Led by President Jennifer Cronin, Hong Kong-based Wharf Hotels uses the travel spirit of Marco Polo to build a portfolio of owned and managed hotels focused on the Pacific regions.
HONG KONG—Jennifer Cronin, president of Hong Kong-based Wharf Hotels, knows very well that the consolidation trend sweeping the global hotel industry is a blessing and a curse for companies like hers.
Formerly called Marco Polo Hotels, the 16-hotel Wharf Hotels portfolio has seen opportunities and challenges created by the flurry of consolidation over the past few years, Cronin said during an interview held at last month’s Hotel Investment Conference Asia Pacific.
“With all the mergers and acquisitions, there are a lot of owners who don’t want to be lost amongst the plethora of a larger group of names,” Cronin said. “They know, and we work very closely with them, that they deal directly with me or any of our vice presidents, and this is where we can give them the support that they expect and require.
“The greatest opportunity is for those mergers and acquisitions to keep growing … it gives us a unique selling opportunity,” Cronin said. “And for our people, whilst we may not have career opportunities globally, we have tend to move our people between our hotels on a regular basis.”
On the other hand, it can be a threat to smaller companies because the firepower it creates on the distribution landscape, Cronin said. Therefore, companies such as Wharf must combat sheer numbers with impeccable results for owners.
“We are a regional player that is both an owner and manager, so we manage and think like an owner,” she said. “From a B2B point of view, we understand what an owner is looking for.”
Wharf Hotels changed its name from Marco Polo Hotels in 2017 to better reflect its relationship with parent company Wharf Holdings and to accurately position its brand lineup after it launched its Niccolo brand. Although explorer Marco Polo is better known, it was his father, Niccolò Polo, who made the first trips to Asia from Europe.
“Niccolo is the luxury brand and really couldn’t be sitting under (the) Marco Polo (brand),” Cronin said. “We don’t want to have a plethora of brands—we have two very distinct brands. Our Marco Polo owners are very happy with the brand extension of Niccolo … that halo effect of a luxury brand that’s already picking up so many accolades.”
The Murray Hong Kong, a Niccolo Hotel, has paved the way for the brand since it opened nearly a year ago, the president said. In addition, the Niccolo Chengdu in China is outpacing its competitive set with a 150 revenue generation index in 2018.
Niccolo hotels don’t have club lounges because everybody in the hotel already is a VIP, Cronin said.
The 13 Marco Polo Hotels—three are located in Hong Kong, three are located in the Philippines and seven are located in China—are upper-upscale business-oriented hotels, she said.
“What is great about that is no one else can own the Marco Polo spirit,” Cronin said, adding that the Marco Polo story is a great homage to entrepreneurship and travel.
“That’s why we did the brand extension—the whole story of that entrepreneurial travel spirit is something we can maximize, and we do,” she added. “We as business hotels represent enabling that traveler to do their business and their work or their leisure activities. We can to that in all the right places.”
The company plans to have five Niccolo-branded hotels open by 2020, Cronin said.
“Over the next five years if we reach 25 hotels in Asian gateway cities, including where we already are, we would be feeling quite happy with that,” she said.
The company will not grow through franchising because it doesn’t want to lose control of its brands, she said.
Cronin’s background fits need
Cronin has a lengthy sales-and-marketing background and earned her Ph.D. in crisis management from Australia’s Bond University.
The step up to president in 2016 was a natural extension of her career, she said.
“It’s not a leap because I have certainly been part of the industry since I left university in the first place,” she said. “I have had roles as hotel general manager, opening general manager … I took another hotel through what you would call chapter 11 in the United States—it’s called voluntary administration in Australia. So my learning curve was already shooting up when it came to an operational point of view.
“Really, in the hotel success stories, a lot of it is about having the marketing expertise, of understanding who and what your guests are and what they’re looking for to be able to deliver that,” she said.
But it was an attraction to crisis management that has taken her career to the next level. She said a two-prong approach is essential for her leadership style—empowering people to be ready for a crisis and to provide learning opportunities for employees every step of the way.
“The opportunities are huge for them to grow, and if they have the right capacity, the right knowledge, they can basically be anybody they want to be,” Cronin said. “Being able to show that post-graduate learning can contribute back into our industry … we are then seen as being both business and being academically capable.”
Cronin said she has worked for great mentors who have prepared her from crisis management situations, and she wants to pass on the learnings.
Employees tend to be terrified by a crisis—whether it’s a natural disaster or a human-induced situation—and need training to be able to keep things calm. Hotel leadership during a crisis is often in the “war room” working out what to do instead of being front-and-center for employees and guests, she said
Simple things to empower employees include arming them with basic information to be able to clearly and quickly assess a situation. For example, after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, many employees fear for their lives whenever an earthquake hits. Having the employees download an app that explains the tsunami warning system is an easy way to help allay their fears, she said. Another easy tool is to assign a specific location for employees to meet when a crisis occurs and the GM is front and center.
“People talk about a crisis communications plan … it needs to be lived and breathed,” she said. “Sure, you articulate it and document it, but at every opportunity, every touch point, it has to be energized so it becomes second nature.”
Cronin said she believes technology is an enabler to create efficiencies, but should never be looked at as a replacement for the human touch.
“It’s that passion of service and the people that really shine through,” she said. “Our people need to understand the differences and the nuances of those people that say, ‘Don’t take my bag, I just want to go to the room.’ We all have those, but generally speaking I still think the great thing about our hotel industry is that this is where people are meeting, they’re talking, they’re sharing experiences.
“I hope we’re not going to the Jetsons future totally … technology is still very important and we’re looking at every opportunity to be able to create efficiencies where ever we can,” she added.