Sonia Cheng may be one of the youngest chief executive officers in hospitality, but her age only serves to highlight her contributions to the industry. With extensive experience in real estate investments and an innate ability to level with the millennial segment, she has deftly led Rosewood Hotel Group for six years—since she was 30 years old. Cheng lends her perspective to millennial trends, her greatest lessons in leadership, and what plans Rosewood has on the horizon.
How does your background in finance and real estate inform your decisions now that you’re working in the hotel industry?
During my time at Warburg Pincus and Morgan Stanley, I gained valuable experience in real estate transactions and equity investments, which has served me well as we’ve been involved in new hotel deals and expanding Rosewood’s global portfolio. At the same time, I’ve also realized that running a hotel company is not all about the numbers, it is about cultures, design, and so much more. Probably most important is the team and relationships with staff—that’s the real heart of a hotel’s success.
How does your age impact the way you run your business?
I do think I have a fresh perspective on the luxury travel industry—I too am a traveler who is less concerned with opulence and pampering and instead crave an authentic, truly local experience. I look to hire not only those people who have the right credentials and are seasoned industry professionals, but also eager young hotel school graduates and those from other industries who inject new ways of thinking. I’m open to candidates from different backgrounds who are excited about this venture we’re on and can contribute meaningfully. I am also lucky to have joined the hospitality industry during an age of incredible technological progress. However, I feel there needs to be a balance between the use of the latest advances and providing our guests with the ultimate luxury of unplugging from their busy lives.
Do you find the hotel industry is off the mark in any of its assumptions about millennials?
What I find interesting is how many companies assume that millennials want completely different experiences than other segments when it comes to travel. In fact, we’re seeing that people of all ages—from millennials to baby boomers—are choosing to spend their disposable incomes on meaningful luxury travel explorations, and are looking for experiences that tap into the local culture, traditions, and history of a particular destination. Millennials may be leading the way toward value, authenticity, and truly local experiences, but these shifts represent larger trends within the industry.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned about leadership since becoming CEO?
Stay true to your vision and ensure your team also keeps the big picture in mind, rather than focusing on short-term objectives. Working together toward a bigger goal is key to motivation and retention. And I know that even if you have the best design and the best advertising and marketing strategy, it is impossible to have a successful brand without people behind you who are aligned and partners with you on the journey.
Rosewood has several hotels scheduled to open in 2017 and 2018—what are you most excited for in Rosewood’s future?
It’s a very exciting time of growth for the brand and we are thrilled to provide our guests with the opportunity to travel to new destinations and experience new cultures. Rosewood Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Rosewood Puebla in Mexico are both slated to open later this year and we are also eagerly anticipating the opening of Rosewood Phuket in Thailand, which will be the brand’s first resort property in Southeast Asia. We are particularly excited about the opening of Hôtel de Crillon, A Rosewood Hotel in Paris, which will re-open next year following an extensive renovation. We’re also looking forward to the opening of Rosewood Luang Prabang in Laos in 2017, which is our first property of luxury tented accommodations and will also have on-site the first philanthropic hospitality school in Laos.