Imagine this: You’ve been heads down at work for several weeks when suddenly you hear a ping. You’ve received an email suggesting you’re overdue for a vacation and are presented a list of resorts in the very cities you want to visit.
This is the type of personalization Sonia Cheng, chief executive of Rosewood Hotel Group, envisions for the future of the hotel industry with the help of data analytics. It’s one of the tech projects she’s spearheading at the private Hong Kong-based international hotel management chain, which operates more than 45 hotels in 16 countries, including in London, Paris, Beijing, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.
But that’s not all on Cheng’s plate. After the pandemic took a severe toll on the hospitality and travel industry, Cheng said her company is working to lure talent — the company employs about 11,000 workers globally — during a challenging labor shortage. In addition, Cheng said the pandemic altered how people work and travel and that has meant adapting and changing direction quickly. Her advice to leaders? Learn to make quick decisions and work as a team.
Cheng shared her vision for the future of work and hotel industry. Her answers have been edited for clarity.
Q: What is the current work policy for Rosewood’s corporate employees?
A: Our managers manage their teams. There’s no specific rule on how many days a week people need to go to the office. If you really need to work from home, work from home. That is really appreciated by our associates. It’s also something that allows our company to be attractive to external talent. We also remain flexible in how we recruit and place talent around the world.
Q: What changes can hotel workers expect in a post pandemic world?
A: We’re looking at how we can eliminate some of the tedious tasks with robotics or machine learning to make work more flexible. We’re researching how automation and technology for the back office can simplify processes for our employees. However, in the hospitality industry, we’re still a people business. So there needs to be a balance between high tech and high touch. Ultimately, I think guests want to build that relationship with our associates, and that is something technology cannot replace.
Q: What learnings from the pandemic will you use in the future?
A: We have to remain flexible and nimble. The pandemic happened very quickly, and we reacted very quickly. We immediately implemented contactless check-in, hybrid meetings and [new processes for] how we work across the different geographies and understanding guests’ needs. For example, in a lot of cities, [people started taking] staycations. We were the first hotel brand to launch staycations in Hong Kong and transform Rosewood Hong Kong into an urban resort.
Q: How have travel trends changed?
A: With business travel, because of the pandemic, customers are more willing to stay longer in [one place] so that they can connect with their colleagues. And because of all the technology that’s been built for online collaboration, you can work while you travel. So their vacations also tend to be longer because they are planning business meetings with their vacation time. Guests are also traveling with bigger groups and with family.
Q: What new trends have you seen from what guests want?
A: Customers are more focused on their well-being. And they are focused on how we can provide exclusivity. Some of these trends will stay post-pandemic. We’ve launched our new brand, Asaya, to accommodate wellness. And we accelerated our plans to offer wellness classes online. At Rosewood Residences [the company’s brand for residential villas and estate homes apartments], we’re pushing out individual villas and exclusive accommodations. During the pandemic, everyone’s behavior online increased. So we’re looking at different e-commerce projects. Rosewood would be more than just a hotel brand. It would be a luxury lifestyle brand where we would offer different curated products.
Q: Has the pandemic altered any plans for expansion?
A: The business has been quite resilient. In 2021, we recorded the highest number of signings we’ve had at Rosewood Hotel Group. And just recently, we’ve announced new projects that are going to join our portfolio, including The Raleigh in Miami and Hotel Bauer in Venice. Next year, we are on track to open Rosewood Amsterdam, Rosewood Munich, Kona Village in Hawaii as well as Rosewood Doha [in Qatar]. So the pace of opening hasn’t been challenged.
Q: What has changed for guests and what is planned for the future?
A: Post-pandemic, it’s very important that we recognize our guests’ names and be able to anticipate guests’ needs. So we also are building a centralized system called a data lake house where we can anticipate needs based on guests’ profiles and customize their journey.
Q: What are the biggest tech priorities at Rosewood?
A: The data lake house is a big project that I think that will transform the way we develop our guests’ journeys. We can analyze data and travel patterns to anticipate what future Rosewood locations would be appropriate for our customers. [It should capture] your preferences during your stay, and [identify if] there’s a pattern on what type of rooms that you like to book.
Q: How have you created connection among a more distributed workforce?
A: The Insider app connects our associates around the world. We share company news and associates can post their photos, things that they think are interesting or stories or articles that they think are inspiring so that they can build community and get a sense of culture, particularly during the pandemic.
Q: How does Rosewood view emerging technologies like the metaverse?
A: NFTs and the metaverse — every company is looking at that space, including us. It’s too early to tell. If we do anything, it needs to be something unique, differentiating and right for the brand. We need time to investigate it.
Q: What are workers seeking from you as an employer?
A: They’re becoming quite selective in terms of the companies they choose. It’s very important for them to join a company that has a strong commitment in delivering positive impact and truly empowers associates. We are committed to ensure that there is strong diversity and that we’re supporting different groups. Talent right now really values organizations that have a strong sense of purpose. And they want to join a company that is not only doing well, but really doing good for the community.
Q: What is your biggest challenge?
A: The talent shortage is a challenge that everyone is facing. Being an attractive and performance-driven company for workers is important. So in addition to providing technology to ease the work, it’s important that we provide a strong career path. We built Rosewood Academy where we groom top talents and provide courses and programs for them.
Q: What should workers and guests expect from Rosewood in the future?
A: In five years’ time, you will see an organization that has very strong sense of purpose. With technology, we should be able to personalize our guest experiences. We have about 30 hotels in the pipeline, so in five years, you’ll see our portfolio more than double.
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