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Industry Icon Michael Bedner

This is a very special interview with one of the industry’s Godfathers of hotel design. Though we conducted this at BITAC Luxury we needed to share with everyone.

Thursday, March 21, 2013
Glenn Haussman
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I had the incredible pleasure of facilitating this interview with Michael Bedner, Chairman of Hirsch Bedner Associates, last week at our sold-out BITAC Luxury event on Tuesday, March 12.

During this interview we delve deep into Bedner’s long and esteemed career. For those of you not familiar with what a big deal he is here’s his bio: As Chairman of Hirsch Bedner Associates, Michael Bedner leads the largest hospitality design firm in the world. In 1964, Mr. Bedner and his partner, Howard Hirsch, revolutionized hospitality design by creating a totally new professional discipline.

Throughout his career, Mr. Bedner has expanded the discipline into a functional art form that continues to evolve. His vision and creative energy provide inspiration to the entire industry and his design influence can be seen in hundreds of the finest hotels throughout the world.

Mr. Bedner’s combination of traditional training and over 40 years of international hands-on experience have provided him with a singular understanding of the cultural, programmatic and financial aspects of a variety of projects. This understanding makes him uniquely qualified as a consultant for virtually every aspect of the hospitality business, from conceptual planning to budgeting and installation.

By applying his expertise to the daily direction of the company’s projects, Michael Bedner continues to be a leader in expanding the vision and scope of the hospitality design business to include resorts, boutique hotels, cruise ships, restaurants, casinos, spas and a myriad of other projects. Under his leadership, HBA has raised the bar in every area of hospitality design and developed extraordinarily strong teams for graphic design, art consultation, procurement and management.

While the conversation is highlighted below, for the full effect we encourage you to listen to this interview. Just click the link below.




Glenn Haussman: It’s great to see you and I’ll tell you the first thing that strikes me. I wish they liked me just a fraction of the way they seem to like you.

Michael Bedner: No, no, it’s just sex appeal, that’s all. It’s nothing else.

Glenn Haussman: That is true. You are a hot and sexy man.

Michael Bedner: I wish. I’ve always had visions.

Glenn Haussman: Well I’m having some now as a matter of fact. So thank you so much for coming in and speaking to me. One of the things I’m amazed about is how you’ve really touched so much of the hospitality industry and I really feel that you laid the groundwork for all the great stuff that designers are doing here today. You opened up the world for possibilities for people to dream and create the ability to manufacture spaces that people really love and they connect emotionally with on so many levels, but you didn’t start out that way. I wanted to know a little bit about where were you born? What was the beginning of your life like?

Michael Bedner: Well actually I think like so many people here, I was born in the Midwest. I came from Michigan, actually all the way out on Route 66. You back your rear tires up on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago and there’s a line that takes you all the way to the Santa Monica Pier here and there’s a big sign that says “End Route 66.” You never turn around and go back so I guess that’s why it’s the end. So both Howard Hirsch, my partner, and I both started in that area. Howard came from Chicago many years before I…not many, about half a dozen years before I came out and he was really the originator. He was really the gentleman that invented if you will or at least pushed along the hospitality industry as we know it because we did our first real hotel, real meaning prior to the hotels like so many of us we did restaurants. We did many restaurants and I’m trying to remember back that long because in ’14, in 2014, that will be our 50th year in existence, Mr. Hirsch and all of the people around. I’m sorry to say that Howard passed away a number of years ago, but his memory is still here, at least it’s with me and many of you that knew the gentleman knew what a wonderful gentleman he was.

Glenn Haussman: And in the DNA of I think all of the hotels that we visit today.

Michael Bedner: Well the first hotel was a great cathouse on Rodeo Drive. It was called the Beverly Rodeo Hotel and it’s still there three or four iterations later.

Glenn Haussman: Not a cat house anymore.

Michael Bedner: Yeah, it still is I’m sure. It’s Rodeo Drive. What do you want? But Howard did a great restaurant there, which is the Chez Voltaire, and it was a terrific place. The detailing was amazing and in my ill-spent youth he schooled me in many of these things.

Glenn Haussman: So was he kind of a mentor to you?

Michael Bedner: Absolutely, a mentor, a father, a friend; he was an amazing man and hopefully I have a lot of people that I was able to do the same with. Probably 20 of the top 30 firms we helped, mentored. I wish Tricia were here today because I spoke to her over the weekend and with her trials and tribulations I reminded her that when she got her first major project she didn’t have a contract so I sent her the Hirsch Bedner contract. She forgot to take the name off so I guess we did The Anatole.

