Kristina Snaith-Lense is the General Manager at The Upper House, she shares her journey from being inspired to go into hospitality by her late grandfather, her pivotal time studying at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, and formative jobs with Mandarin Oriental, Ritz Carlton, and Grand Hyatt. After studying and working in Europe, Kristina returned to Hong Kong where she grew up and found her "home" with Swire Hotels and is now running the 117-room, Upper House designed by the celebrated André Fu. Here's herstory.
1. You graduated from the famous Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne; how did your time there prepare you for your General Manager role?
EHL was honestly one of the best experiences of my life. I feel so grateful for my time there and for all of the incredible people that I met, both students and teachers. School taught us the true values of hospitality: autonomous thinking, respect, empathy, and caring for others.
What is so unique about EHL is the exposure to an enormous variety of cultures due to the hugely international student base and the vast network this provides you after you graduate. In HK we have an alumni network of over 250 that meet on a monthly basis.
The course I did in hotel and restaurant management was split 50:50 between theory and practical, which was a great balance. We were taught by inspirational professors who were extremely passionate about their subject matter, making the level of teaching so superior. The large proportion of group project management and real-life simulation exercises of setting up our own businesses, really developed strategic thinking and problem solving which, of course, have greatly benefitted me.
2. You’ve been at the Upper House and with Swire for almost nine years. We’d like to know more about how you rose through the ranks to be running the show.
I have been privileged enough to have worked with some of the best brands in the world including Mandarin Oriental, Ritz Carlton, and Grand Hyatt, all within the front-of-house operations. My earlier hotel life experiences included working as a bellman and door lady for these prestigious luxury properties. None have felt like home as much as Swire Hotels where I have now been for the past 10 years.
Since I was young, I have wanted to be a hotel GM and I have been extremely fortunate to have had some amazing mentors along the way. Brian Williams, our Senior Advisor, and Dean Winter, our current MD of Swire Hotels, continue to be my greatest role models, quintessential hoteliers through and through who lead with heart and push boundaries in our industry by thinking differently.
3. What was your first experience with working at a hotel and how did this influence your career?
I attribute my love of hotels to my late grandfather who fostered a deep love of service culture in me. I started in the industry at the age of 16 doing summer hotel internships and part-time catering stints...it’s been true love ever since! As the patriarch of our family, my grandfather, together with my parents, instilled in us a strong work ethic and a sense of humility from a young age.
4. When did you first set your sights on becoming a General Manager? Did you plan your path to a tee, or did it happen organically?
From my teenage years, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I am a very goal-oriented person, so this was very much at the forefront of my mind. I was lucky enough to have found my path quite organically with the guidance of some great leaders and mentors, but it was not without its challenging moments along the way. My support system, which is comprised mainly of my home family and my work family (our team of the last 10 years), has played such a pivotal role in leading me in achieving this. It also speaks volumes of the people philosophy of Swire Hotels as a company, which lives by its core values of development and promotion from within.
5. Looking back, what were the pivotal moments in your career?
Working for Hotel Arts when I was 21 in Barcelona (a Ritz Carlton property) was a phenomenal life experience. I was a trainee in Guest Relations and just loved every moment of preparing and executing all of the special touches for a guest’s stay. And I loved my boss, Nuria Louzao, who was the Guest Relations Manager at the time - she provided such a formative experience into the importance of looking after and training your people.
Next up was the real start of my career at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental. Again, this was stand out because of 2 very special people who really invested in my development: this was Roberto Marchetto, our then Rooms Director, and Zeynep Incekara, our Hotel Manager at the time.
Meeting Marcel Thoma and Dean Winter at The Upper House, for the first time, was a turning point for me, it showed me how to think differently and pushed me (with some tough love from Marcel!) to want to grow as a hotelier within Swire Hotels, the culture of which was and is so incredibly unique to any other brand I have worked with.
Second to navigating through the waters of COVID, moving to Shanghai to open The Middle House with Michael Faulkner, General Manager, has been my most challenging yet rewarding journey to date. It was a very steep learning curve professionally and culturally, definitely gave me a much thicker skin!
6. How do you reach the next rung on the ladder? Keep going!
7. There are definitely some interesting things happening at The Upper House at the moment including the new restaurant Salisterra and the Andre Fu Suite and The Continental. How involved were you in these projects?
In my role, I love that every day is different. I have the pleasure of having an incredibly diverse schedule daily, being heavily involved with operations, strategy, as well as sales, marketing, and communications. I derive my energy creatively and being amongst people. I do crave out solo office time too, to process and stay abreast of admin tasks.
Crowning the top floor of our House, Salisterra is an elevated neighborhood bistro inspired by the colors and flavors of the Mediterranean and helmed by London-based Michelin starred Chef, Jun Tanaka. It has been a blessing to see the buzz and energy of a busy restaurant since its opening in April, and we look forward to welcoming the international travelers back in the near future.
Designed in homage to the enduring relationship between the renowned designer and our House, the André Fu Suite is his only namesake suite in the world. It was designed as a space for guests to be social and relax in equal measure. With the recent restrictions of social distancing, André Fu Suite allows for more intimate and private settings; the dining room has a table set for 18 and is serviced by the Salisterra team, and a dedicated spa area with twin massage beds takes our in-room treatments to the next level.
Located within Pacific Place, The Continental is a friendly and sophisticated European-inspired café reimagined by The Upper House, featuring a tranquil year-round terrace. Elegant and accessible, the menu, curated by Executive Chef Graham Long, celebrates seasonal ingredients through classic flavor combinations. Under the dynamic leadership of Graham and our experienced Director of Restaurants, Jonathan Jones, it is sure to win new fans to add to its many regulars.
With the pandemic affecting international travel, variety and adaptability are key. It’s been a really great period for us to experiment with new offerings and also to engage our guests more through community-driven activities whilst supporting local, homegrown brands. We work with different homegrown partners to enrich the guest experience. For example, we have worked with Matchali, Cookie Department, Teakha, and Between Coffee to introduce interesting food trends to our guests.
We’re also prioritizing wellness as one of our areas to strengthen and this strategy was in place before COVID. We have been working with Kita Yoga, The Gym, Family Form to offer a diverse wellness program to our guests.
8. What would be your best advice for women studying hotel management in university right now?
To trust in yourself and your capacity to innovate our industry.
I love the quote from Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In essence, this is what we as hoteliers have the capacity to do, we have the honor of creating memories and experiences for our guests that come from the heart.
9. What is the next goal for you personally in your career?
The last two years, navigating through these unusual times has been eye-opening and a phenomenal learning experience especially in my first year as a GM. I am looking forward to borders reopening and welcoming back our regional and international guests and agents.