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The Icon Collector by Steffi Kammerer | 2nd December, 2022 | Travel

The pandemic hit the industry hard, but the Chinese hotel group Rosewood is investing in its resurgence. CEO Sonia Cheng is pursuing an ambitious program aimed at doubling its current portfolio. In Europe alone, five new hotels will open their doors in the next five years – each one a unique establishment with a rich history.

A German not so familiar with Austria who has worked in Asia for nearly 20 years is tasked with establishing a hotel in Vienna’s premier location. It’s a challenge that would terrify most people. But having a boss like Sonia Cheng tends to boost your confidence.

For Alexander Lahmer, it’s the sixth hotel opening of his career. So he approached his latest task while still in Hong Kong with the aid of a large pile of books. He read everything he could about the Austrian capital. After arriving in Vienna, he took four months off to acclimatize to and explore his new home, particularly the more out-of-the-way places. That left twelve months in which to transform the neoclassical bank building next to St. Peter’s Church, a 19th-century landmark, into a top-class hotel. By August, the building work had finished and the Rosewood Vienna – the first Rosewood hotel in a German-speaking country – opened for business with 99 rooms and suites.

Here, Vienna and its rich history are celebrated everywhere you look, and not just in the selection of coffee-table art nouveau books provided for guests. The curtains and upholstery feature patterns from the Wiener Werkstätten; there is hand-painted porcelain from Augarten and cutlery from Wiener Silber Manufaktur. The centerpiece of the hotel is a salon with walls hand-painted by an Austrian artist: tropical plants redolent of the Palm House in Schönbrunn Palace gardens. It took 40 days to complete this elegant tribute to Austrian hospitality and flair.

Sonia Cheng calls this having a “sense of place.” Imbuing the hotels with the culture and history of their location is a guiding principle of her business. As CEO, Cheng is an ever-present figure and, despite Rosewood’s rapid growth, involved in every detail, even with matters such as selecting lamps on the other side of the world. WhatsApp makes their work much easier, says hotel director Lahmer. After ten years of working together, they have become a well-oiled team.

Vienna is Rosewood’s fifth hotel in Europe and the 30th addition to its portfolio. São Paulo – the group’s first hotel in South America – and Madrid were added shortly before Vienna. The Villa Magna in the Spanish capital is owned by another company but operated by Rosewood. And so, after the refurbishment, the hotel was opened in November 2021 and renamed Rosewood Villa Magna. The iconic Hôtel de Crillon in Par- is mirrored this strategy when, following a four-year renovation, it celebrated its rebirth as part of Rosewood. The Crillon is owned by a Saudi prince; Rosewood looks after the aesthetics and branding.

The Rosewood Group has its origins in Texas. The groundwork was laid by Caroline Hunt, once the richest woman in the U.S. Her first hotel was The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. Within two decades, the Group’s portfolio had grown to ten hotels. A major coup was the acquisition of the Carlyle Hotel in New York. Ten years later, in 2011, Rosewood was sold for $230 million to its current owners: the billionaire Cheng family from Hong Kong.

Sonia Cheng, a Harvard graduate whose grandfather founded a real estate empire, took over as CEO when she was just 30 years old. The fact that almost no one outside the U.S. was familiar with the brand at the time was the kind of challenge she relishes. She certainly wasted no time, supervising the two- year renovation of Rosewood London, which opened in October 2013 and shortly afterwards opening the Beijing, the group’s first hotel in Asia.

From the outset, it was Cheng’s ambition to internationalize the group and to update iconic buildings to make them more attractive to the younger generation. For people like her: cosmopolitans with a sense of adventure who want to be surprised. “When I started at Harvard, I didn’t just want to study business like everyone else,” she said in a TV documentary. Instead, she chose a more complex subject: applied mathematics. Her interest in the new and unusual is also a characteristic of her company: “I want us to be perceived as the most progressive and innovative of all the hotel groups,” she says.

Sonia Cheng is also a mother of four children. That makes her even more of a role model for many, an outlier in the hospitality industry in which men still dominate managerial positions. There aren’t many women running top hotels, let alone international hotel groups. She helps other women ascend the career ladder too. The Carlyle in New York, for example, has had a female managing director since April – the first in its 90-year history.

Cheng never attended hotel school. She didn’t have to: It’s in her blood. Her child- hood in Hong Kong was shaped by her family’s hotel business. Later, she went to board- ing school in Connecticut and started her career as an investment banker. Three years ago, she opened the first Rosewood in Hong Kong, her hometown. When Tatler magazine wanted to put her on the cover, she insisted on being photographed with her team.

Rosewood really picked up speed during the pandemic. There are now 24 new projects in the pipeline and the portfolio is set to double in the next few years. Doha will be the first Rosewood in the Middle East. The group’s ambitious expansion plans include the major European cities. “It’s not that we’re saying, let’s concentrate on Europe. These are individual projects that have been suggested to us at different times,” says Alexander Lahmer in Vienna. “They are all now being progressed at the same time. But yes, thinking about the next few years is very exciting.”

The building in Munich that’s currently a construction site is set to become the city’s most luxurious hotel and is expected to open at the end of 2023. Amsterdam, Rome, and a second hotel in London are also waiting in the wings. The renowned Bauer Hotel in Venice is undergoing the usual lavish renovation, with a reopening scheduled for 2025. Schloss Fuschl, a famous 15th-century landmark near Salzburg, joined the Rosewood Group a few months ago. Speaking in Hong Kong, Sonia Cheng remarked, “Redesigning and renovating historic buildings has become an integral part of our DNA. We are honored to be able to continue the success story of this unique property.”

IssueGG Magazine 1/23