas with Rosewood Miramar Beach Montecito opening this year, Rosewood São Paulo in 2019 and Rosewood Puerto Papagayo, Costa Rica in 2020.

What are the personality traits that define a successful and happy hotel proprietor, in your opinion?

It goes without saying that you have to love your job, but for me I would say it goes beyond that – it needs to be in your blood.  It goes back to the idea of relationship hospitality. You should instinctively care, anticipate and be wired to take care of others, inspire them, lead them and get your biggest satisfaction from fulfilling their needs and desires.  This applies not only to guests, but to everyone in your orbit, from the hotel owner, the team of people that support you and external parties who contribute to the successful running of your hotel.

Have you noticed any particular trends in hotel interior design?

Over the last few decades, trends in hotel design have generally morphed from formalised and traditional to more communal, casual and relaxed, and this applies to every category of hotel, wherever it falls on the spectrum of ‘lifestyle’ to luxury.  But in my opinion, guest ease and practicality should always be foremost in mind; it’s important never to lose the guest mindset as a guide nor sacrifice their comfort to accommodate the latest trend.

A perfect example is the design path we’ll be taking with our newly introduced KHOS™ brand.  This is an upscale business hotel brand created for those who consider work, travel and lifestyle as one. The traditional boundaries of work and play don’t exist for them and they need a place to stay that understands this dynamic.  The KHOS™ design style will be conducive for both business networking and socialising, high productivity and the type of relaxation and recreation these guests crave while on the road.

How important do you feel hotel design has become when launching a new hotel?

The design of a hotel has, and always will be, crucially important – functionality within artistry.  It is about crafting a holistic experience for the customer with the all-important framework.  From the inception of a hotel, we work closely with designers and artists to meticulously imagine, plan and create the perfect entity for the location and the particular brand.  We call Rosewood hotels a ‘living canvas’ in which all guest experience touchpoints are aligned and seamless, and this starts with good design.

What role does technology play in improving the guest experience?

We need to keep up-to-date with what our guests want, but also have to implement technological innovations with purpose. Will it make a guest’s experience with us easier, more comfortable, more fun?  Technology needs to be practical, uncomplicated, and not technology for technology’s sake – then it simply becomes a gimmick.  We also need to ensure that we are pleasing the target guest group for each specific hotel brand, whether millennials or more mature travellers, and calibrate our technology offerings appropriately. I do feel strongly that we cannot rely too much on computerisation or robotics, otherwise we risk losing our soul and personal touch.  At the same time, we try to be flexible and imaginative, and look at what is new and fresh in technology.   

What advice would you offer to those who aspire to become a successful hotelier?

Focus all your efforts and ambitions on a central ethos for yourself and your hotel. For me, I always come back to what my father told me:  “Hotels are a people, not numbers, business; when you remember that, the profits will follow.” Also, immerse yourself fully in the business, be a sponge, keep up to speed on what your competitors are doing and what trends are taking shape.  Be open to the world around you and experience it – don’t stay locked up in your hotel!

What would you say are the three best places you’ve ever stayed?

There are so many special and unique properties everywhere in the world, too many to pick just three!  Perhaps easier to pick destinations, as there is nothing I love more than returning to cities where each visit is a new discovery and there is more to uncover.  I love London, it is so dynamic and also I find a great place to travel with family; Hong Kong, my wonderful home, which is so vibrant and special; and Paris, which is always a delight and I can of course stay at Hôtel de Crillon, A Rosewood Hotel, a unique experience all on its own.

Where currently ranks highest on your travel wish list?

I’m really lucky that the places I most want to travel are places where we’re opening hotels, so I have the perfect excuses to go there!  Phnom Penh and Luang Prabang are fascinating and relatively undiscovered on the world travel scene.  We will open Rosewood Hoi An in Vietnam in 2019 – the ancient trading port heritage, the food, the fabulous beaches – it’s an unbeatable combination.  I really want to visit Machu Picchu someday – we’re opening a hotel in São Paulo in 2019, so hopefully I can combine a pre-opening hotel visit with a trip there!

Let’s finish with the issue of personal and work life balance. How do you aim to achieve a good balance and what do those closest to you think of your attempts?

I try to focus all my energy and attention on what I’m involved in at the moment, whether that’s work or family, otherwise you can’t give your best to either.  When I’m working, I know I have my children to go home to, so I think I’m more motivated and productive and efficient when I’m in the office. I do think that being a good family figure makes you a better CEO and vice versa so I look at it as complementary. I’m really fortunate that I have a very supportive and understanding family too. Of course it’s a struggle sometimes, but this has always been our lifestyle, so we’re used to it!

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