BLAZING A NEW TRAIL
From a prescribed life as a future wife and mother in India to the boardroom table of a major international corporation in Belgium, Renu Hanegreefs-Snehi’s journey has taken some interesting turns. She talks communications, confidence and creativity with Brittany Golob
Photographs by Sander de Wilde
Renu Hanegreefs-Snehi is a woman of contradictions. She was born into a middle class Indian family in New Delhi who wanted her to get married and start a family. She moved to Brussels, is happily married to a Belgian and runs communications for a major international corporation. She spent years in hotel operations but cherishes the creative nature of communications. She lives the always-on lifestyle of a communications director, but is a trained yoga master who enjoys meditation. She loves the monsoon rains in India which pour even as the sun shines, but after almost 20 years still dislikes the wet, cold and grey clouds that plague the Belgian capital.
But it is these multitudes that define Hanegreefs-Snehi and have allowed her to accede to the role of VP of corporate communications, PR and reputation management at the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group. Offering advice to the board, helping run the company’s IPO and setting communications and brand strategy are a far cry from the more settled life her family had envisioned for her back in India.
“It was the norm in those times that girls would get a basic education, they would do a simple job if it allowed them to be good housewives and good mothers and daughters. But their most important role would be supporting the family,” Hanegreefs-Snehi says. “And I just said, ‘I want to do something else. I want to have a life, I want to travel, I want to meet different people, I want to make a difference. I don’t want to get married, I want to go and work and do something else to make an impact on the world and make a change for myself, but also for my three other sisters.’”
Her family did not respond well, forcing Hanegreefs-Snehi to act. Though it may sound like the plot of a movie, she actually ran away to work in fashion. Hanegreefs-Snehi’s first job was in marketing and operations for Indian fashion designer Ritu Beri. “It was a little bit of a rebellion,” Hanegreefs-Snehi admits. “Those were times of quite fundamental changes within the country, so there was an economic movement and there were a lot more opportunities within India for people like me. I wanted to be part of that economic movement.”
Studying for her bachelor’s degree in business at the same time, Hanegreefs-Snehi worked for Beri until she realised that fashion couldn’t offer the type of career progression she was looking for. A friend approached her with news of a selective role in guest relations at the Crowne Plaza in New Delhi. Beating out 3,000 others for the job, Hanegreefs-Snehi had her first foothold in the hotel industry.
“There is so much that connects the rest of the business to PR or communications. PR is always invited to a party, whereas social media or marketing, they buy a ticket or they barge in”
But it was all for naught – at the time at least – because three days into the role, a young Belgian businessman called Hans Hanegreefs checked into the hotel. He was in town to recruit Indian business students for university placements in Europe and the US. “It was love at first sight,” Hanegreefs-Snehi says. “That was the moment I went to a whole different level of being in rebellion because, 21 years ago, an Indian lady with a white man was not a done deal. It raised quite a lot of eyebrows.” Battling pressure from neighbours and friends, as well as landlords and restauranteurs who refused to serve the young couple, Hanegreefs and Snehi persisted. They remained in India for three years before Hanegreefs’ job and family called him back to Belgium. For Snehi, there was no question. She went with him. “When you are young, you’re carefree. You’re fearless. I think you are less emotional at that age so things don’t hurt you as much,” Hanegreefs-Snehi says of the challenges they faced in India.
But, a move to Belgium in 2001 would offer challenges – and opportunities – of its own. The first change was the rain. Hanegreefs-Snehi says she sat in the window on her first day in Belgium and watched the water, “I sat in the window admiring the rain because in India, when it rains, people celebrate. I was just in awe of this beautiful rain and then it rained on day two, on day three, and I asked, ‘Does it ever stop?’ And my husband said, ‘No, it rains 300 days a year.’”
But, having enrolled in an MBA course at the University of Antwerp while teaching undergraduate courses at the same time, Hanegreefs-Snehi had more than enough to keep her busy. When a job came up at the Carlson Rezidor Group – then part of Swedish airline group SAS – she took a shot. Starting as the executive assistant to the chief operations officer, Hanegreefs-Snehi worked her way up through the organisation working in areas as diverse as food and drink to interior design to brand management.
In 2006, her big opportunity arose. Carlson Rezidor Group was to leave the SAS fold and float on the Stockholm Exchange. “Because of my overarching experience and because of that work within the company, and my closeness to the executive committee, somehow I ended up being the gatekeeper of the IPO process from the communications perspective,” she says. This first foray into communications was a natural fit, allowing Hanegreefs-Snehi to work with financial analysts, corporate positioning, media relations and messaging.
