Sonia Cheng Spearheads A Fresh Approach to Hospitality

As Rosewood Hotel Group celebrates the opening of its newest hotel in Hong Kong, its young entrepreneurial CEO, Sonia Cheng, has begun to make waves. She was recently named one ofFortune’s” 40 Under 40 and “Fast Company’s” most creative people in business in 2018. In addition to her globally acclaimed success leading the expansion of the Rosewood Hotel Group — including 61 properties throughout the world and 28 more in the works — 36-year-old Cheng manages a multi-brand portfolio that is redefining the hospitality sector across different segments.

Sonia Cheng, CEO Rosewood Hotel Group

“Ever since I was young, I have enjoyed being challenged and never tried conventional routes. At Harvard, I majored in applied mathematics while my peers were majoring in economics. Solving problems gave me a sense of gratification,” says Cheng, who later went to work in investment banking in Hong Kong, China and New York, New York, USA. “These were foundation years for me. But after a few years, I got a little bored when the learning curve plateaued. Ultimately, I was always thinking of joining the family business and used these years to learn as much as possible.”

She found the right opportunity to join the family business in 2007 when her father wanted to set up a hotel management company. Since he had been one of the first developers of luxury hotels in Hong Kong and in China, she had first-hand knowledge of the hospitality business from an early age. “Since I was young, I was always fascinated by hotels and because this was a new company, it almost felt like a startup, an opportunity to create a new business within the family infrastructure,” says Cheng, who spent the next two years visiting hotels and learning the hotel management business.

A non-conventional approach to hospitality

In 2011, Cheng took over as CEO of the Rosewood Hotel Group after her family’s Hong Kong-based New World Development Corporation acquired the iconic U.S. brand. In a matter of a few years, she repositioned the brand, expanding into one of the most progressive and coveted global hotel brands, with 24 properties around the world and 17 more expected by 2020.

The growth was spurred by an innovative and non-conventional approach to luxury targeting young, affluent travelers. “I almost put myself as a customer and wanted to focus more on creating authentic customer experiences. Luxury for the Rosewood brand is about creating these unique, personal experiences, something more than what other traditional luxury hotels, focused on consistency, are offering,” says Cheng. “In the past, luxury was defined by things like chandeliers and champagne in rooms. But New Age travelers are different in their needs for personal experiences. With Rosewood, we try to focus more on creating these experiences. It’s about locality, insight and authenticity.”

In addition to driving Rosewood’s growth strategy, Cheng heads three brands with equally ambitious plans and creative approaches, including the more established five-star New World Hotels & Resorts brand serving business destinations in Asia and the pentahotels brand of more affordable neighborhood-lifestyle boutique hotels, primarily in Europe, but with a growing footprint in China and Asia. Leveraging the unique positioning and niche targets of the four different brands, Cheng is aiming to more than double the number of hotels under her management to 130 by 2020 from the 61 properties in 18 countries now, with 40 percent of growth expected to come from the Rosewood Hotels & Resorts brand.

The luxury hotel experience is now more about personal experiences, locality, insight and authenticity than chandeliers and champagne.

The latest brand, KHOS, launched in Asia in 2018, is positioned to disrupt conventional business hotel models, offering a different experience for business travellers and specifically designed for the fast-paced nature of today’s always-on economy. “KHOS will be a business-lifestyle hotel, with expansion plans in major cities around the world. We aim to create a community around the hotel, especially for digital natives, a gathering hub in these cities,“ says Cheng.

There’s no doubt that Cheng is just hitting her stride and that her drive for innovation in the hospitality industry will continue to loosen the collar on luxury travel.

Check out other YPO innovators named to “Fortune’s” 2018 40 Under 40


Rola Tassabehji is a writer and content marketing specialist with background in global brand management experience at Unilever and higher education at INSEAD. She is passionate about sharing stories of accomplished business leaders and has been interviewing chief executives and thought leaders from around the world for the past eight years.