Client Confidential: Action Heroes

She’s the director, he’s the producer—together, Jon Bortz and Andrea Dawson Sheehan pull back the curtain on the perfect client/designer relationship.

Boutique Design

When Jon Bortz, ceo and president, Pebblebrook Hotel Trust (then president, ceo and a trustee of LaSalle Hotel Properties) and Andrea Dawson Sheehan, art director and principal, Dawson Design Associates, met in 2001, the chemistry was immediate.

Bortz’ then-20-year-career in commercial real estate development, starting at Jones Lang LaSalle before founding the aforementioned LaSalle Hotel Properties in 1998, had given him a thorough grounding in how to make radical thinking work for both design and the bottom line—think adding retail, restaurants, a cinema and other venues to the massive Union Station revamp in Washington, D.C., to turn it into a destination, as well as work on a portfolio of hotels across the U.S. Sheehan, who got her start designing nightclubs, had helmed her eponymous firm since 1987, growing her practice from restaurant design to hotel work. Hundreds of record- and rule-breaking projects later, Bortz and Sheehan let Boutique Design be a fly on the wall while they drilled down into how they make it work.

ANDREA DAWSON SHEEHAN: You and I often talk about the need to use design to jolt, to startle and to elicit an emotion. From your standpoint as a client and an investor, why rock the boat so hard?

JON BORTZ: Hospitality is a fast-moving industry. Travelers used to collect things; now they collect experiences. A hotel’s visuals have to speak to that. The biggest mistake in design is to end up with a hotel that’s just too “nice,” too ordinary, too boring. That won’t get noticed. It won’t make Instagram. And it won’t start conversations. Investors need to take design risks—and sometimes to be wrong. A hotel has to have a strong personality, even if that means some people love it and some people hate it. Without that identity, the property faces the risk of ending up somewhere in the middle. We’re not in the business of being in the middle. Great design doesn’t always cost more; but in many cases it does because strong concepts are multilayered. I've found that overall, in terms of occupancy and profit growth, design is a good investment. It's especially important for a portfolio like ours that doesn't have mega-brands and needs to create visibility and buzz.

ANDREA: We’ve never found the “lid” on design concepts when working with you. How do you see the client’s role as a collaborator?

JON: As a client, I’m the one who pushes. I’ll call up the designer and say we need to be more extreme. No, I’m not a designer, but I’ve been involved with hundreds of hotel projects. I’ve had excellent mentors, whether on the investment, operations or design sides. I’m unafraid to challenge a designer, and I like designers such as you who are unafraid to disagree. But I also appreciate your willingness to take a second look at your ideas if I say elements of them aren’t working for me or that they don’t feel right.

For example, I don’t want to see a model room in progress. I want to come into the finished product as a guest would and see how I react emotionally. Do I think “wow”? Or, am I so unimpressed that I start to look around at the details? Guests aren’t going to wait around and judge a guest room by the small touches here and there. They know if they feel great or not so great the instant they open the door and step inside. Good design—and good business—are all about that feeling.

ANDREA: I know what you mean. A hotel has to have its own energy. The first time I walked into (Ian Schrager’s) Royalton in Manhattan in the early ’90s, it was clear it had its own vibe. It wasn’t just a pretty space; it changed how I felt when walked into it. I felt sexier, cooler.

JON: That’s what we’re still doing. I think it’s why we both get the correlation between design and film. One of the aims of design, like film, is, how fast can we take the guest [or viewer] into the experience? When we deliver the right level of stimulation, we increase the guest’s acceptance of the environment. I don’t want the customer to think, “Ooh, pretty;” I want that concept to be interactive and encourage the guest to become part of it. Like you, I don’t care if people consider the interiors to be tasteful or classically beautiful. I want them be stylish, sure. But it’s more important that they activate the guest’s experience.

 

ANDREA: Do lenders buy into that upfront?

JON: Not always, but the portfolio performance and the fact that boutique/lifestyle brands and independents did better [versus large brands] during both recent recessions make a pretty convincing argument. The first hotel project we did together is a good example. Early in 2001, when I was still with LaSalle Hotel Properties, we acquired four crummy, bankrupt hotels in the Washington, D.C., area with the intention of repositioning them as boutique properties. The proposed operator said the renovations should reference colonial elements and focus on traditional design. My team, as you know, wanted something colorful and radical. I felt that the design is not just about the expectations of the people who live in that city; it’s also about the preferences of guests from other places who make up the target market. In the case of our first collaboration (the property that would become the Kimpton Topaz Hotel), the primary market was New York, and those travelers wanted lifestyle hotels. Within two months of opening, that hotel was on the cover of two major magazines and was doing very well.

