Hotelier rises to the top

International Business

Hotel openings, cybersecurity and architectural blueprints are a few of the daily items on the agenda for Dr Jennifer Cronin, president of Wharf Hotels.

Not afraid to get her hands dirty, Dr Cronin’s 35 years industry experience and intimate knowledge of hotel operations from her early career, help her to navigate the dynamic and complex nature of decision-making in her position.

“The hotel industry is not just room service, waitresses and housekeepers, it’s a multimillion-dollar business driven by research and strategy,” she said.

For Dr Cronin, one of the many perks of operating in China’s booming 24/7 hotel sector is the fast-pace and diversity, which has taken her to almost every corner of the globe.

“One project I’m very excited about, is the possibility of putting two of our hotels in Osaka and Tokyo,” she said.

Dr Cronin’s affinity with Japan stems from a Rotary high school exchange program she went on in the ‘70s.

The experience immersed the then 17-year-old in a new culture and language – very different from her own upbringing on a Beenleigh pig farm.

It also fostered a desire to pursue a career in Asia and to find a university degree that would facilitate her aspirations.

“Australians were not doing Asian languages in a big way then,” she said.

“Griffith’s School of Modern Asian Studies was the cutting-edge learning institute for Japanese language at the time.

“Nathan was also a beautiful campus surrounded by trees and offered the ideal course and program.

“Never would I have dreamt my university studies would have taken me to the level I am now.”

Completing a Bachelor of Asian and International Studies in 1980, Dr Cronin took a room service position at the Park Royal in Brisbane.

While many other graduates in her cohort opted for government jobs in Canberra, Dr Cronin had a taste for travel and decided being a hotel room service waitress was a good first step.

“I wanted a career that would allow me to see the world, it has proven to be correct,” she said.

Working her way through the business, Dr Cronin learnt all she could about hotel operations before becoming a sales manager at Conrad Jupiters Hotel and Casino on the Gold Coast.

“In the mid-80s the Gold Coast was going through a tourism boom, it was a very dynamic period for international tourism growth and an exciting time to be at ground level,” she said.

Realising she would need a business degree to move into senior management, Dr Cronin studied a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Bond University. The hard work paid off, and in 1995 Dr Cronin was appointed general manager of the Kooralbyn Hotel Resort.

“It was an unusual appointment because I was only 35 and it was uncommon in the industry at that time to appoint female executives,” she said.

In 2001, Dr Cronin moved to Singapore and held executive roles at the Grand Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton.

She saw first-hand the impact global events had on the hotel sector when Singapore’s hotel business experienced a slump after the September 11 attacks in the United States.

“Business dried up overnight,” she said.

“I realised we had to become more strategic in the Asia Pacific hotel sector.”

Dr Cronin’s time at Dusit International between 2007-11 reinforced this point with the political upheaval in Thailand impacting business at the hotel.

These events led her to complete a PhD on hotel crisis management.

At Wharf Hotels, Dr Cronin puts her background and knowledge to good use and hopes to one day do the same in Australia.

“We’re in a very dynamic period in China’s growth and the whole of Asia, I strongly believe the power of economic gravity has moved much closer to this part of world,” she said.

Dr Cronin said Griffith University laid the foundations of her career.

“It was very formative in setting my expectations of what life would be beyond the academic world,” she said.

“It gave me a background in language and economics, and was a bridge between my cultural understanding of Japan and long-term goal to work in Asia.”

Another passion for Dr Cronin is to cultivate young talent, something she has done in her many leadership positions.

“I really enjoy developing and mentoring the younger generation of hoteliers and business people and seeing them succeed,” she said.

Dr Cronin takes an active interest at Griffith, where she sits on business advisory boards and has also taught entrepreneurship at the University.

She is particularly proud of an internship exchange program she established at Wharf Hotels for students from her former Beenleigh high school.

“I always advise young people starting out in their careers to be prepared to get their hands dirty and learn every aspect of the business they can,” she said.

“It will gives them a much better grounding as a leader to understand the challenges and better support their colleagues which will, more often than not, gain their trust and respect.”

Her achievements were recently recognised when she received the APacCHRIE (Asia Pacific Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education) Lifetime Achievement Award.

Presented to Dr Cronin on 24 May 2019, the award recognises distinguished individuals with outstanding contributions to the hospitality and tourism industry and education in the Asia Pacific region. She is the first woman and non-Asia Pacific national to receive this prestigious award.

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