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HI Connect® Spotlight - Michele Espeland, Cuningham Group Architects

Today we speak with Michele Espeland of Cuningham Group Architects as part of our series focusing on the hospitality designers, architects and purchasing pros that are part of HI Connect® Design 2013.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013
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HI Connect® Design
HI Connect® Design
Experience a Design Revolution

We’re getting ready for our BIG event HI Connect® Design coming this April 10-12, 2013 at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, TN and it promises to be the most exciting event ever to hit the hospitality industry.

We’ve got dozens of built out fully constructed out vignettes created by the vision of leading hospitality designers, architects and purchasing pros. And those in attendance will get to step into their master creations, get a tour and see products in the content in which they belong; in a real hotel environment!

HI Connect® Design offers attendees an incredible opportunity to view, first hand, original concepts designed by industry designers and purchasing companies in collaboration with suppliers shown in context within a real environment of a guest room, bathroom, and public spaces such as Bar/Lounge, Spa/Fitness to name a few. This is a truly the most collaborative effort ever at any hospitality event.

As part of our countdown to HI Connect® 2013 we’re interviewing the people that are bringing their creative vision to life. Read the story below, or for a more fully in-depth interview listen to their story below.




For today’s interview, Editor-In-Chief Glenn Haussman speaks with Michele Espeland of Cuningham Group Architects who is creating a Luxury Bathroom during the three days of HI Connect® Design.

Glenn Haussman: Thank you so much for joining me. So, you’re working on a luxury bathroom for HI Connect® Design. I love luxury, but then again, you know, who doesn’t? And, I’ve noticed that the luxury bathrooms really have changed over the last number of years. What are some of the things that you’re seeing and you’re thinking about when trying to create the ultimate luxurious experience in that bathroom?

Michele Espeland: There’s been a lot of controversy in the hotel industry between, “I want my luxury bath to be equal to my home environment.” Because, obviously for a certain caliber guest, you’re going to stay at somewhere equal or above your home experience. Or, do you want it to be beyond where you are in your own home?

And we did some research with our own clients and just out in the industry and really it’s a mixed message. So, for our vignette we’re choosing to say that it’s equal to what that five-star caliber guest is experiencing at home.

Glenn Haussman: Well that’s great. I mean for me just having indoor plumbing would be better than my apartment. So, I think that’s great. What are some of the trends that you’re seeing out there in luxury bathrooms? I’m noticing they keep getting bigger and bigger for one.

Michele Espeland: Well I think you’re right, but I think that there’s a lot of properties that are going smaller. They’re – even in luxury, it’s all about the footprint and for our luxury bath we’re pursuing it in an urban environment. We know this is fictional, but in an urban environment it’s even more important to meet the footprint, the square foot costs of real estate. So, that’s true but not necessarily in urban environments.

Glenn Haussman: Right, especially where you’re talking about adaptive reuse buildings, or refurbishing a particular property that’s been there for a long time. I think generally speaking I could say that hotel bathrooms have gotten bigger in non-New-York-City like environments over the years.

But, with existing buildings you’ve got to kind of play with what you’re – with what you have. You can’t really be ripping down those walls. So, what are some of the things that you do to make it feel spacious and comfy, even if you’re restricted by some space?

Michele Espeland: Having not all the walls be the same material, or the same color, so you can vary the experience if you go dark on a couple walls and light on a couple of the other walls, so it varies the experience depending on which wall you’re facing. It helps the room feel like it’s a different shape each time you turn around.

Glenn Haussman: Wow, that’s pretty cool. And it makes you feel like you’re in a different kind of an environment I would think as well.

What are some of the other trends that you’re experiencing right now?

Michele Espeland: It’s still about technology and it’s still about amenities. We need the steam shower. We need the heated towel bar. We need the technology within the rooms with a television integrated to mirrors, and, as always, lighting.

Glenn Haussman: Yeah. Lighting, lighting, lighting, that’s what one of the major things we see. I think with lighting it’s you’ve got to have a great overall lighting, as well as lighting so women can apply makeup, or I could just look at myself for hours at a time in awe.

Or, more importantly, I think at night you need to have some sort of good lighting that helps people find their way in there, but doesn’t necessarily use a lot of electricity and illuminate the entire space.

Michele Espeland: Right. And you are speaking to lighting options. So, there’s got to be different light levels. You got to do that in a way though there’s not 14 light switches on the wall, so you don’t know how to operate it, because you aren’t living here. You’re going to come in, stay for a few days, maybe you’d return for another visit, but you’re not living here. So, you have to understand how to operate it. But, you need lighting options.

Glenn Haussman: Yes. You absolutely – you absolutely do. And, in the main guestroom I am tired of turning on 8,000 different light switches. Or, it’s just pretty dark in the regular rooms.

But, you know, when it comes to what you’re focusing on with design where do you find your ideas from? It seems so amazing that that all of you designers can come up with stuff.