Glenn Haussman: Congratulations on that.

Michael Bedner: I’m not taking credit for –

Glenn Haussman: No, you’re definitely not doing that right now at all.

Michael Bedner: But just to let you know how many people in the industry are our friends, of the top 25 companies, so many of them are. The number three or four company on that listing this year comes from one of the people that was really a protégé I think of mine of Kenny and Howard [Hirsch] loved China so I guess that’s one of the reasons that Hirsch Bedner is now a Chinese company. I don't know. I had nothing to do with that. True, but we’re thrilled to have gone through this progression, progression of one little hotel, which was 68 rooms to 3200-room hotels and 6-room hotels all over the world.

Glenn Haussman: Now before you started designing even that first property, when did you realize that you wanted to do design? How does something like that happen?

Michael Bedner: I don't know. I think it was poverty. I was waiting tables, doing dishes, and all the things that you do to get yourself through school. I was going through A and D school at Michigan and then Cal and then ended up on Los Angeles needing a job. I was lucky enough to work with Mr. John Lautner and I walked into his office and I said, “I heard you speak and you told me that you went to the clients and said, ‘You should work with me,’ so I’m telling you you should work with me.” I got a job. Howard hired me away from John Lautner, my great idol at that time, for $.50 more an hour. Howard didn’t know what I was making so I thought I could tell him anything. There were limits at that time but I thought I was rich. After I hung up the phone I started crying, literally.

Glenn Haussman: Why because you should have asked for $1.00 an hour more?

Michael Bedner: No, I sold out. I went for the money. So like so many of us, you really have a desire for design, you have a desire for planning. My forte has always been planning, conceptual planning, the large picture thing, starting with the back door and working out. Our firm had started with actually…we said earlier, I said earlier two but then I rethought and it was really three. It was Howard’s wife, Howard on a kitchen table, and then I came as the third person.

Glenn Haussman: And now there are 1,000 associates.

Michael Bedner: Now we have as of Friday 1106 I believe. But that’s internationally; we have 16 offices now. We have morphed and we are doing other things as a company.

Glenn Haussman: Okay so I want to know, back in those early days, you’re just starting out and you probably have a lot of resistance from people because I think any real change that we try to make in our lives are going to be met with resistance because people are comfortable with doing the same old same old. And here you are, you want to do designs, you want to bring your visions to life, but the people that you’re selling them to don’t necessarily understand what the practicality is of that vision. So how do you get people that are stuck in an old-school mindset to open up and be receptive to your new ideas?

Michael Bedner: Well I think the first thing, and all of you know this, all of you do know this, it’s your presentation. How do you take any new idea and get your client, the individuals you’re working with to accept it? First you have to get your team to accept it. First you have to get yourself to accept the idea and we always wanted to push the envelope and make it different than we had seen before. So we did the first contemporary Ritz Carlton in Singapore. We’ve done the first of many. We did the Park Hyatt, the first JW Marriott, the first of all of the major hotel groups and the first going forward from now, we’re doing about six firsts that will known in a very short time.

Glenn Haussman: So you’re telling us that you’re working on some brands that are not yet announced?

Michael Bedner: Yes, but we all know what they are. There are no mysteries in our business and the thing that I’m excited about and the thing that I learned was how do you sell the idea? It’s not just by holding up a picture and saying, “Isn’t this nice?” or just saying, “Look, pretty huh?” It doesn’t work. You have to make it your client’s idea, you have to make it compelling, you have to make it cost effective, you have to make it all the things that we all know but we don’t want to say. We want to say it’s just really nice; it’s beautiful.

Glenn Haussman: I like what you said about make it your client’s idea.

Michael Bedner: Oh yeah, it’s always your client’s idea and there are a lot of bad ideas because a lot of our ideas were our client’s ideas. So there’s a lot of bad design in this world.

Glenn Haussman: But you know here you are, you try to sell these ideas, so how to break through to the people to get them to understand that yours is the right way to go?

