Over coffee with Jennifer Cronin

Wharf Hotel’s president talks about what to expect from their newest brand campaign, and shares what approach she is taking to ensure both brands – Niccolo and Marco Polo – reach loftier heights.

Jennifer Cronin

Tell us something about Wharf Hotels’ new brand campaign and what it means to the long-established Marco Polo Hotels brand?
No other group can own that prestigious name. It is a wonderful legacy since Marco Polo was an entrepreneur, business traveller and global merchant, whose image fits into China’s current Belt and Road Initiatives.

The new campaign started last year, but advertising just began this year. We then devised the ‘Explore, Discover, Experience’ tagline that reflects who Marco Polo was. We are communicating that we are embedded in the local community, and that this community offers rich and colourful experiences.

Jennifer Cronin

As for business events, when guests come to town it’s not just because of a hotel but for the destination. So a component of local experience must be provided, and that’s where our hotels devise various local experiences that are unique to their destination.

For example, our three hotels in Hong Kong offer walking tours to different parts of town, such as the Flower Market in Prince Edward, and herbal Chinese tea medicine outlets in Mongkok.

How will the new brand campaign support Marco Polos’ overall strategy and goals for business events and corporate business?
In most cases, the brand already has a very strong reputation for hosting events and meetings. For example, our Shenzhen property – which has 36 meeting rooms and is in the financial district – refurbished a number of floors and meeting spaces last year.

We have also done the same with our Beijing property, making sure we are reinvesting in the product, i.e. technology. We are well aware that you can’t start a hotel in this era without ensuring that the technology is first class.

Also, (there are) constant sustainability efforts, (such as) explaining why all bottles of water and drinking straws are gone from meeting rooms. We also have a new F&B head who is focusing on (another aspect of) sustainability – where our food comes from and its carbon footprint.

How does your hotels fit into the needs of event planners and corporate travel managers?
Niccolo Hotels is aimed at the luxury market, and we have seen luxury car launches in Chengdu, and, in Hong Kong, at The Murray, a Niccolo Hotel. Those are the type of events we can own as a brand. Our Niccolos in China all have ballrooms which cars can drive into.

Apart from the Chongqing International Finance Square mixed development, we can display new limos inside, providing a launch site for carmakers’ latest vehicles. Besides (holding events for) fashion brands and banking/financial products, Niccolo hotels aims to establish close rapport with business leaders, and create a seamless experience where everything works. It’s very hard to wow global travellers with flatscreen TVs today; (hence) that’s where the experience and services must be second to none.

How successful was the launch of Niccolo Hotels?
We are delighted at the impact each new hotel had in each market we bought into. Chengdu was the first from a marketshare point of view. The brand soon became the epicentre of big local events. The Chongqing property has already exceeded our expectations from a budget point of view and the events held there. These properties do a lot of well-attended car launches, real estate promos and fashion events. For the Murray in Hong Kong, we are still in soft-opening mode but are already making a great impression.

What are the challenges and opportunities in the foreseeable future?
One challenge is to make sure the digital space provides maximum information and easy access because the meeting organisers now must do all research on their desktops. We’ve invested in the Beijing property, for example, so that all photography can be easily accessed.

The other main challenge for us would be a new look regarding the workspace. Big national companies have changed the way they divide up their office space by putting in lots of open-plan space offices, plus hot desking and meeting rooms. But is this the pattern for every business?

Nevertheless, Hong Kong is moving in this new direction. That’s why when we do new hotel design, we now provide less breakout space.

What’s the game plan and how would you like to see Wharf Hotels grow in next decade?
We are now looking at gateway cities in Asia, specifically Japan and South-east Asia. Because we are a business-oriented hotel group, we are not looking to expand into resorts at this point in time.

It’s possible to have two brands in a city, and we hope to do that in cities of China we haven’t gone into, i.e. Shanghai. Also, we see an opportunity in Beijing for a Niccolo as we’ve got Marco Polo there already. Also, with the economy of Manila showing firm growth we’d love to be part of the inevitable expansion there. But there is definitely no plan for third new brand at the moment.

Wharf’s expansion in the next five to 10 years will always be driven by quality, not quantity. We are not about wanting to put flags in locations for the sake of it, but real hotels we can take pride in for their consistency, service and products.

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