She Caters to Women but Doesn’t Hire for Gender. Meet Rosewood’s C.E.O.

With kids’ camps and postpartum wellness programs aimed at affluent millennials, Sonia Cheng has steered her luxury hotel group through the pandemic storm.,

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— Sonia Cheng, chief executive, Rosewood Hotel Group


Sonia Cheng, who took the reins of Rosewood Hotel Group in 2011, when she was just 30, says she doesn’t view everything through the lens of being a female C.E.O.

For one thing, she has made it a point not to specifically hire women, even though half of the top leadership at Rosewood is female, she says. (Compare this with the broader hospitality industry where, in 2019, women held just 12 percent of the industry’s leadership positions.)

“I’m all for giving opportunities to women,” Ms. Cheng told In Her Words. “But when I interview someone, first and foremost it’s about their skill set, their attitude, their capability. Not their gender.”

That approach, she said, was informed by how she was raised.

“I grew up in a family with three older brothers, and my parents treated me the same as the brothers, in terms of giving us opportunities, education and a career path,” she said. “They wouldn’t treat me any differently because I was a female.”

But her focus on female customers is a different story.

Indeed, under Ms. Cheng’s watch, many of the company’s offerings have been geared toward women specifically. For instance, Rosewood’s new wellness concept, Asaya, will cater to first-time mothers, with counseling available on topics like postpartum depression and bonding with your spouse after childbirth.

And Summer at Rosewood, a program started in 2020, was intended as an urban retreat for kids, yes, but also parents — and mothers in particular — who were staring down a long summer without children’s activities or camps, on the heels of months of home-schooling and coronavirus lockdowns.

With four young children at home, it’s hard not to view Ms. Cheng’s brainchild through the eyes of a mother who understands, firsthand, that moms need a break.

The program offered a variety of options for both parents and children, ranging from sailing classes with the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club to wine-pairing tutorials. “We wanted the parents to go to the spa and feel relaxed,” Ms. Cheng, now 40, said in a video interview from her office in Hong Kong.

Ms. Cheng spoke to In Her Words about hiring, parenting and steering her hotel business through the pandemic storm.

The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

You were recently appointed a member of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. What’s your view on the future of tourism in Hong Kong?

I remain very optimistic that when the borders reopen, the hospitality industry will really bounce back in Hong Kong. And quite quickly.

There is significant pent-up demand for traveling within this region. You see that in China. All of our properties in China last year performed significantly better than pre-Covid. People want to travel.

What do you think travel and hospitality will look like going forward?

In the beginning, leisure will dominate. In Hong Kong last year we had ups and downs in terms of the number of cases in the city. When there was a relaxation on restrictions because the case numbers came down, all of the sudden our bookings for the ballroom and for weddings went up, quite significantly. People want to be with other people.

In terms of business travel, I think people want to meet their counterparts and their team members and not just do everything virtually.

What qualities do you look for when you’re hiring?

I look at leadership skills. I look at whether they are inspiring, whether they are innovative, whether they have humility, whether they can collaborate, whether they’ll empower their team members to develop young talent in the company.

I think those qualities are not defined by gender; it’s defined by that person.

The family business, New World Development Company, includes Rosewood, which was acquired in 2011. Tell us about the “separate but equal” approach your family has to delegating parts of the business to you and your siblings.

When I joined New World, my father tasked me with handling the hotel business.

But the family company has a lot of other business as well — real estate, retail, etc. Those are areas that my brothers handle.

Our parents gave us equal opportunities to have our own area to develop and gave us the freedom and liberty to develop a business empire within our passions.

When my father asked me to join the company, he had a vision of creating our own hotel company. And I thought that was a really interesting challenge for me in a sector that I love. I joined in 2008, after six years in the finance industry.

How involved are you with the details of opening a hotel?

We’ve grown to a size where I need to have my team execute the vision. In the first phase of the company, when we were smaller, I was very into the details. The opening of Rosewood Beijing, the opening of Rosewood London, even the Hotel de Crillon in Paris, I would be reviewing the uniforms. I would be sitting for two hours talking to the uniform designer about the wardrobe and choosing the utensils and linens.

How does Rosewood think about the female traveler?

A few years ago, we launched a family program called Rosewood Explorers. It’s not tailored to females, but in some ways it is tailored to moms. I became a mom eight years ago and it changed my perception of travel. In the past, I thought luxury hotels should be catered to couples. But since I became a mom, I realized this generation is different in that they travel with their kids.

Today’s parents want educational activities for their children so the parents can relax.

We launched the Explorers program at Phuket, Rosewood. We built a herb garden where the children can learn about plants. We have programs based on the surrounding reefs and the kids learn about sustainable fishing. Usually, a kids’ club is a room that’s 50 square meters with some arts and crafts, but nowadays parents want more.

You have four children — what are the support systems in your life that allow you to do what you do?

My four kids are an outlet. They give me sanity. And then, I guess, work also gives me sanity when I am frustrated with my kids. There’s a really good balance where I have a long day at work and then when I go home and see my kids, I can almost compartmentalize and forget about the stress at work. And those two hours at the end of the day are just for kids. My oldest is 8 and my youngest is 2, so just watching them play keeps me sane.

What’s next for you?

I’m launching Carlyle & Co., Rosewood’s first venture into the private members club. We are replicating the Cafe Carlyle in Hong Kong.

Is it fair to say you’re bullish on the comeback of in-person interaction?

Yes.


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