Michael Bedner: It’s a process. The best, most effective way that we’ve ever had and we learned this is the early days of Hyatt through a gentleman that’s no longer with us, Mr. Andre Dousseau, and he said that the best thing to do is to take your client, lock him in a room with you for several days, and then just to get out of the room he will agree to anything. And that…so that was our charette system. We’d lock them in a room and then we had a three-day charette and they’d agree to the most outrageous things just to get out of there. And that was probably the most effective way I learned early on and the other thing that we learned early on was share the information with more than one client. We had projects in San Francisco early on in the Hyatt on Union Square, Campton Place, and a Sheraton, an 800-room Sheraton. We were building them all at the same time, all in the same city, one across the street from the other, and it was…well the first idea was we have to have one on Tuesday, a presentation, one on Thursday, and one over the weekend and I said why don’t we just have all the presentations at the same time and make the presentations of the individual projects to the whole group. So we presented Hyatt to Campton, Campton with Hyatt, and the Sheraton all to the same group. They know each other, they’re interchangeable in many ways and so all of a sudden everyone knew what everyone else was doing. It gave us the ability to uplift all of the projects because if there was a good idea across the street, they wanted a better idea here. If there was a good idea up the block, they wanted a better idea there. So it raised the bar for all of these projects all at the same time and that to me was astounding and we got more from a client meeting rather than just pissing and moaning about what we were giving them or not. We got more because they became actively involved and that was wonderful for us to learn early on.

Glenn Haussman: So when you get them actively involved, how much of that is…we’ve been talking about listening a lot and really responding to what people say. How does that play into your ability to find success with clients?

Michael Bedner: I have a hard time listening to a client, a very difficult time. I would rather listen to many people in this room, to our vendors and all the people that have made us look good. I’ve had many of you in this room that have covered our ass, fixed our problems, and made us look good so for all of us, before I forget, I want to thank you for everything you guys do. Don’t sell yourself short. You guys do so much. We learn so much every time we have a chance to rub up against you so don’t be shut out. Most of the young designers, of course when you’re 22 you know everything as did I. The older you get the less you know. Now that I’m approaching another milestone, I know nothing. So my position now, knowing nothing, I’m really just the chairman of our company and I’m not doing any design work, I can’t at this point in life. It’s just there’s too much to be done so I’ve decided to become a client.

Glenn Haussman: Nice. I like that.

Michael Bedner: So now I’m going to torture everyone that I come in contact with.

Glenn Haussman: You know one of the important things for everybody when it comes to their careers is to find that true voice and how they represent themselves and I know I went through a long process of that when it comes to my writing a career. How did you realize that your design voice was true to yourself and then accept that you should go and follow that as opposed to following everybody else’s what they told you to do?

Michael Bedner: That’s a very good question because my true voice is here and I suppress that. But the idea is that the true voice is one of the things that we at Hirsch Bedner have always taken pride in and from what we’ve learned from our clients and our associates is that we don’t have one style. We have to have a sense of place, we have to know where we are; we have to design for the sense of place. You have to design for what the client’s needs are. You have to make it better than the client wishes. My sense of style has always been very contemporary. I’m a Mesian architect from training at Michigan and Berkley. I’m a decorator by training from what our clients require in some of our boutique hotels. The first coining of the term boutique hotel was the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and I was there recently with one of our own clients and it hasn’t changed in 28 years. This hasn’t changed in I think 14 and I’m sorry to say they changed the carpet and it’s the wrong color. I want to talk to somebody about that later please.

[Laughter]

But the idea is from the standpoint of design I don’t think there has to be…if you have only style you’re limited by the projects you do.

Glenn Haussman: But aren’t we inherently trapped by our own sense of style and who we are? How do you manage to break that out into other ways of thinking and doing?

Michael Bedner: Well I think what we’ve always said and what I’ve always told our people and our clients, we want a quality level. Okay if you want Tuscan, I cringe a lot and if it’s appropriate we do the best damn Tuscan we can find. If you want…the worst thing you can say is pseudo; a pseudo-Mediterranean, goodbye, we’re not working here. But we’ve done so many things that are really stage sets; that are facades. The work we’ve done in Vegas as you know the depth of that. We did the master planning on The Venetian. We did all the Winds work along with Roger Thomas, so we were backing Roger up most of the time.

Glenn Haussman: That must be fun working with a guy like him who continues to want to push the envelope as opposed to keep things the same?

Michael Bedner: Yeah, Roger’s a great guy, a dear friend, and terrific so it’s nice to work with other designers in a collaborative fashion. But it was more fun working with Steve because we did his first hotel, which was The Golden Nugget, which is really a shit box and we –

Glenn Haussman: It really was.

