Interview: Rosewood Hotel's two top executives
We speak with the luxury group's Radha Arora and Sonia Cheng
The pair in charge of developing and expanding the Rosewood Hotels and Resorts brand, president Radha Arora and Rosewood Hotel Group CEO Sonia Cheng, combine luxury hotel experience and financial savvy to create a collection of hotels aimed at the next generation of travellers
Trying to keep track of the Middle East hotel industry can be an exhausting task, with a constant barrage of press releases detailing exciting sounding new hotels, restaurants and events. While each announcement strives to distinguish itself from the rest of the crowd, to a casual observer it appears that one common philosophy ties them all together: when it comes to hotels, biggest is best.
Whether it’s having the most rooms, the biggest ballroom or the most extravagant royal suite, hotels in the Middle East seem to be locked in a never-ending competition to outdo their rivals.
This makes it all the more surprising when at the opening of Rosewood Abu Dhabi, Rosewood Hotels’ most senior executives declare they are attempting to do the exact opposite.
“We don’t want to go and grow for the sake of it,” says Rosewood Hotels & Resorts president Radha Arora. “It is very important for us to remain honest and true to our ethos. Then, when opportunities like Abu Dhabi come along, we ensure we do our market research and think about whether it is the right location to expand our ‘sense of place’ philosophy.”
“Our philosophy,” adds Sonia Cheng, CEO of Rosewood Hotel Group, “is not to grow by quantity as other brands do, who have a target to open 100, 200, 300 hotels. Once you do that then you start to lose the true essence of the brand. What we are trying to do is create a collection of hotels that, while sizeable, doesn’t just grow for the sake of growing.
“I think our target customers are not your typical business traveller. They are people who are well travelled and looking for a hotel that is different and can deliver the particular experience they want. So I think the success of Rosewood isn’t defined by how big it grows, but by the following we can create around the brand,” she adds.
Young and Old
This united front on the Rosewood philosophy from the two executives belies a strikingly different background and level of experience when it comes to luxury hotels. For Radha Arora, taking charge of some of the world’s most luxurious of hotels is second nature, having spent 16 years with Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts and becoming regional VP and general manager of the iconic Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles.
“I was at Four Seasons for 18 years, and the philosophy there was always to ‘do to others what you expect to be done to yourself’, and that formula also applies to Rosewood, where we try to treat everyone the same, without any barriers. We’re a family unit at Rosewood, and while at Four Seasons that’s difficult because they’re so big, we’re a small enough unit to have a personal relationship all the way from the managing directors and departmental heads down to our ground level associates,” says Arora.
In comparison, Sonia Cheng took a different path to her position of leading the international expansion of Rosewood Hotel Group, which encompasses the Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, New World Hotels and the Pentahotels brands.
“My background is very different from Radha’s; as you can tell I’m pretty young. After I graduated from college I went straight into finance, and spent a few years on investment banking and private equity,” explains Cheng.
While her position at Rosewood may be her first in the hospitality industry, Cheng has actually grown up among hoteliers. Her family own and operate Hong Kong-based New World Hospitality, which changed its name to Rosewood Hotel Group earlier this year after purchasing the brand in 2011.
“What I like to think I bring to Rosewood is knowledge of the next generation of travellers, and an understanding of what it is they’re looking for. I think we have something that’s different from other hotel companies, which are being run by teams of old hotel veterans who probably stick to the old way of doing things,” she says.
“Instead I try look at things from the guests’ point of view, and because I’ve spent so much of my life travelling, I’ve experienced a range of hotels from luxury to boutique properties, which I try to add to the vision of the company.”
Rosewood currently operates three hotels in Saudi Arabia and one in the UAE, with one more property planned for the Kingdom and its first Dubai hotel not due to open until 2015.
“We’ve had a great relationship in Saudi for a long time, with our first property in Al Faisaliah helping us to expand into Jeddah and Riyadh. We’re now looking at our project in Dubai, which should be completed by the end of 2015, and we’re also deep in discussions about a possible hotel in Doha, so there is a continued focus in the Middle East,” says Arora.
Asked whether they are concerned by the large growth of other international hotel chains in the region in comparison to their own, Arora insists that in fact the opposite is true.
