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The Brave Ones

This Hong Kong CEO from a billionaire family is reinventing hotels for millennials

Sonia Cheng, chief executive of Rosewood Hotel Group
Rosewood Hotel Group

When Sonia Cheng became chief executive of Hong Kong-based Rosewood Hotel Group, she had a particular type of traveler in mind: herself.

Cheng was 30 at the time when one of her family's businesses, New World Hospitality Group, bought Rosewood from its Texan owner for $229.5 million in 2011, and appointed her CEO. She wanted to turn it into a brand that would appeal to affluent younger consumers. Having grown up in her family's hotel business — the Chengs are worth an estimated $22.5 billion, according to Forbes — she had traveled a lot and started her career as an investment banker in New York and Hong Kong.

"When I look at Rosewood, I see myself as a target customer. So, that makes it quite easy to kind of craft the experiences, because I would be looking at the lens of the millennial travelers," she told CNBC's "The Brave Ones. "

When Rosewood took over management of the historic Hotel de Crillon in Paris in 2013, it spent four years renovating it, turning its Michelin-starred Les Ambassadeurs restaurant into a bar. At Rosewood Beijing, Cheng opened a Chinese hot pot restaurant, giving a traditional dish a high-end twist, aiming to "draw the crowd to the destination," she said.

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Now 38, Cheng has four children, and wanted to rethink how kids' clubs worked at hotels. At Rosewood Phuket, for example, there is a children's herb garden and a Thai weaving station.

"It is … a brand that the next generation of travelers are looking for, a much more bespoke brand, a brand about experiences, about discoveries," Cheng said.

"I always believe(d) that, you know, resorts should be just for couples ... And then when I had my children … I noticed how the next generation of travelers and people like myself, young families, they travel less as couples … I realize(d) that I want my children to have an educational experience when they are in the resort."

Cheng is the granddaughter of the late Cheng Yu-tung, a Hong Kong property tycoon who died in 2016 with a net worth of $14.5 billion, according to Forbes. The Cheng family's business interests span from real estate to infrastructure, and its Chow Tai Fook jewelry group is the world's ninth-largest luxury goods company, according to Deloitte, with sales of $7.6 billion in 2017.

Rosewood owns or operates 27 hotels, including the Carlyle in New York, and it is working on a further 21 properties.

Sonia Cheng, chief executive of Rosewood Hotel Group
Rosewood Hotel Group