Rosewood CEO Sonia Cheng on the Evolution of Luxury

Since Sonia Cheng became CEO of Rosewood Hotel Group in 2011 at the age of 30, she has reinvented the brand to attract the next generation of travelers, emphasizing luxury through a modern lens. Cheng’s knack for hospitality and real estate are part of her DNA. Indeed, Cheng’s father, Henry, and grandfather, Cheng Yu-tung, were heavy hitters in real estate development in China, and when they acquired Rosewood from its Texan owner 10 years ago, Cheng’s first goal was to take the brand international.

Today, Rosewood Hotel Group operates 40 hotels in 19 countries with an additional 31 in development. Properties in Rome, Hangzhou, Mexico City, San Francisco, Doha, and Vienna are in the works alongside Rosewood’s inaugural South American hotel. The long-awaited Rosewood São Paulo will open this year, with architect Jean Nouvel wrapping the façade in plants and Philippe Starck bringing his signature eclectic vision to the interiors. Here, Cheng talks about her family’s legacy and how luxury’s changing definition has shifted the brand’s focus.

Did you always have a love for hospitality?
In many ways, I grew up in the industry, as my father and grandfather brought many revolutionary hospitality developments to Hong Kong, including the original New World Centre, whose site now houses the Rosewood Hong Kong. I’ve been fortunate to learn from them throughout my life and to apply their teachings to my current role at Rosewood. It very much feels like I have come full circle.

Earliest hospitality memories?
I love traveling, and I grew up surrounded by hotels due to the nature of my family’s business. It has always been a part of my life and one of my greatest passions. The development of hotels and how they operate was a common topic of conversation around the dinner table when I was growing up. It is thrilling to now be the one bringing new and innovative hospitality experiences to the modern generation of travelers.

Designer Teresa Burgisser worked with the hotel’s owner Chiara Ferragamo on the interiors of the Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco located in an 800-year-old Tuscan estate on 4,000-plus acres

How has Rosewood evolved since you became CEO in 2011?
At that time, Rosewood had an excellent reputation among North American travelers, but the brand was not as well-known on a global scale. My goal was to make Rosewood one of the leading ultra-luxury hospitality brands in the world, and as part of this, we set our sights on an ambitious, strategic global expansion plan. It has not only been about growing our footprint. In an age of corporate uniformity, we are careful to manage each project with a custom and bespoke approach—something that requires an enormous amount of effort, but I believe it is critical to the success and differentiation of the Rosewood brand. From the area program to the design and the collateral, uniforms, and photography, no detail is overlooked. It’s these small touches that our guests notice and that distinguish the Rosewood brand in today’s age of sameness. Each property is designed with a residential nature to create a home away from home for travelers, complete with personal touches combined with the unmatched amenities of a luxury resort.

What was it like opening the Rosewood Hong Kong on the waterfront property your grandfather originally developed?
Hong Kong is a dynamic destination and a global hub for art, culture, technology, and innovation. It has been a dream of mine to launch a hotel of my own here and to do so at Victoria Dockside. This location, which I am deeply connected to and which ignited my love for hospitality, will forever be one of my most meaningful endeavors. I am incredibly proud of what we have built and how it embodies both my family and the brand’s legacy.

How does Rosewood’s A Sense of Place philosophy guide the brand?
Simply put, it means all aspects of our properties reflect the history, culture, and sensibilities of their destinations. Our unwavering commitment to these locally inspired experiences ensures that we are bringing a new and unique offering to our travelers, which has proven critical in setting us apart.

What is your relationship like with longtime collaborator tonychi studio?
Tony is a longtime friend, and I am honored to have been able to work with him and his team on several of our projects. We share many of the same core values and commitments—strong attention to detail, an affinity for locally inspired experiences, and a penchant for the unexpected—and have forged a great partnership over the years. Tony was instrumental in not only executing my vision for the Rosewood Hong Kong, but also helping to refine it. He expertly channeled the many things that make Hong Kong such an incredible city into the property’s aesthetic, creating a striking visual experience and new local landmark in the process. Another recent collaboration was the reimagination of the Carlyle across its guestrooms, suites, and restaurant. This project was especially important as the Carlyle is a timeless Upper East Side landmark, serving as a true cultural institution and a haven for both New Yorkers and visitors alike. We wanted to make sure we worked with a design team that knew how to protect this charm and update the property in a way that felt authentic to the hotel’s storied history.

