HLDC’s first event in Asia saw a number of the region’s finest hoteliers and designers come together to share insight and connect with one another. 

Hospitality Leadership & Design Conference’s very first Asia event was held at Four Seasons Hotel Singapore in September, where the self-proclaimed urban sanctuary on Orchard Boulevard welcomed hospitality and design delegates from all over the world.

Throughout the day, attendees had the opportunity to network with new contacts as well as catch up with some familiar faces.

One of the first events to have been given the go ahead since Covid restrictions had been lifted in the city, HLDC Singapore marked a poignant moment in the MICE sector’s return to Asia.

Welcomes were offered on stage from event director Can Faik, event compère and director of operations, MIAJA Design Group, Julian Miaja, and regional vice president and general manager, Four Seasons Hotel Singapore, Peter Draminsky. “We are so thrilled and honoured to have such esteemed guests here with us today,” said Peter, who went on to say a few words about the hospitality industry getting back on track after a couple of turbulent years. “We are looking forward to what the future holds, for the best is yet to come,” he added.

A big thank you goes to event sponsors: AXOR, Kaldewei, LaBottega, Wood Couture, Artlink, ICE, Kohler, Lasvit, and Preciosa.

Keynote address

Opening the day with his keynote address, Vignesh Kaushik, regional director of design technology, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Greater China region, Gensler, spoke to the audience about the best way to use data to drive design ideals for the hospitality market.

“We’re looking at tech savvy travellers and providing very personalised experiences. What our data has shown is that although people are ready to return to those social spaces, they still seek out open, outdoor places,” he said.

Vignesh spoke about data-driven design enabling the tailoring of environments and greater empowerment of people and said that owners and occupants had the insights necessary to predict and optimise hospitality and wellness. “As human beings we are driven by our senses, imaginations, and experiences,” he said.

He then went on to explain how every aspect of a hospitality space needs to be researched and measured to make the most of the finished product. Everything from engineering the perfect view from guest room windows to working out how many daylight hours there are in any one angle and how to best utilise that for a specific building, and how development is approached using this information.

Research shows that improving human experience adds up to better business outcomes and higher customer satisfaction. To help determine how best to implement this, Vignesh showed the audience how you can walk through a space virtually, as you would do in a game, to understand how the space works before it’s been constructed. “We use gaming programmes to help us plum in the data we have for a hospitality space and then use it as a virtual guide. It helps provide a narrative to a design in a way that’s easier to comprehend from an end-user’s perspective.”

Working with specialist consultants, and then creating virtual mock-ups for the space, Gensler puts all this together as a package for the client. “We have created a host of tools to enable our designers to design spaces based on certain metrics,” said Vignesh, “we call it data driven design.”

Designing for the guest experience 2023

Taking a fresh look at hotel design for the guest experience in a post-Covid era, moderator Tal Danai, founder and chief executive officer, ArtLink, asked his panellists: Tina Norden, partner, Conran and Partners; Gareth James, design principal, Asia Pacific, 1508 London; Ed Ng, principal, AB Concept; and Patrick Waring, partner, Silverfox Studios what changes they’ve identified over the last three years and how that knowledge is now informing their design decisions for future hospitality spaces.

“From a very personal perspective it was an opportunity to stop and think,” said Tina Norden. “Our lives can be quite manic, we’re always working, travelling, on the go, and the last few years has given us the chance to stop and assess whether what we’re doing is working. We’ve been given an opportunity to work out if we can do things in a better way.”

“I agree,” said Patrick Waring. “I think that extends to the way we interact with our colleagues, the way we respond to a brief, how we deliver a design, and even the reaction of the client – before thinking that we’d have to have face-to-face meetings and travel halfway across the world – that’s changed a lot since Covid.”

The group talked about the pros and pitfalls of travelling to sites and sometimes not having the choice. “For me the change is like day and night,” Ed tells us how pre-Covid he was located in Hong Kong but for the last couple of years he relocated to the much slower pace of Japan’s suburbs. “It’s strange to not actually see a completed project via anything but photography and video, but somehow it works.” He described how his life was on rotation pre-pandemic – in the office, at the airport, on the construction site, but that now he spends the majority of his time in the forest, surrounded by nature, with dedicated hours every day working in a much more effective way with his design team.

“For me it’s gone full circle,” said Gareth James. “I’ve gone from doing 80 flights a year to completely stopping when Covid hit, which was good in a way, but then you find you start missing it. I liked the way we’d deliver things, the interaction, I’m not great with computers so I liked the return to the office, being able to connect with people on a more personable level. So, there’s a fine line and we’re still working out how best to do things.”

The panel discussed the different ways in which people travel since Covid restrictions have been lifted, and everyone agreed that travel had changed fundamentally for the better, where more weight was given to spending time more effectively on holiday by bringing your work with you and how that had impacted on the way they were now designing hotels and resorts. “We’re making hybrid spaces,” said Tina, “and that, for me, is one of the biggest changes.”

What can Asia teach the rest of the world in hospitality?