Michael Bedner: And we put a lot of rouge on the lady.

Glenn Haussman: Well they dolled her up again recently. It looks pretty decent.

Michael Bedner: Well the story is that we had all of the railings made in Mexico because I had a budget of $28 for all of the balcony railings and I just pray that they’re still holding on to the side of the building because it’s never too late for them to sue you you know. Stay on the wall. But we’ve had the great pleasure of doing not only hospitality but a great number of residences. One of the most exciting was a residence we did in Mumbai for the Amani family, which was I think the first $2 billion residence we ever –

Glenn Haussman: Did you say $2 billion?

Michael Bedner: $2 billion and you trip over that number, I know. But it was a lot of money. I think it was only $1.8 but they were pushing the number so it would seem a lot more.

Glenn Haussman: Just for reference, I think they built The Bellagio for $1.7 billion, right?

Michael Bedner: Yeah, but that was commercial. No, but that also is something that is exciting. You don’t have as much freedom ever in a residence that you do in a commercial thing. The worst client I have right now is my daughter and son-in-law who live next door to us and I’m redoing their house. It’s the worst client I’ve ever had because I can do nothing right.

Glenn Haussman: Well you’re dad. How could you?

Michael Bedner: It’s the worst thing. I think I’m going to stay here. I’m not going home. But again, the best clients are the ones that come up to you and these have been so many of our clients in Asia and they say, “Well we know what you do. You already told me you won’t give me X, Y, or Zed that I like so can you give me something that you think is appropriate?” When you do that…it frightens them a lot when I hug and kiss them but once they get over that, those are the best clients to have because they’re open. They want to know. They want to see and I think you have experiences similar to that.

Glenn Haussman: I guess you could say that the state of design is pretty good these days. Is there stuff that you’re seeing out there that particularly you think is pretty cool and different and innovative? Stuff that you might not have done?

Michael Bedner: I think there have been trends that we’ve gone through that I think are very bad. The trend of just doing high design that is very transitory, that has to be changed every 11 months or 15 months, I think at one time the W’s were very fond of being very trendy.

Glenn Haussman: Well that’s kind of how they started out with that idea that you can change it regularly.

Michael Bedner: I believe in timeless. I believe in you can do something whatever the style is. If it’s contemporary, it should be timeless. It should stand the test of time.

Glenn Haussman: Right and I think other than the carpeting, this place does a great job with that.

Michael Bedner: There’s many things that we shouldn’t do and contact me, we’ll fix it. No, there’s never a project you walk away from that is right; never. I can’t think of one. We’ve done a little over 1000 projects, I think it’s 1100 and change, and that’s a lot of projects to have walked through and kicked the tires on, to know about, a lot of people and vendors that you have worked with and the state of design is always going to be in flux. I wish there were a golden age of design; there isn’t. Mid-century modern, it still stands the test of time in a commercial setting. I think you just do the best you can and not try to force an idea on a situation would be the worst thing I can think that we have done, I have done. I mean I’ve made every mistake that you…if any of you guys think of a mistake, it’s been made right here. I guarantee it.

Glenn Haussman: Well and I would argue making mistakes actually make you better in the long term as long as you learn from them.

Michael Bedner: It’s just work, work, work. It’s that 10,000-hour threshold that you have to do to know what you’re doing.

Glenn Haussman: It really is. You know we’ve all…hopefully you guys have read the Malcolm Gladwell book that talks about the 10,000 hours but it’s such a true thing that you work, you work, you work, you don’t really think you get it all, and then one day magically I think you wake up and you realize that you’re an expert at what you’re doing and you can trust yourself and find your way.

Michael Bedner: I would never say an expert. You learn what you don’t know and then you strive to know more and that’s what I think this next 30 years of my life, and I’m guaranteeing it, this next 30 years I’m thrilled because I’m going to be building a city. We’ve built cities in Dubai, we’ve built cities in China in three locations, and now we’re building a city in California. I’m thrilled about that and I’m a majority partner on that one by the way.




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Glenn Haussman    Glenn Haussman
Editor in Chief
Hotel Interactive, Inc.

Bio: Glenn Haussman is Hotel Interactive's Editor-In-Chief, where he manages all editorial content for the hotel industry’s leading online information resource. In addition to publishing the daily magazine, he hosts a weekly on demand radio shows and develops educational content for the company’s BITAC and HI Connect Design ...
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