Michele Espeland: We have an in-house process where we share a lot of information and whether it’s from travel, from just going down the street to a new restaurant, through photos, video and just conversation. It’s through that conversation that we inspire each other and we actually get to see a lot more through other peoples’ eyes.

And, we don’t want to get into a process of copying other designs or whatnot, that’s why we come back we talk about them. We digest what it is that did work, didn’t work and that stays with you. That resonates with you and it turns into intuition and it turns into the next evolved design solutions.

It’s really about conversing and the internal environment we have here is so oriented around collaboration internally that it just becomes more successful.

Glenn Haussman: I love that. Because, it – I think a lot of times when you collaborate with other people you get that one plus one equals three kind of phenomenon where you kind of build off of each other and come up with new stuff.
So when you know you are out there what is something recently that you found, that you said, “Oh, that is really cool,” and it inspired either something directly related or an offshoot idea?

Michele Espeland: Well, because of our internal philosophy and not wanting to copy other properties, we try not to use say oh, I went to this place, I went to that place. It’s more about a photo of something and say here’s what looked good or what not.

So, we don’t like to namedrop about a place or another architect or designer. And, that’s a personal philosophy also. It’s really about the level of layers and we’re thinking of hospitality design, we try to look at texture, we try to look at design elements and how that’s layered together. And does that make sense for the overall concept or theme of the space, which are two different ways to design, and one that we always identify right from the get-go.

Glenn Haussman: So, Michele, tell me about a really cool project you worked on that you really thought espoused what your ideas were when it comes to design.

Michele Espeland: Well, we actually just finished up one of the largest resorts in the country, that’s been under construction for the last six years for Harrah's Cherokee in Cherokee, North Carolina. So, we were the architect and interior designers for that project and that was one that was designed off of a designed concept. And, as a firm we have a trademark called Every Building Tells a Story.

And at the beginning of every project we work with the lead designers, lead architects and ourselves the interior designers, to develop that story. So, I would say that project is definitely prominent and prevalent in our design success. It is taking a Smoky Mountains casino, that looked like a typical lodge and turning it into Vegas quality.

Glenn Haussman: So, what are some of the things that you think about when you want to turn it into a Vegas quality resort and make people say, “Oh, I may be here in the Smoky Mountains, but I’m thinking Cosmopolitan? I’m thinking Aria. I’m thinking Wynn.”

Michele Espeland: Yes. And, those are the comments we’re hearing that people are thinking that when they walk through here, which is a compliment in – to me. But, what we think about are the different guest experiences. That’s the keyword is guest experience and keeping that fresh.

Because it went from a couple hundred thousand square feet to more than a half a million square feet, it’s a lot bigger. There’s a lot more to see and we need to keep the guest engaged. So, how do you do that through the journey and the path of the project?

And we do that by having different design elements, different themes throughout the different zones and then sprinkling in a lounge, a bar, or the buffet, or the spa, sprinkling all those different amenities in to keep the guest engaged as they turn each corner.

Glenn Haussman: So, what is the story of that property then?

Michele Espeland: That one is the contemporary Smoky lodge and Smoky Mountain lodge. And, you have to see photos to really understand and the before and after photos are just impressive and put us all in awe.

Michele Espeland: Well, I’m a realist and I bring that to the table for my clients and try to look at costs, durability, maintenance, all those things. And, I love going into restaurants, we do a lot of restaurant design, especially for – in the hotel resorts, and looking at how realistic are some of the different materialities, whether it’s the chair or the upholstery or the countertop material in the buffet line or whatnot.

And, really looking at how, more so than a normal person would, how is it holding up, how long has it been installed, even asking the waiter as just a guest, even though they might think it’s an odd question, how do you guys clean the tabletop. Just really understanding the process and getting on the other side, the owner side, so we can come at it from both directions, from design and the owner side.

Glenn Haussman: Yeah. That must be a very challenging aspect of it is trying to balance the needs of how you want to deliver a wow product, while at the same time being sensitive to the needs of the particular owner and/or developer, right?

Michele Espeland: Absolutely. But, it is imperative to our job and that’s why we have a large repeat client base.

Glenn Haussman: Yeah, for sure. So, how do you wind up picking materials that you know are going to last a long time, but also look the way that you want them to?

Michele Espeland: The best way to do that is from experience, but yet you don’t want to use the same product over and over. So, we have to rely on asking operators also engaging them, “Has this worked for you in the past?” And, every time you see something you ask.

And, that’s why I like to ask those questions when I’m at a restaurant that maybe isn’t even part of our design repertoire and just ask how it is – how has it been holding up. Then I can know firsthand.

The reps are great too, but you have to – you have to look at how it’s been holding up over the years.



If you are interested in participating in this unique and dramatic experience at HI Connect® Design, coming this April 10-12, 2013, please contact us immediately at (631) 424-7755 x150. You may also go to our website for more information and to see the photo gallery of HI Connect® Design 2012, please visit us at HIConnectDesign.com.



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