“If anything that helps us. Let them come and make the Middle East a better destination. But we believe that Rosewood creates our own destinations. These are larger brands you’re talking about, and we’re still a small sizeable brand in comparison.
“If you take the design element of our brand as an example, we are very focused on our hotel design, and the work put in to ensure that nothing is out of place is meticulous. Where, if you’re a bigger brand then you just keep multiplying and duplicating, copy paste, copy paste and we don’t want to do that,” he says.
“This is not a cookie cutter brand,” adds Cheng, “which is an approach some hotel groups are taking in order to grow faster. Our brand is about creating a collection that consists of very special properties together, as a family. So you can go to our property in New York, the Carlyle, and it’s a quintessential New York property, all the way through the design, the service and the food and beverage.”
A Rosewood Rebrand
To cement this philosophy, Rosewood recently rebranded itself with the ‘Sense of Place’ tag becoming a trademarked element of a redesigned logo, an online advertising campaign and redesigned website.
“We feel that Rosewood has such a strong sense of heritage and we want to be able to elevate this to a new level; to emphasise our strengths and introduce a new brand direction that we think is more relevant to the next generation of traveller,” explains Arora.
“We’re introducing a new brand direction that is more relevant,” says Cheng, “and blends together modern yet classic styles. Having the Sense of Place slogan within our brand logo is something that no one has done before, and we have trademarked the phrase to really associate the slogan with our brand DNA.”
Rosewood is not the only hotel group to modify itself to match its market, but Cheng insists “it’s not just about putting some local art or design into a hotel, we do it through a very creative level of service and range of F&B.”
She mentions the ‘Rosewood Curators’ programme, which involves every worldwide Rosewood property adopting a high-profile or distinguished personality to share their insider knowledge about each Rosewood destination.
The Rosewood Abu Dhabi curator is Mubadala Real Estate & Infrastructure vice president Abdulla Abdul Aziz Al Shamsi, who Rosewood selected for his role in transforming the Abu Dhabi skyline; while at other properties, high profile ambassadors such as TV host Piers Morgan and ex-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been recruited.
“This is our way of bringing the culture of every property’s location inside the hotel. We use prominent individuals who either live in or represent each location who can provide personal insights to its guests, such as their favourite activities or sights,” explains Cheng.
The Right Associates
Another central tenant of Rosewood’s ‘Sense of Place’ philosophy is the efforts that Rosewood staff make to deliver an individual level of service at every Rosewood hotel. This, Arora and Cheng reveal, is due to the level of freedom the group gives each hotel to set service standards.
Hotels are provided with a set of service guidelines, called ‘Grand Differentiators’, but staff are encouraged to observe and act upon the hints that guests invariably drop when they stay at the property. For example, if at check-in it seems obvious that a guest wants to be left alone, then the staff can treat them accordingly, rather than following a set service script.
“You can only achieve this,“ explains Arora, “by finding general managers who can lend their personality to a property. That’s how we create passion. For example, the GMs at our newest hotels in Abu Dhabi and London were handpicked by the group managing director as people who could lend their personalities to a hotel. Obviously, we’re there to support them and ensure that they don’t go completely off the other end, but this all helps to play into our Sense of Place philosophy.”
“It’s important to remember that we’re in the people business,’ adds Cheng. “It’s all about the relationships you create between your associates and your guests, your owners and partners. These relationships are far more important than any loyalty programme, and these are the relationships that bring guests back again to stay with you.”
However, Arora admits that hiring the right hoteliers can be a tricky proposition. One solution he reveals is to bring potential general managers into the company early, in order to understand the essence of the brand and give them the right kind of hospitality experience.
“It all depends where you hire people from. If you bring in people straight from the big colleges in the US, they tend to want to become general managers overnight. But I believe that everyone must learn the craft first, work alongside colleagues to really understand what hospitality is all about. That is the only way to earn their respect and their support, which every GM needs to be a success,” he says.
With the right people in place, the rebrand completed and new hotels opening in gateway cities like London and Dubai, under the dual leadership of Arora and Cheng, Rosewood Hotels and Resorts seems set for success itself — on a small but significant scale.