Discussing whether the notion that outstanding properties, rather than service, are a precursor to success in the next evolution of the luxury hospitality sector, group moderator Hemanshu Parwani ‘HP’, chief executive officer and owner, Olson Kundig, asked industry experts: Tony Chisholm, principal, Head of APAC Hospitality, KSL Capital Partners; Rainer Stampfer, president, Hotel Operations APAC, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts; Toby Smith, deputy chairman, Swire Hotels; and Christian Westbeld, managing director, Raffles Hotel Singapore: “After taking a hotel’s location, building, and sustainable credentials into account, what’s the one thing that really stands out in a hotel for you?”

Tony Chisholm said: “For me it’s food and beverage – it’s such a dynamic component. And in Asia Pacific it’s just that bit more exciting to see how each location introduces that element into their hotel offering, whether it’s through local community street food or fine dining, for me that’s the point of difference, bringing a level of authenticity to customers.”

Toby Smith agreed, “The variety and richness of the food and beverage offering in Asia is phenomenal. I find it’s very hard though to put my finger on one thing, but I think service and design – it has to be a combination of those two things and I think in Asia specifically there are so many properties that have hit that sweet spot.”

HP asked the panel how they felt their own brands stacked up. Christian Westbeld was the first to answer, saying: “I think Asian hotels have the opportunity to be the window to the neighbourhood and to be part of the community. For us, with 150 years of heritage it’s quite easy because we are the neighbourhood, we are the community and so we’re able to make our guests feel a part of that.”

Rainer Stampfer said for Four Seasons it was about taking a fresh approach. “We’re very conscious that when we acquire a new hotel, we don’t just put our name on it, we take on the culture and locality of each new signing, we are now investing a lot more time in our people.”

8 Conlay – transforming the Kuala Lumpur skyline

Moderator Filippo Sona, partner and chief operating officer, Wood Couture, took HLDC delegates on an exploratory journey through the vision of chief executive officer, KSK Group and managing director, KSK Land, Joanne Kua to find out how design is creating a destination within a global city.

Filippo introduced Joanne giving a brief history of her successful career to date in banking and insurance prior to joining the family business and becoming CEO of KSK Group and developing one of the most iconic mixed-used properties in Malaysia, 8 Conlay, asking Joanne: “How was the transition from corporate business to family business?”

“I went from one financial institution into another financial institution,” she said. “But there is a difference in mindset. Often in the corporate business world you can feel like a small fish in open waters trying to navigate the financial market, but I think in family business we pick the position of building businesses that sustain for generations to come. So your mindset is switched from decisions being made for the next two, three or four years, to decisions being made for the next two, three, or four decades. I think of myself as a steward looking after the business for the next generation.”

Filippo asked Joanne if her father gave her any business advice or insight that has stayed with her. She said: “Change is the only constant. We’re not an old family business in comparison to many others, so far it’s just two generations, but we are really customer obsessed. We’ve gone from insurance where we sell bits of paper, to real estate where we have assets – but the ethos is still the same when it comes to the customer. We have to think about the customer journey and their experience. It's why that saying, ‘change is the only constant’ is so important, we never do the same thing all the time, we always try to innovate.”

Talking more about 8 Conlay, Joanne tells the room how passionate she is about building customer journeys and experiences and how design plays a big role in that. “Iconic design and designers are very important in this industry, they can elevate a space and make it much more desirable, they can adapt a space and tell a story – and we are there to continue that story. We worked with some amazing designers and architects on 8 Conlay, and it was wonderful seeing them all in a room together working with each other’s ideas and coming up with new ones. We respect the design process and the experience of the designers we work with.”

People, places, spaces: the future of brands

Exploring brand pillars and key factors in designing a brand today, panel moderator Tina Norden, partner, Conran and Partners, asked how meaningful brands are built in a post-Covid landscape that resonates with today’s guests. Panellists: Kingsley Amose, global chief design and technical services officer, Accor; Paul Wiste, vice president design and construction Asia Pacific, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts; Dharmali Kusumadi, senior vice president, Banyan Tree Holdings; and Vincent Chen, vice president technical services, Artyzen Hospitality Group, shared their ideas on how to foster and guide creativity.

Talking about what creates brand loyalty, Kingsley Amose said: “We’re supposed to satisfy the emotional and functional needs of our guests, but it’s not always that simple. As a global company what you do in China you would never do in Paris or in London, so owning a brand has become a very complexed topic. We try to position a brand correctly for the ‘tribe’ that we’re targeting, we try to promote it correctly, and then we give something called brand promise, and it’s very important we make sure that promise is fulfilled. A luxury traveller is very different to a price conscious traveller.”

Dharmali Kusumadi said: “For us brand is more related to guest experience, it needs to be really specific, and it needs to be delivered against the brand pillar. We have created two sub brands to be more unique and specific to different types of guest.”

Paul Wiste agreed that the guest was the defining factor: “I think from a single brand perspective it’s much easier to define ‘brand’ – it’s who you are, it’s how you project yourself, and it’s a promise between yourself and your guest. There’s a certain level of expectation there and when customers come to us, we’re able to define that in our properties and our staff. It’s about being true to yourself, it’s how you welcome people in.”

