AI and robots could soon help predict what customers want, says CEO of Rosewood Hotels

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Sonia Cheng, CEO of Rosewood Hotel Group, says the future of work will involve personalized guest experiences thanks to advances in technology

(Washington Post illustration; Rosewood Hotel Group)

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Imagine this: you’ve been head down at work for several weeks when suddenly you hear a ping. You’ve received an email suggesting you’re late for a vacation, and you’re presented with a list of resorts in the cities you want to visit.

So you book a trip. When you arrive at your hotel, the staff know your name. They know you want an ocean view and extra towels, and you’ll probably need a 9 a.m. wake up call. They are aware that you need a gluten free menu for room service and you will want a Late departure. And you had nothing to say.

This is the kind of personalization that Sonia Cheng, Managing Director of Rosewood Hotel Group, envisions for the future of the hospitality industry using data analytics. It’s one of the technology projects she leads at the Hong Kong-based private international hotel chain, which operates more than 45 hotels in 16 countries, including London, Paris, Beijing, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.

But that’s not all on Cheng’s plate. After the pandemic wreaked havoc on the hospitality and travel industry, Cheng said his company was struggling to attract talent during a tough labor shortage. Additionally, Cheng said the pandemic has changed the way people work and travel, which means adapting and changing direction quickly. His advice to leaders? Learn to make quick decisions and work as a team.

Cheng shared his vision for the future of work and the hospitality industry. His answers have been edited for clarity.

Q: What is the current labor policy for Rosewood employees?

A: Our managers manage their teams. There is no set rule on how many days a week people should be in the office. If you really need to work from home, work from home. It is really appreciated by our associates. It is also something that allows our company to be attractive to external talent. We also remain flexible in how we recruit and place talent around the world.

Sonia Cheng, CEO of Rosewood Hotel Group, said there were no rules limiting the number of days associates at their luxury hotels can work from home. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: What changes can hospitality workers expect in a post-pandemic world?

A: We are looking to eliminate some of the tedious tasks through robotics or machine learning to make work more flexible. We are exploring how automation and technology for the back office can simplify processes for our employees. However, in the hospitality industry, we are still a people business. It is therefore necessary to find a balance between high tech and high touch. Ultimately, I think customers want to build that relationship with our associates, and that’s something technology can’t replace.

Q: What lessons from the pandemic will you use going forward?

A: We need to stay flexible and agile. The pandemic happened very quickly and we reacted very quickly. We immediately implemented contactless check-in, hybrid meetings and [new processes for] how we work in different geographies and understand customer needs. For example, in many cities, [people started taking] stays. We were the first hotel brand to launch staycations in Hong Kong and transform Rosewood Hong Kong into an urban resort.

Q: How have travel trends changed?

A: With business travel, due to the pandemic, customers are more willing to stay longer in [one place] so that they can communicate with their colleagues. And with all the technology designed for online collaboration, you can work on the go. Thus, their vacations also tend to be longer as they schedule business meetings with their vacation time. Clients also travel with larger groups and families.

Sonia Cheng, CEO of Rosewood Hotel Group, says the luxury hotel chain tries to meet specific guest desires using online behaviors and data sources. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: What new trends have you seen from what customers want?

A: Customers are more focused on their well-being. And they focus on how we can provide exclusivity. Some of these trends will remain post-pandemic. We launched our new wellness brand, Aspire, to fit wellness. And we’ve accelerated our plans to offer wellness classes online. At Rosewood Residences (the company’s apartment rental brand), we offer individual villas and exclusive accommodations. During the pandemic, everyone’s behavior online has increased. So we are looking at different e-commerce projects. Rosewood would be more than just a hotel brand. It would be a luxury lifestyle brand where we would offer different curated products.

Q: Has the pandemic changed expansion plans?

A: The business has been quite resilient. In 2021, we had the highest number of signings we have had at Rosewood Hotel Group. And just recently, we announced new projects that will join our portfolio, including in Raleigh, Miami and Venice. Next year we are on track to open Rosewood Amsterdam, Rosewood Munich, Kona Village in Hawaii as well as Rosewood Doha [in Qatar]. The rate of opening was therefore not called into question.

Q: What has changed for customers and what is planned for the future?

A: After the pandemic, it is very important that we recognize the names of our customers and can anticipate their needs. We are therefore also building a centralized system called Data Lake House where we can anticipate needs based on customer profiles and personalize their journey.

Q: What are Rosewood’s top technology priorities?

A: The Data Lake House is a big project that I believe will transform the way we develop travel for our customers. We can analyze data and travel patterns to anticipate future Rosewood locations that would be suitable for our customers. [It should capture] your preferences during your stay, and [identify if] there is a template on what kind of rooms you like to book.

Q: How have you connected a more dispersed workforce?

A: The Insider app connects our associates around the world. We share company news and associates can post their photos, things they find interesting or stories or articles they find inspiring so that they can build community and have a sense of culture, especially during the pandemic.

Q: How does Rosewood view emerging technologies such as the Metaverse?

A: NFTs and the metaverse — every company is watching this space, including us. It is too early to tell. If we do anything, it has to be something unique, differentiating and right for the brand. We need time to investigate.

What you need to know about the future of work in the metaverse

Q: What do workers expect from you as an employer?

A: They become quite selective in terms of the companies they choose. It is very important for them to join a company that has a strong commitment to positive impact and truly empowers its associates. We are committed to ensuring strong diversity and supporting different groups. Today’s talent really values ​​organizations that have a strong sense of purpose. And they want to join a company that’s not only doing well, but really doing good for the community.

Sonia Cheng, CEO of Rosewood Hotel Group, said there were no rules limiting the number of days associates at their luxury hotels can work from home. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

A: The talent shortage is a challenge that everyone faces. Being an attractive and performance-oriented company for workers is important. So, in addition to providing technology to facilitate work, it is important that we provide a solid career path. We built the Rosewood Academy where we nurture top talent and provide them with courses and programs.

Q: What should workers and guests expect from Rosewood in the future?

A: Five years from now you will see an organization that has a very strong sense of purpose. With technology, we should be able to personalize our customers’ experience. We have around 30 hotels in the pipeline, so in five years you’ll see our portfolio more than double.

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