ANDREA: How do you see the notion of provocative, immersive design evolving?

JON: Our designs need to provide a sense of luxury and comfort while taking people out of their comfort zones. Public space will become more and more of a dynamic social venue that challenges people’s perspective while at the same time reflecting and capturing the energy and attitude of the city. They have to be original and powerful.

ANDREA: As in the Hotel Zeppelin (part of the Viceroy Group) in San Francisco? People expected references to 1960s music, but I think we really challenged them to think more deeply with visual references to the psychedelic, drug-infused culture, the struggle for women’s rights, the black power movement, and the social commentary of writers and poets such as Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. Through the design and art, Hotel Zeppelin celebrates what all of that did to change society.

JON: I like to see design tie into activism; it should reflect what’s happening. There’s so much anger and turmoil in this country now. It feels pertinent to be pulling more original art into hotels that addresses that. Our decision to use a 30-ft. image of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre in the lobby bar of our Revere Hotel in Boston worried our asset manager, but it is sure to raise interesting questions for guests when the lobby reopens. Controversy is good and given what is going on in politics today the concept is very relevant. We still have to fight for freedom.

ANDREA: Building on that, I think design continues to also become more sensory. Lighting is a huge factor in the projects we’ve done together. We spend a lot of time and attention figuring out where and how guests will respond to light and where we need shadows to create tension. We’re also using color to alter customers’ moods as they pass through various spaces. Our firm enjoys creating chaos with color, and exploring contrasts. If the atmosphere needs to be sexy, we use lots of mirrors and polished steel but we also balance hard and soft surfaces. Instead of using scent, we like to let the aroma of real food waft through the public areas. With your hotels, no idea is off the table if it makes for a more interesting, market-driven experience.

JON: Well, there was that slide I wanted for Hotel Zetta (another Viceroy property in San Francisco). That property had this terrible meeting space with a 7-ft. lid and no windows. I wanted to install a slide from the mezzanine to the ground floor bar to link those areas and generate more buzz. The operator kept talking about the liability issues. Initially, I kept fighting for the slide but then you and I brainstormed on other ways to connect those two spaces. We came up with the game room and that Plinko wall. Hearing that ball bounce down two levels makes everyone turn around. Everybody plays with it—kids, ceos, all age groups, all cultures. That game room became so popular that we’re adding versions of it to other hotels such as the Palomar in Los Angeles. It embodies that interactive energy that gets guests engaged.

ANDREA: So what’s the next big design challenge?

JON: We’re going to see unique, casual spaces that can serve as restaurants as well as venues that enable us to move events out of formal ballrooms and dedicated function areas. The restaurant business is hard. Margins are small. Designing in the flexibility to subdivide an F&B destination so that we can have multiple things going on gives the operator more opportunities to layer in different revenue streams. The key is that the restaurant space itself has to be cool and financially successful on its own—not just in the context of the hotel. We want the neighbors to make our restaurants their own so we can draw the local experience inside the hotel. That makes the hotel environment that much richer and more stimulating.

We’ll be considering more concepts such as Dirty Habit in the Kimpton Hotel Monaco, Washington D.C. The new exterior courtyard and bar can hold up to 800 people for anything from a rehearsal dinner to a business event, depending on their needs, but it also works as a nightclub and as a restaurant. We can subdivide the space for privacy or open it up for more of a display. People probably think we’re out of our minds to spend $8 million on that renovation. We’ll see.

ANDREA: What other restaurant rules need to be broken?

JON: One would be the proliferation of chef-driven restaurants. There’s a place for them, but not if you’re focusing on the financials. Second, you have to find a way to make unworkable spaces work. When you and I did the first Dirty Habit at the Hotel Zelos in San Francisco, we were reconcepting existing space. People thought it would be impossible to make a restaurant on the fifth floor work and be successful. It had no windows, no street access. Customers had to go through the lobby and up the elevator; they couldn’t see even a piece of it from the lobby. So we needed to come up with a concept that would turn the negative of being on the fifth floor into the positive of being of being on the fifth floor. The design and the concept needed to do that. Your team brought us the idea of an illicitly glamourous outpost—and yes, we both know that we’ll go with dark humor and raw sensuality when needed, though it has to be subtle.

More and more, investors have to find ways to make negatives into positives. We couldn’t lease out the fifth floor. We couldn’t put more guest rooms there. So we had to find a way to make a marketable destination by designing something secretive with an attitude that fit the tight space. Some investors walk into a crappy building and see a crappy investment. I see a box you can do really cool things with. Finance and design work together for me as an investor.