Nodding, Vincent Chen said, “It’s about consistency and how you display that to your guests.”

Tina then went on to ask about the relationship between owners and operators, how that relationship is driven, and who calls the shots. “I think we’re in a very fortunate position at Four Seasons where we work with some pretty amazing owners,” said Paul. “Most of them will have stayed at a Four Seasons hotel before becoming a Four Seasons hotel owner. I actually think the owner/operator relationship is stronger now. We’ve come through a terrible episode together, but as a result of that we had to have very difficult conversations and that has brought us all together and has helped us understand each other better.”

Dharmali added, “We have to have a good understanding of what motivates our owners, some of them are first-time owners, some of them already have hotels with us. It’s often about managing expectations and being realistic with what can be delivered.”

Keeping up with stakeholders’ expectations

As a result of cost and inflation escalation, the global real estate, in particular hospitality, is feeling the pressure to maintain financial and branding competitiveness. Developers, operators, and supply chain are having to reinvent themselves and find the right balance between budget to design and design to budget. Filippo Sona, partner and chief operating officer, Wood Couture, asked panellists: Kristina Zanic, chief executive officer and founder, Kristina Zanic Consultants; Chris Godfrey, co-chief executive officer, HBA; Angela Spathonis, principal and managing director, Gensler; and Clint Nagata, founder and creative partner, BLINK Design Group, “Is the interior architecture industry in need of reshaping the business model to remain competitive?”

Angela Spathonis said: “For us it’s about gathering the right industry expertise and delivering, and we do that by asking what value we bring, as practitioners, to the table. Every project we get has a different mandate, and we have to navigate that when we’re bringing a team together. We always think of ways in which we can bring the best people and ideas to the table and often that involves a lot of collaboration.”

Chris Godfrey said: “We’ve been around for a long time and we’re actually seeing a lot of clients return to us because we can offer stability and continuity – those are values we can deliver.”

“There are so many great design firms out there, you have to figure out how you stand out above the rest,” said Clint Nagata.

“You can’t take on every single project you’re offered,” said Angela, “it’s about understanding where your strengths lay and making decisions that are right for everyone – making sure you have the skills and the expertise to be able to deliver on.”

Kristina Zanic added: “I think it’s great when designers get the opportunity to do a lot of different things. It’s quite fun sometimes. If you’re used to doing luxury projects to then get handed a three-star project. Designers like to be challenged so it’s great when you have an opportunity to do something different.”

“What we’re finding with the different specialisations we’ve got is that we win a project for one specific aspect, like the F&B and the rest of the hotel project comes along with it,” said Chris.

“I think it’s really important you do the projects that you want to do and you’re not always stressing over the bottom line,” Kristina added. “Specialise in what you do best and when you don’t have the expertise, collaborate with those that do.”

Luxury and sustainability – can the two truly coexist?

“With the world facing so many challenges caused by climate change, how do we see sustainability becoming more a part of the luxury experience?” Asks moderator Rengy John, managing partner, BLINK Design Group to panellists: Nils-Arne Schroeder, vice president, Luxury Brands Asia Pacific, Hilton; Kim Beh Siew, chief financial and sustainability officer and managing director Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Japan & Korea, The Ascott Limited; Jon Kastl, vice president of interior design, Marina Bay Sands; and Verena Haller, chief design officer, Standard International.

“Ultimately sustainability is a must,” said Nils-Arne Schroeder. “It’s not only about the building being sustainable, it’s about looking after our communities as well.”

Kim Beh Siew said: “We embrace sustainability across all our brands, we’ve been practicing sustainable measures for the last ten years. But since Covid, it’s top of our agenda – it’s an important topic for all our stakeholders. We have set up a sustainability committee to help us drive sustainable measures.”

Verena Haller told us how Standard International has put sustainability front and centre of their hotel offerings: “We’ve started to build three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental, and then the social aspect,” she said. “We look at where our ingredients come from, how product is shipped and where it’s shipped from, and we invest into local charities. It goes without saying that we only want to use sustainable products, but implementing that is sometimes not so easy. We’re excited to be going on this journey, but we need a lot of help. Sustainability is a topic that should bring us all together and help us to learn from each other.”

Talking about Marina Bay Sands, Jon Kastl told us how he thinks of sustainability as part of the luxury experience. “I can’t really point to any specific thing that shows how we’re being more sustainable and the original building that was built 12 years ago was not an efficient building, but now we’re going to be refurbishing the tower, it gives us an opportunity to deliver something that’s much more sustainable. Just the systems we’re using are so much smarter, the way the rooms are fabricated, everything is done at a much greener level. We have corporate brand standards around Eco 360, but you won’t see guests standing next to something saying, ‘this is so sustainable’, that’s not the point, the point is to deliver a luxury experience that just so happens to be sustainable. There are a lot of luxury experiences offered by different brands in different ways, but at the end of the day sustainability is now fundamental to all those things.”