When Dr Jennifer Cronin chose to write her PhD thesis on influencing crisis management to achieve successful outcomes, she could draw directly from her own experiences in Bangkok in 2010.
It was then that the Thai capital saw a period of political turmoil, with “Red Shirt” protesters out in force, tanks on the streets, and a palpable sense of fear and uncertainty.
“One general was shot right outside our front door,” says Cronin, now Hong Kong-based president of Niccolo Hotels, a high-end brand allied to the Marco Polo group, but with a previous employer when caught up in the chaos. “A building was hit by an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] and we had to shut the whole hotel until things were quieter.”
It was the ultimate test of management training – and a dramatic counterpoint to the first stop on Cronin’s international journey. In 1977, she had gone to Japan as an exchange student organised by the Rotary Club. The year she spent attending a high school in Kariya-shi, near Nagoya, was to prove transformative.
“That first overseas trip opened my eyes to the big wide world,” she says. “I lived with two local families to learn the language, culture and traditions and was able to immerse myself in another country. It was a very unusual step for someone from Australia where Asian languages were still ‘unknown’, but Rotary thought it would be a good fit because I was disciplined, respectful and keen to learn.”
Cronin took the opportunity to try everything: planting rice, climbing Mount Fuji, ikebana (flower arranging), traditional dance classes, springtime picnics under the cherry blossom, and hearing the stories about one host family’s 400-year-old kimono store.
“It gave me a whole new outlook, and I realised effective communication is the key to overcoming most worries and concerns.”
Not surprisingly, it was also quite a contrast for someone who had grown up as one of seven children in sugarcane country outside Brisbane. There, Cronin’s father ran a pig farm, and with her mother’s polio limiting her mobility, she basically took charge of the family kitchen from the age of seven.
“That’s why I now pitch in very easily when anything needs to be done,” she says. “I helped with the pigs, milked the cow. It was a wonderful lifestyle. All through school, I loved being able to manage projects like our Grade 7 farewell party, to make a difference and get things done. But I also felt strongly that I had to see the world.”
To that end, she studied Japanese and economics at Griffith University in Queensland and, in due course, opted for a career in the hotel sector.
It turned out to be an inspired choice. The tourism boom was just taking off on Australia’s Gold Coast, new resorts and golf courses were being developed, and groups from Japan were starting to flood in.
But in keeping with industry practice, Cronin was expected to work her way up. Accordingly, she started with the Park Royal Group as a room service waitress before doing stints in restaurants, reception and reservations over the next couple of years.
“It seemed quite strange to many of my class, who ended up going to Canberra to work in government roles. But a good hotelier needs to understand all the components of the business. That’s how you build a career. Even now I have to convince people it leads to managing multimillion-dollar operations which employ hundreds, if not thousands, of staff.”
To prepare for more senior management roles, Cronin took time out to complete a one-year MBA at Bond University, also in Queensland, by the age of 30. She had long set that as a personal milestone, as a firm believer that you have to decide what you want in life and make things happen. Another target was achieved with her appointment as resident director of a meetings and conference resort on the Gold Coast. It had 10,000 acres, a golf course, tennis courts and an equestrian centre, but the job also came with a few surprises.
“It was a huge learning curve, especially when I found it was about to go bankrupt,” she says. “But we opted for voluntary administration and worked our way out of it, with all employee benefits and entitlements protected.”
Her first overseas assignment, which had long been an objective, arrived in 2001 with a top marketing role for Hyatt International in Singapore. And while the move to Bangkok six years later to handle global rebranding for Dusit International was a natural progression, it also revived other ambitions.
“For me, getting a PhD had always been part of the plan,” Cronin says. “There seemed to be a crisis every year in Thailand, and I realised our industry needed better processes for managing them. So, I went back to Bond University to focus my ideas. I wanted to prove that if you prepare and empower people for a crisis, they will respond far more positively than if they are completely disoriented and don’t know what to do.”
The research took her back to Bangkok to conduct interviews and surveys with various hotel groups, and to confirm or disprove certain “myths”. As she approached the end of her doctorate, she felt ready in 2014 to move to the next level on the corporate ladder and take on a new range of challenges.
Right now, that includes opening a flagship Niccolo hotel in Hong Kong in mid-2017 in the Murray Building conservation project. Three further properties are currently under construction in central China. And there are talks about new locations in South Korea, Japan and gateway cities in Asia.
“We can see the economic power of this region and are taking a long-term view,” says Cronin, who regularly starts the day with a 5am gym session. “But this is a people business, so finding talent is always the key.”
Jennifer Cronin’s tips for making it in hospitality.
Do your homework “To stand out as an applicant, make sure to research the company, the people, and what the ‘hot buttons’ are. Know about market segmentation – for example, the difference between a conference and a leisure hotel – because that will help in understanding the questions put and what lies behind them.”
Learn to communicate “Being able to present yourself and your viewpoint well is crucial. For us, that is usually one of the first determining factors when someone comes in for an interview.”
Start small “Be prepared to participate in some form of internship and remember that, in a hotel, the best way to learn the business is by starting with some basic tasks.”
Stay flexible “These days, we’re all part of a global village which operates 24/7, so don’t think this will be a nine-to-five job.”
Go where the jobs are “At present, we are specifically looking to bring in more people in revenue management and others with experience running restaurants as standalone business units.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Ever ready.