Trade Talk: Dr. Jennifer Cronin of Wharf Hotels

A Q&A with the company’s President, who speaks about her ideas on crisis management leadership, the work of Hong Kong’s Heritage Tourism Brands, and an upcoming Niccolo hotel opening in Suzhou.

All photos courtesy of Wharf Hotels

The current Covid-19 crisis has turned life for all of us upside down. In your 35 years in the hotel industry, have there been any events with a comparable global impact on the travel and hospitality sectors?

Similar to how the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed the travel industry’s security requirements, Covid-19 has changed our biosecurity protocols for the better and we will travel safer in the future.  However, we never imagined the social and economic impact as we are now experiencing, which has forced us to recalibrate our operations, as well as our products and services in preparation for new global travel expectations.


You hold a PhD in crisis management leadership from Bond University in Gold Coast, Australia. Can you pinpoint certain ideas from your studies that have helped you steer Wharf Hotels through the pandemic?

Do not lose the institutional memory of these events today, use the lessons we have learnt for the future and we will have better and stronger organizations for the next generation of leaders.

Our global village has become even more connected and crisis events today impact a wider group of communities, across regions, borders, and continents. These events now cover a broad spectrum of political, environmental, technological and health issues from both man-made and natural perspectives. These events can quickly gather an uncontrollable momentum on a global platform of communication interconnectivity (Hajkowicz, Cook & Boughen, 2013). There has never been a greater need to provide insights and theoretical updates in the field of crisis management in order to prepare society, organizations, and individuals with the tools to deal with a crisis event in the most effective way possible.

I wrote the above paragraphs as part of my crisis leadership doctoral studies published in the book edited by Brent Ritchie and Kom Campiranon, Tourism Crisis and Disaster Management in the Asia-Pacific, in 2014. These words have never been truer than they are today. The title of my contributing chapter was “How does crisis leadership influence effective crisis readiness?” and upon reflection, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to better understand crisis preparedness and its impact on an organization.

We are seeing today that leadership actions at the time of a crisis event can contribute to eliminate or mitigate a crisis by being proactive; these crisis events can be better managed if leaders have the ability to think the unthinkable. Although managers may have the ability to think critically, the challenge is whether leaders have the conviction, ability, and foresight to engage in crisis planning when faced with the demands of their daily business operations.

The pool at Marco Polo Parkside, Beijing.

We also see that a leader’s past experience with a crisis positively influences the organization’s levels of confidence and trust in the leader’s decision-making process during the crisis.  Establishing an ongoing communication and training program that is “lived and breathed” must become a natural progression. An informed organization will be able to meet the crisis event head-on with the knowledge and confidence that their crisis leadership capabilities will reduce negative outcomes and ensure sustained business continuity.

Crisis leadership efficacy is accelerated when institutional memory is formalized; it is vital to document the lessons learnt. My study concluded that A Living Manual be initiated to address any gaps or complacencies. Utilizing one’s crisis experience knowledge base will also benefit the organization with a tool kit to ensure sustained business continuity for the long term. This crisis will pass and we will return to a new normal, but we should not forget the lessons we have learnt and the importance of a Living Manual.


The bedroom of a 75-square-meter Explorer Suite at The Murray, Hong Kong, a Niccolo Hotel.

How has the company supported its staff members during this difficult time?

In these very uncertain and fluid times of Covid-19, at Wharf Hotels the key priority is business sustainability and to protect jobs and create a sustainable long-term business future. We have focused on employee retention, including redeployment, internal projects, learning and development, as well as CSR initiatives to support the local community. Internally, we have had to ensure that our communications remain frequent, transparent and two-way, to ensure peace of mind with both mental wellbeing and physical health. We introduced daily health declarations immediately when learning of an outbreak, back in January, and these continue to be completed twice daily by all staff including regular temperature checks and complementary use of sanitizer.


Front-row views of Victoria Harbour can be enjoyed from the Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel.

You also serve as Chair of the Heritage Tourism Brands group, which brings together eight Hong Kong heritage brands like Wharf Hotels and Cathay Pacific. How do you plan to promote the city as a destination once borders reopen?

The collaboration of Hong Kong’s heritage brands was initially to channel our efforts into rebuilding confidence in Hong Kong, and portraying this confident message both locally and internationally. This spirit of collaboration continues through the power of one voice in working with government entities and the Hong Kong Tourism Board, as well as identifying partnerships with credit card companies and the like.

