Boutique Design Events and Trade Fairs

The 2017 Gold Key Awards for Excellence in Hospitality Design had the longest short list in the competition’s history. After a first-round review of the nearly 400 entries, this year’s 13 judges found a lot of work that drew raves and a few trends they wished would disappear. The best part for me—and for hospitality design overall—was that these industry leaders voiced widely differing opinions on which projects were to die for and which were killing creativity standards.

Making the determination on what “excellence in design” means for 2017 were: Maki Bara, president & co-founder, The Chartres Lodging Group LLC; Gary Dollens, global head, design/product and brand development, Hyatt Hotels Corp.; Timothy Griffin, director of North America, Ennismore; Nigel Hatcher, vice president, design & project management, luxury brands, Marriott Intl;. Diana Kessler, creative director, Kessler Collection Design Studio; Guy Lindsey, senior vice president, design & construction, Park Hotels & Resorts; Michael Medzigian, chairman and managing partner, Watermark Capital Partners LLC; Jay Pecotte, senior director project development, hotels & casinos – Americas, Hard Rock Intl.; Jonathan Nehmer, president, Jonathan Nehmer + Associates, Inc.; Sangeetha Ramkumar, director-innovation & design-global brand leadership marketing, InterContinental Hotels Group; Jeanne Lynne Starling, director of design development, MGM Resorts Intl. Design; Larry Traxler, senior vice president, global design, Hilton; and Thomas R. Trout, vice president, architecture and design, Dream Hotel Group LLC.

Gold Key Award Judges' Dinner | 2017

We’ll be posting a headline shortly listing our 2017 finalists. Congratulations to all. Winners will be announced at a special gala Nov. 13 at New York’s Gotham Hall, capping off the two days of Boutique Design New York which is co-located with HX: The Hotel Experience at the Javits Center and will be held Nov. 12-13. For ticket information, visit

Gold Key Award Judges' Dinner | 2017

Here are some lessons learned at the five-hour judging and the dinner held afterward at The Whitby’s Reading Room:

  • There are no excuses for bad design.
    Projects of all sizes, in all segments and with wildly diverse aesthetic points of view had their champions among the judges. (Entries are submitted anonymously and judges must recuse themselves if their firms were involved in a submission.) In fact, one of the best debates pitted the impact of a highly innovative branded property with all of the standards and programming that implies with a free-spirited hotel that began with a lot of blue-sky elbow room and headline-making design expectations. They questioned which designer really had gone the farthest to say something original, even game changing? In the end, they couldn’t deny the impact of either and opted to honor both.

  • Forget about form vs. function arguments.
    Design for the needs of each client and the guest or patron. Taking a look at one project, about half the judges were ready to say “next.” Their rationale: the palette and edgy furniture would be too hard to maintain. The other judges disagreed strongly. Their point of view: clients need to invest in design that drives into new territory—something which sets apart that project and gets influencers in the door.
  • Master the art of layering.
    One way to get straight to the reject pile was to offer a one-and-done approach to crafting the interior concept. This judges agreed on the importance of subtly layering carefully curated elements to make guests think, look again and remember that space. And this wasn’t just about the art or lighting. The choice of the actual furniture was a big part of how a designer can dress a space to impress. However, there’s a fine but important line between “more” and too much. Several projects got a pass for being “too accessorized.” Others were chastened for looking like everything from film-set haunted house to “your grandmother’s living room.” Being too minimal fared no better—as evidenced by the comment that one space “looked like a prison cell.”
  • Don’t be afraid to make design a framework, not a focus.
    Judges had stayed at, dined at or sailed on various projects entered this year. The highest praise was for those hotels, restaurants, cruise ships and trains that immersed them in a visual environment that was intriguing yet comfortable, escapist but at the same time “real” in terms of its local connection. They liked entries that went beneath the surface to say something new about a locale—something only locals would get.
  • Listen to your client.
    Throughout the judging, there was a lot of comments on the theme of “It’s not my taste, but it’s so well done.” Whether the hotel owner or operator wants mid-century modern, traditional English country house styling or an over-water villa, nothing is out of bounds if the designer can deliver a compelling narrative and execute it seamlessly. Lack of understanding regarding design fundamentals or shoddy installation/execution did not pass muster however interesting a concept was. Even “out there” work had to tick all the basic boxes.
Gold Key Award Judges | 2017