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Today, freedom of travel is the new luxury


Carina Chorengel, Senior Vice President Commercial Asia-Pacific for Hyatt sweated it out in a hotel kitchen washing dishes for one pivotal summer before deciding this was exactly what she wanted in life. “You need empathy in this business,” she says.

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June 2021

SEE ALSO Franz Donhauser | Novi Samodro | Choo Leng Goh | Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes | Anchalika Kijkanakorn | Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale | Hans Jenni | Iwan Dietschi | Peter Caprez | Louis Sailer | Richard Greaves

Interview with Carina Chorengel, Senior Vice President Commercial Asia-Pacific for Hyatt

Carina Chorengel is elegantly poised and self-assured with a quiet intelligence and a sense of style, carried off with casual elan, her face barelycontaining that incandescent smile/ photos: Vijay Verghese

Dressed in a simple white v-neck blouse set off by a bright purple jacket that tapers around the hips over black skinny jeans that reveal a flash of violet high heels, Carina Chorengel is poised, glowing, tanned, and self-assured. She radiates a strong, quiet intelligence and her steady gaze – through the trademark Cleopatra-style kohl eyeliner – is direct, open, tough, questioning, yet also empathetic. Beneath that immaculate fashion, is a driven, hard working no-nonsense professional with vision, energy, and a broad, beaming smile that erupts from time to time, entirely without guile. We are at the all-black-marble Grand Hyatt Hong Kong where Carina started her career in 1989 as a corporate trainee for the hotel’s launch. That was when we first met. She is clearly at ease in this world, having literally spent her entire life in hotels. This time we link up at the aromatic TIFFIN, with daylight flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling glass, for a breezy chat over a curry buffet. Once she gets talking, with such passion, intensity and flavour, it is riveting. Her body language is at once direct and emphatic - switching at times to disarmingly apologetic, to put someone at ease. It is an endearing trait. But she is no pushover. It seems rude to interrupt for a morsel. But she has to dash for a call soon so we scurry across to the chicken masala. Chorengel, Senior Vice President Commercial Asia-Pacific for Hyatt talked with Smart Travel Asia Editor Vijay Verghese on a bright summer afternoon in June about life, Covid and mentoring.

Smart Travel Asia: You came from a highly privileged hotel family [her hugely popular father Bernd Chorengel retired as Hyatt International’s President in 2007]. How did this influence you?

CARINA CHORENGEL: I was living around the world in hotels… Hong Kong, Singapore… I was fortunate enough to finish high school early at 16 and told my mother and father I was interested in hotels.

What did your father have to say about this?

CC: It was in the early ’80s. Dad sent me off to the Hyatt Regency Singapore and said, “Work in the kitchen, wash dishes over summer and see what you think.” I worked with a very talented executive chef, Josef Budde [eyes shine at the recollection], and decided that yes, I really wanted to be in this business. It was exciting. Things were always changing. I was not the kind to do spreadsheets in an office.

You studied hoteliering did you not?

CC: I was fortunate to get into the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and graduated in 1989 with a BSc at 20! I later discovered that David Udell, my boss for many years, also graduated at 20 [grins shyly]. Then I arrived in Hong Kong in 1989 as a corporate trainee to open the Grand Hyatt here. [This signature hotel opened in November 1989, setting the pace for the brand].

Are you the same person now as back then?

CC: My values, instilled in me by my parents, humility and respect, are constant. But I’m more empathetic now and able to put myself in other people’s shoes.

You were several years younger than other graduates. Was age an issue with your early graduation? Were you nervous at all?

CC: No [looks philosophically into the middle distance and scrunches up her face], age is a state of mind. I think I was pretty mature.

Were there any passions prior to hotels?

CC: I wanted to be a vet [face creases into a big smile as she laughs aloud]. But blood makes me squeamish. Psychology interested me [leans forward intently] and this is something that ties in to people. At hotels we deal with people. I didn’t pursue this as a degree but I took some courses as it interested me and I read lots of books. I’m interested in what makes people tick. I still love reading, even on the Internet nowadays.

I can see that. Do people in hotels today think the same way?

CC: [Thoughtful for a moment] We’re on a stage… on show. Hotels attract people who like dealing with people. Of course, now areas like tech and finance are taking people away. We didn’t have Instagram and Facebook and the Internet back then.

What does luxury mean to you?

CC: Luxury is really about… well... health is the new wealth. And freedom [gestures expansively with her hands]. If that means climbing Mt Everest or running some multinational company or hanging out at the beach, well, to each his or her own [she stresses the ‘her’]. This pandemic has allowed me time to reflect and I would like the freedom to travel. Freedom of travel is the new luxury.

When travel returns, where to first?

CC: I want to see my family so I suppose that means USA and Australia but that may not happen anytime soon. So top of my bucket list would be Japan.