ANDREA: We keeping hearing from the brands that they want young, hot fresh designers. Age discrimination is a real problem in the design industry. You’ve pushed back on that. Why?

JON: I don’t see a need to go in that direction [commissioning only young designers]. What we’ve found is that all those young and fresh designers may have great ideas, but they can’t execute. They don’t know how to do that at the right scale. They don’t choose the right colors. They don’t know all the techniques to create the right drama. It takes someone with your experience and talent to do that. You and your team have delivered a lot of great properties for us. I don’t have to explain why something needs to be transitional in one locale; experimental in another. You know how to do the homework.

We’ve been pushed by brands to go with their short list of designers and we just say no. Too often, we get “very nice interiors” (that means we’ll have to redo it later) from other designers. So, we don’t work with that many design firms. We prefer smaller studios so that we’re sure we’ll be working with the principals and veterans. You have a lot of young, hot, fresh minds in your office but you’re the gatekeeper. It all has to go through you before it gets to me. Why change something when it works?

ANDREA: I am the art director, coach and editor for my team. Our internal design process is totally collaborative. We often get brilliant ideas from kids right out of school that I’d never thought of. We pull ideas from both young people and veterans, and we’re adding staff to make sure we stay original. It is about attitude not about age. We depend on diversity to get great ideas.

ANDREA: You’ve always been a big supporter of original art as an essential design element. What’s ahead on that front?

JON: Art has to be the heart of the story; it has to be in the budget from the beginning. And it can’t be cut when you run out of money at the end. A signature piece becomes the hotel’s Kodak moment—okay, Instagram moment. People want to get their picture taken next to the 8-ft. recycled metal guitar in the Union Station Hotel in Nashville or the 10-ft. seagull in the Hotel Zephyr Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. And, the best part for the hotel is that people want to share these photos all over social media. I’m strongly in favor of pieces with environmental undertones: recycled/reused furniture; or a sculpture of a crouching person made out of metal parts, golf club heads and other found objects, the chandelier at Zetta that’s made out of discarded eyeglass frames or the mobile made from 500 antique lanterns you commissioned from steampunk sculptor Bruce Rosenbaum (the head of ModVic LLC who was profiled in the April 2016 issue of Boutique Design) for the renovation of the Revere Hotel in Boston.

ANDREA: What’s your forecast for the hospitality industry?

JON: The industry’s a little soft. Business travel started to cut back 18-24 months ago. We’re in a profits recession here and around the globe. Because of that, Pebblebrook has been risk averse in terms of acquisitions. Our last purchase was in 2015, and we’re not buying any hotels this year. We want to wait and see how things play out. We’re doing portfolio reviews to look at refresh opportunities. The W Boston had upside in terms of incremental revenue drivers and efficiencies. Reworking some space usage created three more keys, which are worth $1 million in Boston. As we discussed, we’re looking for way to incorporate more multi-functional restaurant/event destinations in our assets. Fortunately for you and other designers, some of our peers are still buying hotels.

ANDREA: It’s kind of scary out there right now. Most of the work in our pipeline is more in the cap ex category, the type we see in a recession. The large scale renovation projects like the public space gut in the Palomar in Los Angeles or the top-to-bottom renovation of Nashville’s Union Station Hotel seem to be wrapping up. Clients seem to be holding. We do have a couple of big projects on the boards, but we are now seeing more requests for guestroom renovations and public space refreshes instead.

ANDREA: Has the political climate impacted your business?

JON: I just spent a day on Capitol Hill representing AH&LA at a meeting with congressmen and senators to educate them about the ripple effect of regulations such as the travel ban—even though the Senate didn’t enact this. The travel ban affects much more than the seven countries on the list. Among international travelers, the perception is that the U.S. doesn’t want people to come here. It may be just their perception, but it matters and they’re acting on it. We need to be seen as a country that welcomes everyone. Quiet security is fine. But it’s definitely a risk that we have an administration that could set back all the progress we made since the country shut down after 9/11.

ANDREA: I have so many international staff members in Seattle and in our London offices. They’re asking a lot of questions about what’s going to happen with their visas and what happens if they try to leave or need to come and work in Seattle. Some of them feel uncomfortable because of those who see them as “foreigners” who are creating problems. Americans are supposed to be the good guys.

JON: The wave of nationalism around the world is bad for everyone. As in the 1930s and ’40s, people are looking for scapegoats. Fear is never good.