The design community gathered in Miami for the HD Americas show focused on projects and work in Latin America
Miami – Each September South Beach becomes the destination for the glitterati of hotel design. This year was no different as industry leaders from all walks of the design community gathered at the HD Americas Expo at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
The show shines a light on what is going on as it relates to designing hotels in Latin America: the logistics, the pitfalls, the challenges and differences—as well as the inspiration.
Grupo Habita founders Moises Micha and Carlos Couturier. The group is currently working on a Chicago project, to complement its existing 13-hotel portfolio.
This year’s keynote centered on Carlos Couturier and Moises Micha, managing partners of Grupo Habita, a hotel company with Mexican roots, but now global growth. The company’s hotels have gained a huge following, based in part on their distinct design among intimate settings—from the throwback-styled Hotel Boca Chica in Acapulco to the popular Hotel Americano in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. In total, Grupo Habita is a 13-hotel portfolio, with most of its inventory in Mexico. However, that will soon change.
“We are doing a project in Chicago right now,” said Couturier, who, beyond being a hotel owner and developer, operates citrus farms in Mexico. Perhaps surprisingly, the Chicago hotel will also have a hostel component, a way to offer younger travelers a new travel choice. Micha said that hostels are increasingly becoming a trend in Mexico.
For the apparent future, Grupo Habita’s growth mode will be outside its native Mexico, in gateway cities, but in pockets not necessarily recognizable or tony. In addition to the announced Chicago project, Grupo Habita said it is looking at Los Angeles—not Beverly Hills or West Hollywood, Couturier said—but “at other districts where we can make a difference,” he added, such as the Arts District. “We like neighborhoods; we don’t go to the main destinations.”
Many Grupo Habita projects get their inspiration from the arts community, one of the reasons it decided to open its New York hotel near Chelsea’s plethora of art galleries. “Our focus now is North America; we decided to come here,” Couturier said. “It’s important to stay focused geographically.”
Though many might tend to believe that the natural progression for Grupo Habita would be South American expansion, Couturier explained, “New York is four hours from Mexico City; Buenos Aires is 12.”
With a host of designers in the audience, many of whom would jump at the opportunity to do a Grupo Habita project, there is hope. “We don’t like to work with the same designers for each project,” Couturier said. “We are anti-franchise sort of developers.”
Latin American Renaissance
Pivoting to Latin America exclusively, a panel session featured four designers sharing their experiences working on projects in the region. One of the more poignant topics: Do the hotel brands get Latin America?
“The brands thought they could translate into Latin America,” said Nancy Nodler, principal, Gensler. “They are now developing more authentic hotels, with materials connected to the community.” She added that limited-service hotels in Latin America are much higher design-wise than they are in the U.S.
“Brands have become more flexible in the region,” said Rodrigo Vargas, principal, Rodrigo Vargas Design. “They tended to lump Latin America into one single group, when you are talking about a series of countries with different traditions. The brands are starting to understand that regionalism.”
“Brands are understanding the local context better,” said Shawn Patrick O’Donahue, VP and Sr. designer, VOA Associates. “Creating something more regional, but not U.S. or European. It enables us to play with new materials.”
Like any foreign destination, there are challenges to constructing and opening hotels for U.S.-based firms. Your best bet: “Hire a good purchasing agent,” Nodler said. “That’s the key. The biggest challenge is consistency of quality. Furniture is becoming easier, but fabrics are a challenge with requirements that brands need.”
Dan Welborn, principal and VP, Gettys, said it’s easier to source furniture in the country than to bring it in. Still, there are different rules, “learn them,” he said. “Working with someone locally is usually the best.”
The types of clients designers often work with also differ and present, not so many obstacles, but a different learning curve of what their vision is.
“It’s tough to stereotype a client,” said Welborn. “They tend to hold the hotels longer and have a more trophy asset mentality. They want to build something great. In the U.S., the typical client may hold a property for five to 10 years, then make money on it. If you are going to hold a long time, it’s like making a purchase of a great suit and not just a trend.”
Latin American, or non-U.S., owners also expect a higher level of design, said Vargas. “Outside the U.S., a four-star [down] here has higher standards and higher expectations for design,” he said. “They are sophisticated clients and in tune with what’s going on in the world. They want the best and greatest so you are being challenged by them and they want their monies worth.”
However the perception, many of the design trends stateside are translating into Latin American projects, said Gensler’s Nodler. “Guests want a personalized experience, a sense of place and authenticity and projects connected socially to the community,” she said. “There is also a strong interest in sustainability: making sure materials help with energy efficiency and incorporating things like green roofs.”
Four designers spoke on the Latin American renaissance and designing for a new era. Pictured from left are: Nancy Nodler, principal, Gensler; Rodrigo Vargas, principal, Rodrigo Vargas Design; Shawn Patrick O’Donahue, VP and Sr. designer, VOA Associates; and Dan Welborn, principal and VP, Gettys. The panel was moderated by Warren Feldman, EVP, JN+A Associates and HVS, at podium.
Then there was the question of language and understanding both parties. “Language is a challenge,” said Welborn. Most designers said when drawing up contracts they made sure they were bilingual. “Whatever your client needs,” Welborn said.
“It’s tough to stereotype a client. They tend to hold the hotels longer and have a more trophy asset mentality. They want to build something great. In the U.S., the typical client may hold a property for five to 10 years, then make money on it.”
Dan Welborn, principal and VP, Gettys