AAHOA Roundtable | BDwest

BDwest: What Owners Want

AAHOA owners and designers discuss expectations

Members of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) own about half of the hotels in the United States. These owners mainly play within the midscale, branded space. And although they have long adhered strictly to brand standards when it comes to design, a new generation of AAHOA members is ready and willing to break the mold and turn to designers for assistance in their upcoming projects. That’s according to panelists, comprising these members as well as designers, speaking during the “We Said, They Said: What Hotel Owners and Designers Can Learn—and Teach—Each Other” roundtable at BDwest. They identified several challenges and opportunities when working with designers.

The brand challenge: Nimisha Patel, executive vice president of Vue Hotels and AAHOA female director, western division, has owned hotels for 15 years. Over those years, brands have brought design in-house, so her company has tended to stick with that option as it’s the most comfortable. But, the team is also looking to outside vendors to bring in a unique perspective.

Neal Patel, managing partner of Blue Chip Hotels and Young Professional Director, western division, for AAHOA, said it’s often easier to stick with the brand and its standards because each time an owner pushes outside the box on design, another waiver needs to be filled out. “Owners don’t want to waste their time,” he said. “That communication would be better if it’s between the brand and the designer.”

Jyoti Sarolia, chief operating officer for Ellis Hospitality and AAHOA ambassador for the South Pacific region, said that 80% of midscale owners will stick with the brand because, simply, it’s easier. However, she said that if a designer is willing to go to bat for an owner, there’s a chance value can be added by hiring a firm.

The design solution: Meg Prendergast, principal at The Gettys Group, said that owners might sometimes be wary of hiring the “800-pound gorilla” for fear of such a firm not understanding the goals that will lead to the right design mix. But that’s not the case, as savvy designers know how to balance standards with an eye-catching design. She said that while it might seem many brands want owners to stay in their swim lanes, that isn’t quite so today—in a marketplace that has seen a proliferation of brands, many that often overlap. At the end of the day, innovation is needed—balanced within standards, of course—and designers can help.

Karin Harrington, principal at Studio Partnership, said designers are problem solvers. And what’s more, designers are these owners’ guests, so they know what the customer base wants from the design, the touch points, and the experience. Further still, seasoned designers know if waivers are even required for certain specifications because they’ve worked with brands before, and they can point to case studies that act as evidence to support any deviations.

Jim Looney, owner of Looney Associates, agreed. “We’ve been in the business long enough to see that these case studies help owners,” he said. “Design equals value.”

David Dunphy, principal of Studio HBA, said that design firms become advocates for owners. “We know what swords the brands will die on,” he said. “We can help interpret that and design so that it still has functionality.”

The ROI challenge: Vipul Dayal, president of VNR Management and a past AAHOA board member, said return on investment is always top of mind for him, no question. A nice design might look pretty, but it absolutely needs to add value. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing it. And panelists all agreed that owners can’t get to that ROI if communication is strained.

The design solution: Dunphy said a good design firm is knowledgeable about brand touch points and can translate that into the design, which leads to a higher average daily rate.

Looney said that owners’ ROI is a main goal for the firm, too. The key is for owners to let designers in up front to discuss those goals, expectations and budgets. “We can then translate that,” he said. “We listen to the music behind the words.”

A request for proposal is a great place to start, panelists said. It’s a tool that Sarolia has started to use when looking for a design partnership at her hotels. Prendergast said that’s a great way to start a relationship with clear goals and communication—something to outline what is expected. She said it’s key to have great communication in the early days, whether from RFPs or kick-off meetings.

“Bad communication leads to break-ups,” Harrington agreed.

Amy Jakubowski, client relationship director, Americas, and design director, Wilson Associates, said that a design firm worth its weight will help guide an owner into what may or may not work from an ROI standpoint, that owners can lean on their designers. “If it’s not going to work, we’ll tell you why not,” she said. “We’ll show that why but also come up with a solution as to what will work.”

What it comes down to, Harrington said, is that designers have the know-how in terms of ROI that will pay off when owners go to operate. “Design is not a luxury,” she said. “Everything also needs to function well.”

Photo: Back, left to right: Vipul Dayal, VNR Management; Amy Jakubowski, Wilson Associates; Jim Looney, Looney Associates; David Dunphy, Studio HBA. Front, left to right: Meg Prendergast, The Gettys Group; Neal Patel; Blue Chip Hotels; Karin Harrington, Studio Partnership; Nimisha Patel, Vue Hotels; Jyoti Sarolia, Ellis Hospitality. (Photo credit: Alicia Hoisington)