Curriculum vitae: Renu Hanegreefs-Snehi
2011 Head of PR, brand & marketing communications, The Rezidor Hotel Group
2006 Director corporate communications, The Rezidor Hotel Group
2005 Manager future openings & franchise operations, The Rezidor Hotel Group
2003-2004 Manager technical & brand development, The Rezidor Hotel Group
2001-2003 Assistant manager operations, The Rezidor Hotel Group (formerly SAS Scandinavia Airlines Hotel Services)
1992-2000 Various positions in the fashion, brand, hospitality, lifestyle and entertainment industry
It also informed her later roles in comms, by teaching her how to build a strategic framework, develop a network of global agencies and a supportive and talented global communications team. That would provide invaluable when balancing the needs of the corporate brand of the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, with the better-known consumer brands of Radisson Blu, Radisson RED or Park Inn by Radisson. “The hotel business is quite a simple business; it isn’t rocket science. But it’s making sure that when a guest walks into any hotel, that they have a good experience, and hopefully, that they share that experience with their friends. It requires common sense and emotional intelligence of the highest level,” Hanegreefs-Snehi says. On the face of it, this customer-first strategy isn’t that complex, but it does rely on the empowerment of employees across the organisation to first, understand the purpose of the brand, and second, act in the right way – operationally and ethically.
That’s why Hanegreefs-Snehi not only supports a global training programme for hotel general managers, corporate leaders and communications professionals to better prepare them for crisis and challenges, but also encourages the engagement of local media, government and influencers to be better prepared to deal with crisis. She says it’s these relationships that will help the brand communicate both day-to-day and in more complicated situations.
It helps that her background is so wide-ranging. “I think the reason I actually enjoy my role and the reason I am able to offer that strategic advice to the leaders of the company is that I understand operations. I understand the intricacies or the delicacies or the nuances of interior design or architecture or product management,” Hanegreefs-Snehi says. But she adds that part of her job is to “make sure that the leaders look good internally and externally.” It’s the internal reputation of which she is particularly proud, citing a positive corporate culture as one of the reasons she’s remained with the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group throughout most of her career.
The job has been anything but boring, with new challenges everyday. But, this year marked the beginning of a major shift for the group. The Carlson family, which, since 1938 had been involved in hotels, and had been in partnership with Rezidor since 2012, sold its stake in the group to Chinese company HNA Group. The organisation will likely undergo some form of rebrand as a result.
But, beyond the day-to-day, Hanegreefs-Snehi loves communications as a profession. “Everybody says that PR is a very fluffy business,” she says, but, “There is so much that connects the rest of the business to PR or communications. PR is always invited to a party, whereas social media or marketing, they buy a ticket or they barge in.” She values the ability for communications to build the reputation of a company or an individual, as well.
The new opportunities afforded by the shift in ownership may also allow Hanegreefs-Snehi to change the perception of communications within the organisation. “It will become, I hope, a bit more valued and strategic,” she says. “I look forward to having communications on a board table or on an executive committee table in as many companies as possible; but not just advising during crisis or brand campaigns, but also advising the executives to be more emotionally intelligent toward their employees, toward the media and toward stakeholders.”
This simple emotional intelligence can disappear in the blink of an IPO. “When you’re a plc,” Hanegreefs-Snehi adds, “most leaders become so stifled by the rules, they forget to be good individuals and they lose their spontaneity to be emotionally intelligent, but also fun and entertaining and just be more accessible to their people. A lot of leaders hide in the boardroom.” She says communications can help bridge the gap between leadership and the frontline, giving CEOs the ability to relate to their people.
The future is looking bright for Hanegreefs-Snehi, but that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten her past. She is still the same rebellious, ambitious, intelligent woman who traded New Delhi for Brussels and housework for an MBA years ago. “All of us need a lot of help to be more confident, to say you need more, you expect more, because you are doing more,” she says of women in business. “Sometimes, you just have to take a leap of faith and dive in and just take that risk. If you always play on the fence and if you always have your security gear on, you will never experience the full journey.”
That journey often circles back home to India when Hanegreefs-Snehi and her husband travel to visit family and explore the still-rural enclaves in the south. The “madness in organisation” is part of what draws her back home. But her heart lies in progress, in creativity, in celebration. She still doesn’t like the rain in Belgium, saying, “In India, when it rains there’s still sunshine.” Perhaps, though, Hanegreefs-Snehi has made Brussels a bit sunnier, as well.