Opening up a New World of hospitality
Sonia Cheng is CEO of New World Hospitality, a hotel-management company with a global portfolio of properties that includes pentahotels, a “neighbourhood lifestyle” brand that offers a cool, tech-savvy, creative environment for independent travellers.
The brand has 15 hotels worldwide and plans to increase the total to 80 by 2020. The first pentahotel in Asia opened in Shanghai in 2008, followed by one in Beijing in March this year. Another will open in Kowloon in 2013.
Cheng graduated from Harvard University with a degree in applied mathematics and economics. She worked for several years in finance before joining the New World Group in 2008, where she helped set up its hotel-management business. She is also principal director of hotels for New World Development Company and executive director of New World China Land.
How did you become interested in the hotel industry?
I have always been interested in hotels. I grew up surrounded by hotels. I’ve always travelled a lot, and I liked going to new hotels and seeing how the different concepts, designs and brands worked.
My interest is more than just about hotels, though. It’s really about being able to establish a new vision for New World Hotels, which has been around in Asia and Hong Kong for a long time, and rejuvenating it, re-establishing its goals and taking it to the next level with New World Hospitality. It’s an opportunity that any entrepreneur would be eager to have.
What do you see as pentahotels’ competitive advantage?
I think it’s the concept of penta. It’s a fun, dynamic, energetic place. Its design and style is what’s really going to make it stand out.
Pentahotels has been very successful in Europe, and our goal is to expand it in Asia. We see that there are no similar brands out there that have that sense of freedom, fun, liveliness and energy like the penta brand, and it really fits with younger-spirited travellers. We’re targeting independent travellers, digital nomads who don’t like the fuss of a five-star luxury hotel, are much more appreciative of design and style and want to be in a place that relates to them.
What special ingredients do you bring to the hotel business that will help ensure pentahotels’ success?
Having a financial background and an applied maths major teaches you about logic. The hotel business is a complex business, it’s very operational-intensive. But like any other business, it’s about solving problems using logical sense.
Also, when I was in the finance industry, we looked at how different companies work–what works and what doesn’t work, how the management team is structured and what kind of leadership takes the company forward.
How would you describe your management style?
My management style is very open, transparent and democratic, because I’m surrounded by a really experienced management team. The key is to always listen to what other people’s opinions are and learn from them. That’s how you’re able to leverage other people’s expertise and drive a company forward.
Many hoteliers are concerned about finding and retaining good staff. How will pentahotels attract employees?
That is definitely a challenge in the hotel industry. It’s very competitive. I think the culture needs to be very strong while offering a sense of belonging and family within the company.
The training programme also has to be strong, innovative and forward-looking. It’s very important to build a career path for employees, but that path has to always be intriguing and interesting for them. These are the things that keep people inspired and excited.
How do you see the outlook for the hotel business in Hong Kong?
I’m pretty optimistic. Demand versus supply is very imbalanced. There’s significant demand but not enough supply. From statistics for the Asia region last year, Hong Kong and Singapore had the highest revPAR [revenue per available room] in Asia at 25 per cent. For the first quarter of this year, it’s already up 15 per cent in terms of rates and the volume of business.
What are your plans in China?
We are focusing strongly on China. The opportunities will be in the second- and third-tier cities where few brands have yet been able to penetrate. Given that our parent company has a significant presence in China, we have an advantage in penetrating these cities, and also knowledge and networking connections.
What leadership lessons can you share?
It took me about a year to get the management team together. It was not easy recruiting some of these really experienced individuals and hoteliers. One of the most interesting and rewarding things was really to build a culture from scratch, because everyone is from different companies and cultures.
I think the key thing to being a leader is having a very clear vision and being able to communicate that to the team members. You have to align their interests together and form a sort of family tie between all of us and a shared common goal. At the end of the day, it’s about dedication, passion and commitment. Even though everyone is from different cultures and international management companies, they all have the same passion and the same entrepreneurial spirit.