Just like the legendary Italian explorers, Marco Polo and his father Niccolo, the Hong-Kong based Wharf Hotels – umbrella to the two hotel brands reminiscent of the ancient travellers – delves into new territories

Wharf Hotels is Hong Kong’s heritage hotel management company, an Asian corporation recognising diverse cultures that celebrates The Spirit of Discovery. Formerly known as Marco Polo Hotels Management Limited, Wharf Hotels is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Wharf (Holdings) Limited, operating luxury and premium brands Niccolo and Marco Polo Hotels across Asia.

Hong Kong-based Wharf Hotels pays homage to the legendary spirit of travel, exploring and sharing experiences as the embodiment of Niccolo and Marco Polo Hotels. Australian- born Dr Jennifer Cronin was appointed President of Wharf Hotels ( rstly Marco Polo Hotels) in 2016. We asked her what key changes have been implemented since she took the position.

For me the single most important priority is our people. Therefore, talent development and talent management took priority at the beginning, and through that, we have developed a number of programmes, changing the focus of where we are heading. We initiated the Red Ring Leadership Programme last year which has been developed purely for all our leadership associates. It has rolled out to about 500 of our people through the hotels in the Philippines, China and Hong Kong. It aims really to get them to think outside of the box and to empower them to take initiatives. If you are passionate about something and believe in it and want to make a positive difference, sometimes it is a case of making those decisions and asking for forgiveness later. But in Asia sometimes that kind of thinking is not prevalent, so we wanted to ensure that all of our people understood this. That has been a real mind- set change for the company as to taking us to the next level in our way of thinking.

Why Red Ring?

Of course, red in Asia is the colour of strength. It shows boldness; it is a vibrant colour. A ring, because we believe that all our strategies need to be 360°, that they should be seamless. Also, a circle means good fortune in Asia, so it’s a combination of factors. Further to that, we asked all of our people to make interpretations in their own way as well, and that has developed into something where it’s rolled out in so many other areas of what we do. All of our conference training programmes now encompass the red ring. So, it’s been a good symbol for our people to understand. From the red ring, we have created a sub-set of four key competencies. And from that, we then develop other initiatives.

Some of your terminology is changing in an important way. Can you explain this?

Indeed, hotel general managers grow up in many instances through the industry from entry-level, whether it be in nance, food and beverage, or a rooms background, and we have been calling them general managers; but now, internally, we have coined the phrase CBM: chief business managers. We want these people to think more like a CEO, to be more strategic in their thinking. It may look like just playing with words, but it is a constant reminder that as a chief business manager they are managing a multi-million-dollar business and have to think strategically.

You also changed the name of the company to Wharf Hotels…

Yes, that was last year. Our mother group, Wharf, is one of the leading conglomerates here in Hong Kong. It was established in 1886, meaning the name Wharf is a very reliable, strong performing company, and aligning ourselves with this legacy is very important when we are talking to prospective owners in the Asian region where we want to expand our group.

What would you say is your vision for the group going forward then?

We know that we can’t compete with the huge machines of some of those big international names, and what we want to create and to be known for is really that of being a strong and profitable regional group. We are not seeking flags in every destination just for the sake of it; we really want to partner with owners ensuring a pro table return on their assets, increasing the value of their asset. That is why we are not just taking on any location that might be available. With some of the larger groups, in some cities there might be 20 out of the same group competing against each other. Not naming  any names, but some owners are now starting to question how can they operate effectively if they are competing against each other within the same company. So that is why the Niccolo and Marco Polo hotel brands are becoming more attractive to the potential new builds, or if hoteliers are dissatisfied, they are looking to a group such as ours that can have a very direct and personalised access between the owner and our management group. They don’t have to go through layers of regional of offices to get to head of office. They can go direct to me and to any of our executive committee. So, we talk very much about being a “lean, mean fighting machine” and I think that’s paying off in our relationships with our owners which are extremely good.

What percentage of your hotels are owned and what percentage on managed?

This is what sets us apart from the other hotel groups. Of our current 16 hotels, we own eight, so therefore we take on management in the context of an owner, and we are very committed to the returns of the property, so that I think augurs very well for who we are as a management group and where we want to go in the future.

What is the roadmap for Niccolo and Marco Polo hotels? You have already said you’re not looking to become a global brand but what are you aiming to achieve going forward a few years?

We definitely want to be in gateway cities of Asia. Marco Polo was previously in Singapore and we are re-assessing various locations and potential opportunities there right now, as we are in Tokyo, so it is really just ensuring that within the Asian region in the short term we have covered all of our bases of bringing the brand to life in those cities.

How difficult is finding staff and training them? I noted that you were elected one of the best mentors in the business.

I work a lot with the schools of hospitality, particularly the Hong Kong Poly-U School of Hotel and Tourism Management, as the chairperson of their advisory board. I am also on the advisory board for Griffith University, and the advisory board for Bond University, so I interact with a lot of the future hoteliers and graduates and I see a great energy that comes out of them in thinking processes and creativity. We have to look at what the new career journey will be in the future and if we have a star, let’s make them an even brighter star, and put that star even higher in the sky, by working with them. So yes, talent is hard to secure now, but I don’t think we are the only industry. I think you’ll find that in many other industries as well, it’s not just the hotel sector.

How do you work with travel agents and how important are they to your business?

They are extremely important to our business, and making sure all technology is right and that they are able to connect directly into our systems for instant availability is a key priority for them, and for us, just like ensuring that we are part of a travel agent’s commission plan. This year, we have introduced an automated system which reflects the importance that we give to business from travel agents. So while OTA’s are an important part of everyone’s market and I don’t think we can ignore that, travel advisors are increasingly creating great travel experiences, and we need to incentivise them through the fact that we can pay them fast thanks to our new automated system.

What would you say are the three key points of differentiation that set Wharf Hotels apart?

Owner-manager-operator, therefore we understand and think like an owner. That’s important. Being a focused regional group means that we are able to have very tight strategies that can be nimble and change quickly. And I think the personalisation for our associates – that we can interact with them and they can interact with me at any level at any time, meaning personalised attention to all people. Those are the three I would pick out at the moment.


Photos: Dr Jennifer Cronin, President, Wharf Hotels.