As a woman, how did you manage your work-life balance?

CC: We’re fortunate in Asia to have help at home. I put my career on hold for eight years when my kids were young [while at Grand Hyatt Hong Kong] but continued to work on projects. I never had any preconceptions about what I should be doing at any particular age… you know, like some people. They would like to achieve various things by set ages. I never planned and am thankful to David Udell who kept encouraging me. My kids were getting older so one day I took the plunge.

How did that work out?

CC: I told David I may need time off for my kids from time to time and he said, okay. And, I thought, if I have this privilege, my team should have the same flexibility. “Fine,” he said. We had BlackBerry phones back then and we worked it out [smiles].

How have women impacted on hotel business, once viewed as a strictly male preserve?

CC: In earlier days lots of GMs came from F&B [food and beverage] and rooms. Now they come from marketing, HR, and finance. As a result more women have started to ‘lean in’ and the small part I play is to be a good example. Women bring more empathy and a gentler, slower approach. [A member of Women@Hyatt, she is a tireless campaigner for women's development and growth at various levels in the organisation]

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, is the lobby-cruising GM dead?

CC: The general manager is the face of the place and very important. GMs are the soul… [the eyes flash as if to underline the intesity she feels] they influence the culture. Walking around and being seen is important. It is interesting that our meetings clients usually ask to see the GM. It gives them a sense of comfort and confidence. Of course we’re talking here about our [Hyatt] luxury brands. Some other brands are very do-it-yourself. We’re different. Our customers are different. For us, human connection is very important [the locked-on gaze says it all].

With Covid and the room situation are hotels cutting services for good?

CC: We’re in the luxury sector that now attracts more leisure guests who expect more and we strive to understand their needs. Earlier we had a 50/50 split [business/leisure] in Asia but now leisure is higher. In China, all meetings are face to face. This hasn’t gone online. We’re observing things carefully to see what the future holds. It’s about learning and staying agile.

After Covid will it be the big brands that survive or smaller boutique independents? Last year you opened 18 Hyatts. Will this continue?

CC: Yes, last year we opened 18 Hyatts [in Asia]. This year we expect to go up to 29. From the customers' point of view, they want bigger luxury brands that give them an assurance of safety. At a local level, since travellers can’t go to Paris, they choose a 5-star hotel.

So travellers are willing to move up the price scale?

CC: We’re getting a greater share because guests want pampering and good F&B. The ‘staycationer’ wants everything in-house unlike the business traveller who dropped off the bags and raced off to work.

Will staycations become the norm?

CC: This depends on the culture. In Japan staycations are always popular. In Hong Kong this is not the norm where destinations close by like Taiwan are available for weekend visits. In places like Japan where this holiday pattern is part of the culture it will continue. Otherwise, once travel bubbles arrive, more people will travel out for leisure [rather than business]. We’re seeing this in China already. At first people were hesitant and picked drive-to destinations. Now they’re all travelling by plane [gestures with the hands].

Will the travel breakdown by country change after Covid?

CC: This depends on government regulations and will be based on the level of vaccinations and other controls, like quarantines and so on. These will dictate where travel comes from.

With the push to outsource public relations to large companies usually based outside Asia, is the hotel PR dead?

CC: [Eyebrows arched the eyes flick open wide] Not at all. In our luxury lifestyle space, it is the opposite. PR is very important in our brand space. Theoretically many of our hotels rely on B to C so, if anything it [public relations] becomes more important, at least for Hyatt. And the Internet has pushed this forward making it easier to communicate. Of course we call it marketing communications, of which PR is a big part.

Will you continue to work with bloggers and celebrities post-Covid?

CC: They will continue to be important for say the family and leisure market. We have to find good people who can get our message across.

How do you find the good people?

CC: [Throws back her head and laughs full-throatedly] That is why I have a team. I think Facebook and Instagram have individuals on their platforms who are very important influencers.

Has blogger blackmail ever been a problem?

CC: Thank God no! [chuckles]

Does technology enhance the guest experience or is it a hindrance sometimes?

CC: Well, Covid has accelerated digital transformation for many companies, not only hotels. For some it’s an enhancer, for others, a hindrance. I believe it’s about knowing your guests and giving them the choice. It all comes back to empathy, listening to needs and acting accordingly.

When you travel for personal reasons or with the family, say, do you prefer five-star hotels or do you opt for smaller boutique hotels or independents?

CC: It depends on who I am with and the purpose and expectations of the trip. There are times when I enjoy the five-star hotels, for example with a larger, extended family group. There are other times when I’m happy to explore smaller boutiques.

Hotels are clearly in your blood but, years later after hotels, what next?

CC: I would really like to mentor and support people. Not sure how [smiles and shrugs]. But getting older I really enjoy mentoring young people.

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