People On The MoveWhat's driving Jennifer Cronin's decision to leave Wharf Hotels and Hong Kong to return to Australia?

Even as travel comes back, the Great Resignation rages on

Covid’s not only taking its toll on chief executives, but on employees from all walks of life.
Covid’s not only taking its toll on chief executives, but on employees from all walks of life. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Aleutie

It felt almost like the old days. I had just returned from a trip to Siem Reap and I was on my way to have drinks with Jennifer Cronin, president of Wharf Hotels Group, who had flown into Singapore from Australia, enroute to Hong Kong, and Singapore actor Hossan Leong, who was catching a flight that night to Sydney to catch the Mardi Gras weekend.

The familiar criss-crossing of friendships in the night that we in travel were so used to pre-2020 – 'Oh, you’re in town? Let’s catch up' or 'Oh, I know someone else who’s in town, let’s grab them.'

Except this was no ordinary day. Cronin had just announced her resignation, effective April 30, from a position she’s held for six years and an organisation she’s been with for eight years in total, and leaving behind a career in hospitality she’s pursued almost her entire working life.

In many ways, it was a decision that was almost expected and perhaps will come to be accepted as part of the Great Resignation wave that’s sweeping the travel industry.

Covid has taken a toll on everyone, particularly chief executives who’ve had to keep organisations together and spirits high, even when your own may be flagging, and people are asking questions they never had time for. “Is this all there is to life?”, “What else could I be doing?”, “Is there something more meaningful I can do?”

From Siem Reap to London to Hong Kong and Singapore, I sense many executives, of all ranks, are asking these questions. In Siem Reap, I met a chief executive who told me he’s thinking of selling his business so he can pursue a quieter life, building a house in a village, so he and his wife can spend more time together “learning to do nothing”.

In Cronin’s case, she’s spent the past two years fighting the pandemic, keeping the group together, and keeping morale high, while living in a city that today is facing its most challenging Covid test with record daily infections and a mounting death toll. Its borders remain closed while others in the region have opened up, leading many to question its future in the post-pandemic age.

This report in February quotes a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce which shows that 44% of members were thinking of leaving Hong Kong due to the territory’s strict pandemic rules. Of the companies surveyed, 26% said they were considering relocation.

WIT founder and editor Yeoh Siew Hoon catching up with Hossan Leong and Jennifer Cronin at Andaz Singapore
WIT founder and editor Yeoh Siew Hoon catching up with Hossan Leong and Jennifer Cronin at Andaz Singapore

Cronin, who flew in from her hometown of Gold Coast, Queensland, where she’s spent the past couple of months on a break as well as working remotely, is spending the required “wash out” period of 14 days in Singapore before returning to Hong Kong where she will spend time in quarantine before returning to office end of March to serve her notice and pack up her life in Hong Kong to return to Australia.

She had spent the entire day on Zoom calls, speaking to owners, colleagues and partners, before the word got out and you could tell it’s been an emotional, harrowing experience. This is a huge decision for a professional hotelier who’s spent more than 20 years working in Asia, and spending unfettered energy the last six strengthening the foundation of the former Marco Polo Hotels and introducing the new brand, Niccolo Hotels.

In the press statement, Cronin says she believes the timing is right for a seamless transition – her successor is Thomas Saig, currently vice president, operations. “Together with an inspiring group of hoteliers across our group, we have punched above our weight and built an organisation by adopting best practices that are the envy of larger international hotel groups,” she said.

“At the heart of the organisation are our dynamic, hard working and passionate leaders who have prepared their hotels for the post pandemic travel environment, and will most certainly be ahead of the curve. I could not be more proud of their efforts especially over the past two years and I am confident that the longterm future is bright for travel and tourism.”

Personally, she told me, “I am torn between two loves.”

As hard as the decision has been, Cronin is looking forward to returning to Queensland where she and her husband have built a new home, and she will take time out before contemplating her next move, her Second Summit, as it were.

For the hospitality industry in Asia, Cronin’s departure is a big loss. She’s been a constant champion of Hong Kong through the pandemic, played a central role in the first days of the pandemic when her hotel in Wuhan, the Marco Polo, became the command centre and is an active member of the Global Hotel Alliance Discovery network.

Covid’s not only taking its toll on chief executives, but on employees from all walks of life. The World Travel & Tourism Council estimated that 62 million travel jobs were lost in 2020, representing a drop of 18.5% with only two million of those jobs recovered last year.

In Siem Reap, I met a tour guide to whom I was his first client in two years. After having survived on zero income for two years he says he’s seen the abyss and is no longer afraid to face the future, even if it means giving up his job to do something else.

In Singapore, the staff who are left in hospitality are burnt out. With Covid infections at an all-time high, colleagues are catching Covid that the joke now is, who hasn’t got it? The anxiety of isolation, of infecting elderly family members, is adding to the work challenge and hoteliers in the city are grappling with a monumental labour shortage, even as travel begins to pick up.

It is clear travel companies will have to really up their game to attract and retain employees at all levels at this time – to make it worthwhile for talented people to join and stay and be part of what will hopefully be The Great Recovery and Renewal to come.

Source: WIT

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