Since the formation of Heritage Tourism Brands (HTB), we have launched a special video named Hong Kong – Our Home, showcasing the incredible natural beauty of the city and the sheer diversity of experiences travelers can find here.

The HTB also collaborated with Brand Hong Kong to share insights and tips from the city’s top hotel restaurants and chefs in a two-part video series launched last month. The first installment featured The Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental, Holiday Inn Golden Mile, and The Upper House, while the second video features Island Shangri-La; Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel; The Murray, Hong Kong, a Niccolo Hotel; and The Langham.

Finally, the HTB collaborated with HSBC Visa Signature to launch exclusive staycation offers to local Hong Kong residents as part of a year-end campaign. HSBC Visa Signature cardholders could enjoy a HK$600 discount upon purchasing a designated staycation package from one of over 10 HTB hotels.


A Superior Room at Gateway Hotel, Hong Kong.

How has the response been with any past or ongoing campaigns looking to promote Hong Kong Heritage Hotels?

Our collaboration with HSBC reflected very positive results for us all, indicating that locals are willing to spend on restaurant experiences and staycations, identifying that these have become one of the most important strategies to drive revenues this year for our businesses. We see indications of staycations continuing to take the lead with occupancy rates increasing.


In your view, which countries or regions should be prioritized for “travel bubbles” to allow the fastest possible recovery of the Hong Kong hospitality sector?

Our current and medium-term focus is on our own backyard of the Asia Pacific (ASPAC) short-haul markets as travel restrictions cautiously start being lifted and plans for air travel bubbles begin forming. A significant proportion of our business pre-Covid-19 originated from the mainland and ASPAC, paving the way for us to maximize travel potential and opportunities from these markets. Also the Covid management success rates in these countries will make it much more logical for Hong Kong to relate to based on like-minded travel management protocols, unlike many long-haul markets.


The high-ceilinged lobby at Niccolo Chengdu.

Wharf Hotels has nine properties in Mainland China, the first market to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. How are occupancy rates and demand for rooms at the moment? Are hotel-based events also making a comeback?

Our Niccolo and Marco Polo Hotels in mainland China have shown a strong resurgence in business and leisure travel, events, groups, and food & beverage, and there is an eagerness and determination to return to travel safely and conduct business meetings again. We see indications of domestic travel taking the lead with occupancy rates increasing daily for certain mainland China cities, and business enquiries for the coming months from all segments.


Niccolo Suzhou is slated to open sometime next year. What details can you share about the upcoming property at this stage?

We are excited about the opening of our fifth Niccolo Hotel in our group’s luxury collection, affectionately referred to as the city’s “Beacon of the Future.” Crowning the top floors of Suzhou International Financial Square (IFC), the city’s tallest skyscraper, Niccolo Suzhou is located in Jiangsu Province’s prestigious Suzhou Industrial Park. The hotel’s surrounding locale is embellished with tree-lined boulevards and willow trees along its picturesque canals and Jinji Lake.

Opening in Q2 2021, the sky-high hotel Niccolo Suzhou features 233 spacious, chic, and elegant guestrooms including 20 suites. Guests will be welcomed to the world of Niccolo by its City Insiders at the hotel’s lobby 115 floors above the ground, promising spectacular views as the city’s iconic landmark sky hotel. Bringing together contemporary chic, gastronomy, and breathtaking views, the hotel will offer a variety of unique, sky-high destination dining experiences that are sure to delight the cosmopolitan palates of today’s global travelers as well as the city’s well-heeled locals.


Niccolo Suzhou will occupy the uppermost floors of Suzhou IFC, the tallest tower in this photo.

There’s been talk of Wharf Hotels potentially expanding its operations to Japan. Are those plans still going through? And what other projects are in the pipeline around the Asia-Pacific region?

We continue to explore new property opportunities for both Niccolo Hotels and Marco Polo Hotels that are in the right address and established destinations, which match both owner and brand visions to grow our portfolio within and beyond Asia’s borders.


Finally, as someone born and raised in Australia, do you hope to one day bring the Marco Polo or Niccolo brand to your home state of Queensland?

We have already explored some opportunities in Australia and it would be a dream come true to bring either Marco Polo or Niccolo Hotels Down Under. However, we are pursuing a number of great opportunities closer to our home base in the foreseeable future, but never say never!

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