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Next-Gen Hotelier: Sonia Cheng

CEO, Rosewood Hotels & Resorts

Since she joined the company in 2011, the young CEO of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts has turned a small U.S. luxury brand into a truly global one, with 19 properties and counting (the latest arrival: Washington, D.C. in April). But no matter where in the world her work takes her, Cheng, 34, finds time each day to connect with her family in Hong Kong. Read on to learn more about Cheng’s travel style, and then check out our AFAR Guide to Hong Kong for a list of her favorite hometown haunts.

Let’s play spin the globe—name the one place you’ve always wanted to go.
Machu Picchu. It’s one of the wonders of the world; it must be completely awe-inspiring. We’re opening up a Rosewood hotel in Sao Paulo in a couple of years and I’m hoping that on one of my business trips to South America I can make a detour.

What’s your spirit city? (Where do you want to return to over and over?)
I love visiting new cities and experiencing new things, but London is at the top of my list if I want to go back to a comfort zone. I find London very inspirational—it’s so dynamic, and there is always something new to discover.

Machu Picchu, Peru, is at the top of Cheng's travel bucket list.
Do you have a travel ritual?
I always have an iPad loaded with new movies for the plane!

Do you maintain any routines from home while traveling or does it all go out the window?
I am a fairly regimented person, so I maintain my daily routine for the most part when I am traveling. One thing that never changes is I how I start and end my day, which is by talking to my family.

You only get to eat one regional cuisine for the rest of your life. What is it?
Cantonese, absolutely. Of course, it’s what I grew up on so it’s my comfort food. But of all the Chinese regional cuisines, I find it the most flavorful and satisfying. And really, what can beat a great dim sum lunch?

What one piece of advice would you give to someone traveling abroad for the first time?
Throw caution into the wind and engage in activities you’ve never done before, and of course, explore the food. I believe food is the best window into a culture. As soon as I taste someone’s food, I feel like I’ve taken a step closer to understanding that culture and its history.

Describe your travel personality in three words.
I travel for culture, food, and a great hotel—I’m a sponge for all of them! 

Are your trips very planned, or very spontaneous?
I don’t plan at all—my husband does! One of his greatest pleasures is the planning and plotting that takes place leading up to the trip. He loves researching exhibitions, restaurants, and cultural happenings in the destination and planning out the itinerary meticulously in advance. Of course, there are always elements of spontaneity, especially when travelling with children, but I’m in the lucky position of just showing up and being guaranteed a great trip!

Cheng, a native of Hong Kong (pictured), says Cantonese is her ultmate comfort food.
What's the one travel souvenir you'd save in a fire?
My travel photos!

What book/movie most inspired you to travel?
It’s kind of mortifying, but I loved that movie “Blue Crush” when I was a teenager. I must have watched it ten times! It compelled me and my friends to go to Waikiki, in Honolulu. It was a fabulous time, and I learned how to surf to boot!

Who’s your ideal travel partner?
My husband, Paulo.

Which travel experience do you prefer: plugged in or unplugged?
Plugged in. When I’m traveling for work, it’s a no brainer. When I am traveling with my family, I like a combination of both, as it allows me to be fully present when we are together. I usually designate a time in the morning and evening to plug in and make sure things are taken care of for the day, so I don’t have business matters lingering in the back of my mind when I’m with my husband and kids.

What’s a custom from another culture that you’d love to implement in your life back home?
I love how Americans and Europeans can sometimes take their time at breakfast. Here in Hong Kong, we’re on hyper-drive and never have the time. Just this morning I ran out of the house without taking a bite. But the idea of spending time with your family over a full American breakfast, complete with orange juice (and corned beef hash! I love it even though it’s probably bad for you), or lingering over a coffee and a flaky croissant with the morning paper in Europe—I’d love it if we had that kind of tradition in Hong Kong.

What’s the first thing you seek out in a new place?
I always approach the hotel concierge to recommend the hottest new restaurants and those hole-in-the-wall places that serve up authentic local cuisine. I recommend making the concierge your new best friend: the good ones can tailor their recommendations to suit your particular tastes and degree of adventurousness.  

What’s the one thing you indulge in on a trip that you don’t at home?
I watch movies non-stop on the plane–that’s a real treat and it makes a change from having to watch so many children’s films at home! Otherwise, it’s shopping: going back to my favorite haunts, just strolling neighborhoods and exploring, checking out recommendations friends have given me. It’s fun “me” time.

What’s your first travel memory?
That must have been when I was eight or nine with my family in Paris. The first time I tried pan-fried foie gras, I became obsessed and insisted on having it at every meal. It’s a wonder I can still enjoy it now.

Paris is Cheng's first travel memory.