With an impressive portfolio of hotels and resorts scattered around the globe – and no less than three exciting new openings lined up over the next few months, in addition to an ambitious expansion strategy beyond that – Rosewood Hotels & Resorts has left an indelible footprint on the world’s hospitality landscape over the past decade. CEO Sonia Cheng shares her vision and triumphs.
Renowned for creating hotels for a new generation – revamping legendary hotels like The Carlyle in New York and Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, while opening exciting new properties in some of the most happening locales – Rosewood has earned a reputation for its one-of-a-kind hotels that fully embrace the destinations where they are located, weaving local history, art, culture and cuisine into each property’s unique narrative.
When she became CEO of Rosewood Hotel Group in 2011 at age 30, Sonia Cheng had her job cut out for her. She had a very clear vision for the hospitality brand her family acquired – reimagining it for a new breed of millennial traveller that seeks out very special luxury experiences.
It has been 10 years since you took the reins as CEO of Rosewood Hotel Group. What have been some of the most significant highlights when you reflect on this past decade?
Over the past 10 years, we’ve been thoughtful in growing and evolving the brand. At the time of the acquisition, there were 19 hotels in seven countries, and today we have 26 hotels in 15 countries, with 24 new properties under development. We take great care in hand-selecting each and every project to ensure we are creating new and unique luxury lifestyle experiences that fulfil the wants and needs of today’s consumers, whether in an established metropolis like Hong Kong or London or an untapped destination such as Miyakojima. By partnering with the most talented minds in architecture, design, art and culture, food and beverage, and wellness and recreation, we are able to bring to life something truly spectacular.
In terms of highlights, there have been many significant milestones and defining moments over the past decade – from relaunching the brand in 2013 to opening our first hotel in Asia, Rosewood Beijing. The reopening of Hôtel de Crillon, A Rosewood Hotel in 2017 was also quite significant, as it set a new level of luxury and service in Paris. This was one of several prestigious management contracts that the team has secured over the years, followed by that of the iconic Kona Village, A Rosewood Resort in Hawaii, Rosewood Le Guanahani in St. Barth and Rosewood Villa Magna in Madrid. The same year we also launched two innovative brand programmes: Asaya, our holistic wellbeing concept that offers a more intuitive and personalised approach to health and wellness; and Rosewood Explorers, a reinvented kids club that aims to combine fun with cultural education, creativity and social responsibility. And then of course, the opening of Rosewood Hong Kong was a defining and life-changing experience for me, both professionally and personally. Together, all of these milestones have transformed Rosewood into a truly global brand and a leader in the ultra-luxury hospitality space.
What was your vision at the outset (when you acquired Rosewood), and is it still the same?
Rosewood Hotels & Resorts’ guiding philosophy has always been “A Sense of Place,” which is a notion that really resonated with me. Essentially, this means that Rosewood properties are designed and operated to reflect the destinations in which they reside and to truly immerse guests in local culture and community. When we acquired the brand in 2011, our vision was to preserve Rosewood’s roots while also taking it into the 21st Century and making it the brand of choice for the modern traveller.
Supported by this foundation, my goal for Rosewood has always been to create a brand that celebrates each hotel and destination, and to take each project as its own inspiration – for the brand to follow a less cookie-cutter approach, to deliver a more personal, authentic and less formal experience, and to have greater engagement with the community.
I’ve always wanted to combine beautiful interior design with guest comfort and functionality, for the brand to be global in outlook and reach, yet authentically local in inspiration and still intimate in feel. And most importantly, for us not to lose sight of the guest experience which needs to remain the centre of all that we do.
Which of these properties do you consider as your flagship, and why?
Every property is unique and really stands on its own, but as I mentioned, one that I am especially proud of is Rosewood Hong Kong. I have deep connections to this global city and the property’s location near Victoria Dockside is close to my heart. I am incredibly proud of how our stunning property has evolved over the years, and how it embodies both my family and the brand’s legacy.
What is unique about the Rosewood brand’s proposition? How do you differentiate yourself
from other luxury hospitality brands?
At its core, Rosewood’s mission is to facilitate transformative, intentional travel experiences that foster meaningful connections between our guests and the communities in which we operate. Now more than ever, people are looking to build upon the relationships that they have both with themselves and with others, and Rosewood is committed to empowering them in that process through our offerings and culture.
Our properties are designed with a residential nature to create a home-away-from-home for travellers and the communities alike, as they embark on these journeys of discovery. This ethos runs through the entire collection, but, in an age of corporate uniformity, we manage each project with a complete custom and bespoke approach – something that requires an enormous amount of effort, but I believe is critical to the success and differentiation of the Rosewood brand. From the area programme to the design, all the way to the collateral, wardrobe and photography, no detail is overlooked. It’s these small touches which our guests notice, and which distinguish the Rosewood brand in today’s age of same-ness.
Who are the guests, typically, that you aim to attract to your properties?
Our guests are adventurous, luxury travellers who seek a full immersion into a destination’s culture. They create an intimate community of global, cultured citizens drawn together by their personalities and passions. We find that our community is very mindful of the impact they have, and they are looking for ways to ensure their travel experience has a positive effect on the local community and is sustainable in nature. Which is why sustainability and responsible travel are such important pillars for our brand.
