Coming Up Roses
IN JUST SEVEN YEARS, Sonia Cheng HAS BECOME A POWER PLAYER IN THE GLOBAL HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY. SHE TELLS Melissa Twigg ABOUT JUGGLING BABIES AND BILLION-DOLLAR DEALS
Hotel magnate Sonia Cheng, this month’s cover star, on juggling babies and the Rosewood group’s billion-dollar deals
room with a view Top by 3.1 Phillip Lim; trousers by Emanuel Ungaro, available at Net-a-porter; ring and bracelet by AS29. Ingmar chair by Jonathan Adler
Shades of black Vest by Alexander Wang, available at Net- a- Porter; camisole Sonia’s own; trousers by Giambattista Valli, available at Net- aPorter; shoes by Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci; necklace and ring by David Yurman
It’s not because she’s the granddaughter of property and Chow Tai Fook tycoon Cheng Yu-tung, but because, as CEO, she’s driving a US$1 billion global expansion of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. At the youthful age of 33, Cheng is now one of the world’s most prominent hoteliers. Because of the nature of her business, she travels frequently and relishes returning home to her Repulse Bay haven—a large, sunny, ocean-view flat filled with a mixture of art and sculpture collected on her trips abroad, as well as the brightly coloured toys of her children, Avery (aged two), and Alexander (five months). “It’s not easy being a mother and holding down such a stressful job,” says Cheng, who tries to be out of the office by 7.30pm and devotes weekends to the family. “I constantly worry that I’m forgetting to do something, either for my company or my kids. But I have tried to let go of the guilt and devote myself entirely to the moment—whether I’m giving the children a bath or working on a proposal.” We meet for lunch at Duddell’s, the stylish Central arts hub opened last year by her husband, food and beverage entrepreneur Paulo Pong. Fashionably dressed in an Alice and Olivia shirt, leather trousers and vertiginous heels, Cheng arrives in a flurry, clutching her Blackberry and her iphone, plonking her grey leather Hermès handbag on the floor and beckoning to a waiter to bring a pot of her favourite Chinese tea. “I love coming here; it’s sort of like my second home. And it feels so good to sit down,” she says. “I’ve been rushed off my feet all day and the baby woke me up really early this morning.”
sonia cheng is not your typical heiress. in just a few years, the toughtalking harvard graduate has made the world’s luxury hotel chains and media sit up and take notice.
Today her focus is on one of the group’s three divisions, the ultra-luxury Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. It owns 18 hotels, including revered properties such as The Carlyle in New York and Hôtel de Crillon in Paris (due to reopen in 2015), and an aggressive expansion plan aims to double that by 2020. With her luxury hotel experience and financial savvy, Cheng is building a collection of properties aimed at the next generation of travellers.
Cheng launched Rosewood London last year to much acclaim from the notoriously critical British media. Aesthetically, it’s outstanding; from the Nicholas Oakwelldesigned staff uniforms to the interiors by Tony Chi, Rosewood has created a look that is unusual, bold and distinct without being slavishly fashionable or compromising on guest comfort. The atmosphere is more akin to a stylish friend’s apartment than a luxury hotel, and the bedrooms are chic and beautiful with original art on the walls.
“What makes Rosewood unique is that each hotel is unique,” says Cheng. “I think that when you travel, you want to get a feeling for the city you are in, rather than stay in a soulless hotel room that could be anywhere. Our central philosophy is about creating a sense of place. It’s our tagline and it’s important to us, because it shows how each hotel celebrates the culture, environment and people of the individual location. We apply this to everything, from the interior to the restaurants. We have never wanted to create typical Michelin-star dining experiences; we want restaurants that locals would come to, that are fun, atmospheric and capture the zeitgeist of the city.”
The handsome Holborn Dining Room and its nostalgic menu of traditional British dishes has certainly achieved that at the Rosewood London, as shown by the waiting list for a Friday-night table. Next door, Scarfes Bar, with its velvet chairs, roaring fire and shelves of first-edition books, has also proved a popular addition to the city’s nightlife.
From our wide-ranging conversation, it’s clear Cheng is hooked into the latest trends and understands the unique personalities of the world’s major capitals. So armed, she knows how to appeal to the discerning crowd in London, New York, Paris or Beijing. However, she’s modest about her remarkable success and credits her family—father Henry Cheng in particular—for her talents. She recalls the childhood conversations she and her brother Adrian Cheng, art entrepreneur and heir to Chow Tai Fook, had with the tycoon, who is chairman of the Rosewood Hotel Group. “He was always so encouraging and would work through all my ideas with me and gently point me in the right direction. When I was a girl, he told me to go out and get the best education I could—and then come back and join him in the family business. From a young age, it seemed inevitable I would do that.”
Cheng followed his advice to the letter. In 2008, with a mathematics degree from Harvard University, she joined the Rosewood Hotel Group (then known as New World Hospitality and chaired by her father). Three years later, aged just 29, she became its chief executive. Since then, she has been driving the brand’s expansion and transforming the group, which comprises Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, the more business-oriented New World Hotels with seven properties, and the boutique Pentahotels, a “design-led, neighbourhood lifestyle brand” with 25 properties.
“I’ve been so passionate and worked so hard because I love the hotel industry. It’s very dynamic. It’s not just a business. It’s about culture, marketing, design, finance, service and people. I can’t imagine doing any job except the one that I’ve got,” says Cheng. “People always ask how I could have cut my honeymoon short to come back to work, but it was a simple choice. I know my husband loves me and I don’t need a week on a beach to prove that—but I definitely don’t know the outcome of every deal I make.”
Cheng’s next major launch is the Rosewood Beijing, which opens this month. “I’m really excited about this property. It’s in a great location in the heart of Beijing, minutes away from the China World Tower and opposite the iconic CCTV headquarters. I believe it will do very well as there is a lack of ultra-luxury hotels in Beijing—at least, there’s nothing that’s offbeat and exciting but also very comfortable.
“I think sophisticated travellers are looking for something different these days. I’m hoping to create a space that brings the comfort of home. Beijing, let’s be honest, is a vibrant but daunting gateway city—there’s traffic, it’s fastpaced and it can be intimidating for the firsttime visitor. I wanted to make an urban oasis, a gathering place that everyone can enjoy. Our main restaurant will serve hotpot because we wanted to take authentic northern Beijing food and give it a luxury makeover. I’m hoping that it will also be very popular with locals.”
Cheng clearly has a good dose of wanderlust; before she had her first child, she travelled internationally multiple times a month. These days she picks her trips carefully, and her next holiday will be a romantic getaway to New York with her husband. “I can’t wait. I love that city—although I’m never really on holiday, because I usually stay at a Rosewood property, which means I’m constantly on the lookout.”
After the visit to New York, Cheng is travelling to Paris to meet with Karl Lagerfeld, who is personally designing two of the Crillon suites, and then she’ll be heading back to family life in Hong Kong. “My life is not as glamorous as it sounds, I promise,” she says, “but it is very happy, and I suppose that’s the most important thing of all.”
hat attack Far left: Jacket and sweater by Bally; rings by AS29 and David Yurman. Main image: Vest by Alexander Wang, available at Net- a- Porter; camisole Sonia’s own; hat by Chanel; bracelets, earrings and necklace by David Yurman