A number of high profile designers convened earlier this week at Hospitality Design Expo to discuss a number of key issues related to the “Business of Design,” including how they successfully grew their respective firms, points of differentiation for design companies, and the impact of tariffs on sourcing goods.
Held at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, the panel was moderated by Ed Bakos, managing director, Champalimaud Design, and included David Ashen, president, Dash Design; Kellie Sirna, principal, Studio 11 Design; and Craig Palacios, architect, Bunnyfish Studio.
The designers were asked about what they saw as tipping points for their respective firms.
Sirna referenced the Best Western Premier in Haiti as “one of the biggest moments” for the eight-year-old firm. She further stressed the importance of “taking the time to take those calls where you’re not really sure how it’s going to go. That [project] ended up putting us on the map; we got a lot of coverage…That was kind of a monumental moment for us.”
Ashen, meanwhile, addressed the tipping point from a personnel standpoint. “It was when I hired someone that had more experience than me. That was my first major hire about 12 years ago and that was a super scary hire, but it relieved so much from my plate and allowed me to set the business on a pattern of growth,” he said.
Palacios noted it was a client that transformed the firm which had been working out of a coffee shop in downtown Las Vegas. The client was Tony Hsieh, who would go on to become CEO of Zappos.
“It changed the scope and scale of our company really quickly. He would pop into a meeting and say things like ‘can you guys build the world’s largest functioning fire hydrant?’ There was only one answer for Tony, which was yes, and that became our problem. So we did all this funny weird stuff and having things like the world’s largest functioning fire hydrant sort of gets you in the eye of other people. That’s what put is in the limelight,” he said.
Bakos underscored the importance of clients and stretching the boundaries. “I think it’s definitely true that there’s a point for each of us where we’ve reached into or maybe beyond our own experience and pitched something that we’ve never done before. To have the self confidence to do that opens doors that can really propel the next part of your career. Behind every great designer is a great client. Each of us have had clients that were instrumental to our success,” he noted.
Ashen further added, “you don’t always get to choose your clients. They choose you and there’s a lot of learning that comes in from everyone. As the work starts to develop, a client base starts to come to you that feels right and fits.” He referenced his first hospitality client, which was a company out of Denver he still works with and noted that “helped let me think about who are the type of clients that I’d like to work with.”
The executives went on to discuss points of differentiation for their firms in a competitive landscape. “We invested in a curation and stylist team that’s a whole different company that works alongside our design team and it’s been amazing. They do artwork in house. They actually collaborate with other artists and other design firms to come in and do that last layer. I think that’s been something that differentiates us. We continue to not only be designers but storytellers and I think that’s what gives our projects more of a soul,” commented Sirna.
Palacios reinforced the point. “I think that the really good firms spend a lot of time in creating that story and creating that narrative… I think the distinguisher between a firm that may do 100 select service hotels in a year is the storytelling.”
“We talk a lot about how one lives and that’s one of things we see as our special sauce. Developing a point of view around luxury living and the contemporary world has been a big part of our focus,” said Bakos.
The designers spoke about some of their top concerns going forward, including how their dealing with tariff issues from China.
Sirna noted the company’s primary office is in Dallas. “We really depend on our reps. Our reps keep us up to date on any tariffs that are happening and how they’re solving for it and it cues the entire team to have an alternative [strategy]. It’s important that we find alternative ways for not only tariffs but we’re really big on striving and getting creative with environmental issues too,” she said.
“The world’s changing very fast with where things come from. We have the cycle of ‘China’s going to change everything.’ That’s got its pros and cons and we’re figuring it out. It’s an interesting experience with manufacturers out of Europe, which is going to be exciting. You’ve got to sort all those things out and we rely heavily on our reps as well,” stated Palacios.
“With the tariffs we have been looking at other places where manufacturing is being done. So looking at vendors doing manufacturing in Vietnam and other areas and looking for domestic manufacturing when we can knowing that was coming down the pipe,” noted Ashen.