How do you go about selecting a location for a new Rosewood hotel or resort? What are the most important criteria you look at when it comes to location?
When assessing where to raise the Rosewood flag we consider several factors. We look for places that sit in dynamic and striking settings, have a distinctive culture and community, and facilitate an enriching experience for guests. We also look to destinations that may be a bit off the beaten path but still resonate with Rosewood’s affluential explorers – destinations that are unexpected but alluring. This is evident when looking at the properties we have in the pipeline in both cosmopolitan global cities and remote resort locations like São Paulo in Brazil and Miyakojima in Japan.
What are some of the most important trends and developments you have noticed on the luxury hospitality landscape in recent years?
One area of the hospitality industry we’ve seen evolve significantly over the last few years is wellness. The past year has caused individuals to realise the importance of and to prioritise their holistic wellbeing. At Rosewood Hotel Group we are fortunate in that our existing innovative wellbeing concept, Asaya, allows us to grasp unique wellbeing trends unlike many other wellness programs. In realising this we are continuing to develop and grow the global footprint of Asaya to new discerning areas of the world.
Additionally, life has been forever changed by remote work. As people are more flexible in their schedules, we’ve seen an increase in the demand for hotel branded residences or long-term stay options. Now more than ever, there is a demand for personalised and private services within residential design: concierge support, cleaning services, pet-friendly amenities (dog walkers), food storage and delivery. Rosewood Residences are closely observing these changes and trends to implement them into their offerings. For example, we are reimagining our mailrooms to include cold storage for stocking food deliveries.
As the way we travel has greatly evolved in the last year, more and more travellers are looking for ways in which lifestyle and hospitality intersect. With more flexibility in our schedules seeming to be a likely reality, more and more travellers are able to take advantage of opportunities beyond the traditional hotel stay, and we’ve seen the industry evolve to meet these needs. At Rosewood we’ve long been working to evolve into the lifestyle space, and our brand has lent itself naturally to new and innovative projects such as Carlyle & Co, a member’s only club that we recently opened in Hong Kong. Covid-19 has led to a new way of life and a seismic shift in sensibilities, which now place a strong emphasis on the need for community and connection. Carlyle & Co provides that community and space for people to reconnect.
You have three new properties slated for opening this year. When will they open, and what can we expect from these new hotels?
Rosewood Villa Magna will reopen this fall under the Rosewood flag following an extensive renovation. Located in the heart of Paseo de la Castellana and surrounded by the most luxurious shops and restaurants in Madrid, the property will include exciting culinary offerings as well as a relaxing Sense, A Rosewood Spa that includes a Turkish-style hammam.
Rosewood Le Guanahani St. Barth will debut October 18 to reveal a complete renovation that preserves the unique spirit of the original resort. Ideally situated over 18 lush and secluded acres on a private peninsula overlooking two stunning beaches, the resort will include 66 guestrooms, suites and villas, many with private pools, each reflecting the unique history, heritage and style of the French Caribbean. As the only full-service resort on the island of St. Barth, the property will further extend a range of amenities and experiences including a new beachfront dining concept and pool, a Rosewood Explorers children’s club, Sense, A Rosewood Spa, a fitness center, tennis court, and a selection of dedicated event spaces, as well as myriad watersports, hiking and sea and town excursions encouraging exploration of all St. Barth has to offer.
Rosewood São Paulo will be our first property in South America, which will include an Asaya, our integrated wellbeing concept, opening in 2022. The hotel’s incredible design and architecture team has transformed a historic former maternity hospital into a dynamic lifestyle destination, and we’re pleased to be a part of it and to bring the Rosewood experience to South America in the process.
Can you provide some examples of new initiatives, aimed at both guests and employees, which have helped steer Rosewood through the Covid-19 pandemic?
Through the entire pandemic, we have been hyper-focused on supporting our associates and the members of the communities in which Rosewood operates which were most affected by the pandemic. We launched Rosewood Raise in April of 2020, which consisted of an associate-relief fund as well as community-driven efforts, with many of our properties spearheading initiatives that supplied necessities and meals to medical associates, first responders and area hospitals, as well as to local organisations and charities aimed at assisting families and individuals in need. Of particular note, our properties in Montecito, Bangkok and Hong Kong together delivered hundreds of thousands of donated meals to residents and first responders across their communities through our “Rosewood on the Move” initiative.
You recently also launched the Rosewood Academy. What can you share with us about this initiative?
We are proud to have recently launched Rosewood Academy, a development journey for our associates who aspire to accelerate their career and personal growth with us. Designed to cultivate the next generation of leaders for our Group, this programme offers inspiring learning and development programmes, starting from our revamped Management Trainee Program, right up to executive level. Rosewood Academy offers professional development opportunities for top-talent from every level of the organization and is a key element of The Calling, our newly launched comprehensive talent and culture program, built around the idea of relationship hospitality. We consider it the calling of every Rosewood employee to build long-lasting, genuine relationships with their guests, as well as to steward and protect the people and resources of their local communities. At Rosewood Hotel Group we work instinctively and from the heart, to master and elevate our craft.
This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.