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Jennifer Cronin navigated the Hong Kong riots - then Wuhan called

Dr Jennifer Cronin standing in a red suit in a conference room

When COVID-19 broke out in Asia, the General Manager of Wharf Hotels’ Wuhan operation gave up his seat on an evacuation flight to Malaysia to be with his staff. Jennifer Cronin (Class of 1989) wishes she could have traded places with him. 

Dr Cronin is President of Wharf Hotels, which operates 17 hotels across China, Hong Kong and the Philippines. Based in Hong Kong, she graduated from Bond with her MBA in 1990, returning in 2011 to complete her PhD in crisis management leadership in 2014. It is a qualification that has proven more than useful as she steers her company through the latest global health crisis. 

As COVID-19 spread, no industry was more heavily hit than tourism and hospitality. Flights emptied, hotels became ghost towns and restaurant bookings were cancelled as the full scale of the crisis became apparent.

Led by Dr Cronin, Wharf Hotels responded quickly, mothballing one of their four Hong Kong hotels and bringing forward a major renovation, while prioritising staff retention through redeployment, internal projects and corporate social responsibility initiatives. 

Six months on, Dr Cronin is quick to reiterate that Hong Kong remains the financial capital of Asia and business is still being done – but she is also acutely aware of the gravity of the situation. 

“We are taking a much longer-term view. It’s going to be a while before we get back to the business levels of the past, so we have to recalibrate. 

“Business levels will not return this year and when we’re starting to plan for 21/22, it’s not a V-shaped or U-shaped recovery, it’s really a very skewed L-shaped recovery.

“It’s very much like 9/11. We all learnt to deal with the fact we had to go to airports and go through the security check. I feel COVID-19 will have a similar impact on the way we travel in the future.” 

Wharf Hotels’ resilience had already been tested, even before COVID-19. 

"I think crisis leadership now is about being much more empathetic than in the past."

Hong Kong was gripped by political unrest last year when millions protested a proposed government bill allowing extradition from the city to China.

If that was not enough, Dr Cronin said when COVID-19 hit, many of her staff were still affected by memories of the SARS outbreak almost 20 years ago. “They have the knowledge of what they went through during SARS, so that heightens the anxiety and fearfulness of what could happen.” 

Dr Cronin’s staff are always at the forefront of her crisis response thinking. 

“I think crisis leadership now is about being much more empathetic than in the past. It’s really about taking into consideration not only the economic impacts but if you don’t have your human capital on your side and working with you, it would become an even more exacerbated crisis. 

“Our general manager cohort has been truly inspirational in the leadership practices and made many wise and insightful decisions.”

For Dr Cronin, that sort of empathetic leadership is exemplified by the actions of Lee Weng Wai, General Manager of Marco Polo Wuhan, who gave up seats for him and his wife on an evacuation flight to Malaysia to instead stay in Wuhan and lead his staff. 

The hotel was subsequently commandeered by the government and Mr Lee and his wife entered lockdown through to mid-April. While lockdown has since lifted, travel restrictions have ensured the pair remain in Wuhan.

 “I wish I could change places with him,” Dr Cronin says.

Dr Jennifer Cronin standing in a black suit, smiling

"Resilience is also being a Bondy and I think we should celebrate that as well."

 But before looking after their staff, any leader needs to prioritise their own resilience and for Dr Cronin, that begins as soon as the alarm goes off at 4.45am.

She is in the gym by 5am, but as well as keeping physically active, her mental approach is also critical. 

“I have a very positive nature anyway. It’s got to be in your DNA, being able to see that there’s going to be light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Dr Cronin maintains strong links with Bond University. There is a network of Bondies in Hong Kong, which in the recent trying times has worked to ensure everyone is safe and well. 

“There’s still that amazing Bond spirit we all have. And I guess I go back to resilience. As a Bondy in the first graduating class, Bond itself was in precarious situations over the years. 

“Resilience is also being a Bondy and I think we should celebrate that as well.”