Designer Teresa Burgisser worked with the hotel’s owner Chiara Ferragamo on the interiors of the Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco located in an 800-year-old Tuscan estate on 4,000-plus acres

How do you want to see the Rosewood brand evolve?
Our mission is to extend the ultimate luxury lifestyle experience. We are now expanding this business proposition beyond our hotels and delving into new areas. One of these projects is Carlyle & Co., a new breed of landmark private members’ clubs that we launched in Hong Kong last spring. It is rooted in the heritage of the Carlyle in New York, and we’ve replicated that property’s soul and DNA to create a club that fosters a strong, dynamic community and diverse group of individuals to meet and connect, as well as a very robust cultural calendar. We also opened a replica of the legendary Café Carlyle within this incredible venue in Hong Kong.

We’re also excited to be growing our branded residential business, Rosewood Residences. These serviced apartments, villas, and homes provide an added layer of privacy, seclusion, and security that travelers appreciate now more than ever, while at the same time extending the 5-Star services and amenities of an ultra-luxury resort. We’re excited to have announced our first standalone residential project, the Rosewood Residences Lido Key. Situated along one of the country’s most beautiful beaches off the coast of Sarasota, Florida, the 65-unit condominium will bring a new luxury-lifestyle experience to the area and the U.S. at large.

How has Rosewood responded to the shifting definition of luxury?
One of the biggest things we’ve noticed in the luxury sector is a shift away from opulence and pampering and toward authentic and meaningful experiences. It is no longer enough for a luxury hotel to offer a beautiful place to stay in any given destination. There is a desire from guests not just for meaningful moments, but actual transformation through travel. At its core, Rosewood’s mission is to facilitate transformative, intentional travel experiences that foster meaningful connections between our guests and the communities in which we operate. Now more than ever people are looking to build upon the relationships they have both with themselves and with others. Rosewood is committed to empowering them in that process.

The AvroKO-crafted Nan Bei restaurant in the Rosewood Bangkok boasts a custom light installation with a moongate screen surrounded by a blue lacquered ceiling

How does working with the right design partners help the Rosewood brand stand out?
We pride ourselves on our incredible attention to detail when it comes to design. Every part of the property tells a story, even the smallest decorative elements. From the fabrics we use to the art in the rooms and even the small artifacts that can be found in some public spaces, our properties are meticulously curated to not only make guests feel at home but also to immerse them in the destinations that they visit.

What is your favorite part of bringing a Rosewood hotel to life?
One of the most exciting pieces is deciding where we should plant our flag. We look for places that sit in dynamic and striking settings, have a distinctive culture and community, and facilitate an enriching experience for guests. We often look to destinations that may be a bit off the beaten path, [places] that are unexpected but alluring. This is evident when looking at the properties we have in the pipeline in both cosmopolitan global cities and remote resort locations, including São Paulo and Miyakojima, Japan.

Tell us something about you that people may not know.
Although I grew up in Hong Kong, I attended Harvard University in the U.S. This is something that’s helped shape my perspective. My time in America gave me a firsthand immersion into Western hospitality and culture. This experience, mixed with my many travels since and my upbringing, have lent themselves to providing me with a fresh perspective on the industry.

What are some of the lessons you learned from your family?
I’m very fortunate to have had both my father and grandfather as role models throughout my life. They taught me the value of hard work and dedication. I’ve seen firsthand how they build the vision behind their ventures and how this guides them in building a team. Their values of teamwork, loyalty, and collaboration have in turn guided me as I’ve grown the Rosewood brand. My father and grandfather have also taught me to invest in people and to practice humility. You can have the best design, the best advertising and marketing strategy, but without the people behind you, it is impossible have a successful brand.

Led by Philippe Starck, the Rosewood São Paulo features highly crafted interiors, including in the suites

This article originally appeared in HD’s November 2021 issue.

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Brand Identity: Rosewood Hotels & Resorts
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