Kristina Snaith-Lense joined The Upper House over a decade ago. Today, as general manager of the hotel, she reveals why nurturing the next generation of talented women is her priority
With her coiffed bob, trademark scarlet lip and colour-blocked ensembles, Kristina Snaith-Lense is hard to miss. The general manager (GM) of The Upper House is a force to be reckoned with, and her career so far is testament to her drive and ambition in climbing the corporate ladder to claim a position seldom given to women in hospitality.
Snaith-Lense trained at the revered EHL Hospitality Business School in Switzerland before beginning a career that would bring her to The Upper House in 2012 as assistant director of guest experience. Over the last ten years, she has propelled the business forward, guiding the hotel’s event programme, food and drink experiences and sustainability commitments, and making The Upper House a must-stay among Tatler friends far and wide.
Here, she reflects on her role and responsibilities as one of Hong Kong hospitality’s most visible figures.
Describe what you do in one sentence.
I look after and create meaningful relationships with people: from spending time with our guests to leading our teams in their hospitality careers to aligning with strategic partners who put their trust in us.
How does your business make a difference?
We are in the business of making people happy through memorable experiences. [During Covid-19], we brought some much needed sunshine into the lives of our guests thanks to our guest experience team, comforting meals at The Continental and Salisterra, [workouts] at our wellness residencies and events.
Additionally, operating in an environmentally, socially and economically responsible manner remains at the forefront of not only Swire Hotels but of our parent company, Swire Properties. Our collective goal is to be the leading sustainable development performer in our industry globally by 2030. We work with Soap Cycling to collect lightly used bathroom amenities for redistribution to those in need whilst minimising landfill waste. At The Upper House, we’ve eliminated all single-use plastic from in-room consumable items.
We’re also a founding collective member of Belu Hong Kong, a UK-based social enterprise, which has led to the installation of a water filtration system in Salisterra [to reduce waste]. In Pacific Place Apartments, we are teaming up with PAKT Smart Wardrobe to offer wardrobe management services to residents, enabling them to store and digitise their clothing and sell clothes that they no longer love.
What are the top three ingredients for a successful business?
Steve Jobs said it well: “Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.” This is paramount, especially within hospitality. Once you find good people, you must take care of them, and grow and nurture them. Secondly, foster a culture that creates room for error. Error is the best catalyst for growth and learning. Lastly, think differently. This is the foundation of our hotel group. We embrace creativity and challenge each other to be more agile and innovative.
Do you have any mentors? If so, who are they and what advice have they given you?
My late grandfather and my parents are my greatest life guides. They instilled in me and my brothers a strong work ethic and sense of humility from a young age. They have always supported us to dream big and taught us to pick ourselves up amid stumbling blocks.
My mentors who lead our hotel group are Dean Winter, our managing director, and Toby Smith, our deputy chairman, and they have been phenomenal role models in championing work-life balance. Dean was my GM when joining The Upper House more than a decade ago, and reminds me that, despite my perfectionist tendencies, it is OK to make mistakes and how important it is to cultivate strong relationships with our teams, prioritise time spent with them, and be a good listener in order to build a foundation of mutual trust and support.
What qualities do you look for in a potential employee?
Empathy and somebody who has a caring soul. Someone who genuinely desires human connection, can hold eye contact, has a warm smile from the heart, and feels confident enough to be themselves.
What has been your biggest career obstacle to date? How did you overcome it?
With closed borders and a 100 per cent local clientele [during the pandemic], we have had to be even more imaginative and resourceful. Being as hands-on as possible has remained paramount. Our senior leadership team and I rotate between different operational departments every day to support where needed, from making up rooms to clearing tables or assisting with check-ins.
It’s been a great period for us to experiment and engage our guests more through community-driven activities whilst supporting homegrown brands. We launched a series of homegrown F&B pop-ups, including Family Food, Matchali, Cookie Department, Teakha, Mother Pearl, Between Coffee and Awa Awa, curated quarterly House Markets, and have an ongoing partnership with the Lifelong Animal Protection charity to host puppy adoption days in our garden.
I have a passion for health and wellness, and we enhanced our programme, including collaborating with Lindsay Jang to launch Family Form, a dynamic and immersive conditioning workout; hosting yoga classes with GOOD Yoga; designing digital experiences for guests to enjoy fitness videos in-room; and offering oracle and tarot readings by Stone & Star.
Why do you think there are still so few female CEOs and general managers in hospitality?
Typically, the role of a general manager is a heavily operational one with hours that neither necessarily appeal to everyone, regardless of gender, nor facilitate enjoying family life. In Hong Kong, the basic maternity and paternity leave are minimal compared to other countries, which may be another factor to consider. Traditionally, hotel GMs live on property—again, a lifestyle that may not be feasible for those with children.
Why is nurturing the next generation of female talent important?
The landscape of female GMs in Hong Kong has greatly changed over the last decade. When I first joined Swire Hotels, I saw Rainy Chan, former GM of The Peninsula Hong Kong, at the helm of one of the most iconic hotels in the world, and this presented an inspiring role model as a female leader in the industry. Now, more than ten years later, there are more than a handful of female GMs, which is progress that paves the way for further change. Succession planning and mentorship need to be prioritised for our future female leaders. It is great to see that most companies are now heavily investing resources towards diversity and inclusion—Swire Group included.
What is one surprising thing about you that most people don’t know?
I have an enormous fear of elevators and will always take the stairs when possible. [However], I work on the 49th floor of The Upper House. That is just a few too many stairs.