Hotelier and restaurateur Yenn Wong was fresh out of college when she was handed the reigns of what became Hong Kong’s first “designer boutique hotel.” She opens up about the challenges she’s faced in the industry and how she helped redefine Hong Kong’s landscape.
When you opened JIA Hong Kong in 2004, what made you feel the city was ready for a boutique property?
Hong Kong is at the forefront in terms of trends and concepts in Asia. But at that time, on the hospitality side, it was still big hotels or the bad 3-4 star ones. There were no design or boutique hotels, yet there were already so many in the U.S. and Europe. We had the property situated in a buzzing local area and thought Hong Kong was ready for something edgier.
How has Hong Kong changed since then?
There are a lot more design/boutique hotels emerging since we first opened. They are doing very well, which has proven us right. At some point, I hope to develop something interesting again in an emerging area. Something that involves more “affordable luxury,” as I would call it.
How did you incorporate traditional and modern design when developing JIA properties?
We had limited resources. We made it a point to ensure that our staff understood the needs of our customers rather than overprovide services they may not require. We definitely paid a lot of attention to design but at the same time, it needs to be functional.
What are some key differences in opening and operating a cutting-edge hotel versus trendy restaurants?
Hotels are much more investment intensive but have asset value; restaurants are more cash-flow based but require a smaller investment, and the returns are faster if done well. Hotels also take a much longer time to plan than restaurants. With restaurants, the experience is more intense: I always say staff in restaurants are putting up a daily show as every minute of the customer’s experience counts.
What would be your advice to up-and-coming executives, especially young women?
Being in Hong Kong, people are generally not as sexist as perhaps some other places. I started when I was 25, and being inexperienced, young and female helped me a lot. Older, more experienced people were willing to teach me and share their experiences, as either they felt they could help me, or they felt I posed very little threat to them.
I never thought of myself as a woman. I learned to be humble and believed I could learn from every person. I need to learn new things every day because the day that I stop will be the day I will not progress anymore. In the competitive hospitality industry, that’s the end.
What lessons did you learn in your early experiences?
It was terribly challenging to get a team together as I had nothing to show. But I believe my passion and foresight did impress some who were interested in pioneering a brand and thought to take a risk with me. It was not all a bed of roses: I closed down a couple of concepts too but never thought of it as failure. Instead, I took every one of them as very precious learning experiences to aid my next projects.
What was the toughest criticism you received in your career?
Before I started JIA, many people thought I was not serious and would not succeed. Thankfully, that really motivated me to prove them wrong.
What do you hope your legacy will be regarding travel and hospitality in the Asia Pacific region?
I would like to be remembered as a girl who took risks to break the traditional way of hospitality.
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