Are relationships between big hotel groups and the big design giants being challenged by smaller design studios?
There are compelling reasons why large hotel groups select established global design giants, including proven design capabilities, capable workforce, structured design competencies, flexible allocation to manage peak times, global support etc. However more recently, small design studios are breaking into this market by offering superior marketable design at more competitive rates.
So, how are they doing it?
The deliverables for the design of a large-scale hotel project are immense. So how does a small design studio compete with large hospitality design firms?
Many hotel groups prefer small firms or even independent interior designers or decorators. Part of this is because they prefer the principal of the firm to work on their project, as the firm's reputation usually hinges on his/her design abilities and personal style.
Along with the advantage of being able to offer lower fees and a more personalised design service, smaller firms now have access to the technology and resources to complete these projects in the same timescale and at a higher quality level than a large design firm.
Virtual Assistance and Outsourcing
With access to the Internet, the opportunities to work with very good but "remote" designers from all over the world are not only possible, but advantageous. The advantage is that different designers can be brought in on a project basis, depending on their experience and talent. Relationships are built which are beneficial to both the designer and studio.
Some firms or individual designers collaborate or work in association with others. This is a highly effective way of combining resources, skills, and credibility, to complete and implement high quality design.
The trend for procuring offshore services has now become the norm. The availability of computerised technology has recently enabled firms to outsource packages for projects such as construction documentation. This means that the smaller design firm can take on large projects and complete them within the required time frames. Outsourcing services to cost-effective areas such as the Philippines and India can provide excellent quality at very competitive rates, while the design studio can operate with lower overheads.
It is now feasible and definitely advantageous in terms of quality deliverables, to have a CAD back office in Madras, 3D renderers based in Manila, and a senior designer with global hospitality experience based in Cape Town, for example, all making up the design team.
Credibility and Trust
The priority of the studio and the client is the provision of good design that comes in on budget and is in keeping with a hotel's signature style and brand. If the design is not suitable or feasible, the designer has not fulfilled his/her obligations. This situation has nothing to do with the size or infrastructure of the design firm. (This is also something that is revealed during the first phases of the project when the relationship between the designer and client is still developing).
The challenge for the design studio is to create a strategy around their business goals that provides trust, credibility and authority. Once a small studio lands that large-scale hotel project, managing it and completing it may be challenging, but the studio owes it to its client to provide the same reliability and quality as a large firm would. This is as important for the studio's reputation as it is for the client.
If the design firm has proven ability to complete a project successfully and the hotel operator has specific standards and comprehensive design guidelines, then the risk factor is minimal.
For the small design studio, its credibility is dependent on the last project completed, its portfolio of completed works, and the professionalism it displays visually, through websites and publications. Basically, what you see is what you get.
Benefits of Engaging a Small Design Studio
In a small design studio, the principle/owner is the client contact person and the key designer. The small firm does not have overheads such as maintaining a large staff or an impressive office and hence is able to provide lower fees. Because of its size, the studio can offer a more personalised service. Since the design project will be undertaken mainly by the owner, the approach will be based on his/her individual style rather than a generic approach.
Smaller firms, despite having less manpower, often have the passion and determination to pursue and successfully complete large-scale projects. This is usually done through well-planned networking efforts. Smaller firms also tend to care more about their client relationships, as these are vital for procuring and maintaining business.
Intimacy can benefit both the staff and the client. In a small design firm, employees are afforded opportunities to work on many aspects of a project, from detailing and material specs, to actual design and client contact, and can successfully see a project through from beginning to end.
For clients, it's important to understand that large firms require more money for overheads and marketing, a percentage of which needs to be billed back through projects.
The smaller firm lacks the scope and collective experience of a larger firm, but this can be a good thing. Larger hospitality design firms have, over the years, been able to build up design "packages" suited to various requirements. For example, if a contemporary design is required for one project and a classical design for another, the same firm is capable of offering both options and executing them. If this choice of packages appeals to the hotel group, this is good, however, recently hotel groups have become more brand-orientated and their own personal brand needs to be expressed and reflected through unique interior design.
A small firm tends to master a particular style for which it becomes known and adherence to this style is the reason it is usually selected. For this reason, small firms do not really compete with each other for projects in the way that large firms do.
Small firms have the advantage of being less bureaucratic, have lower fixed costs (which allow for more design experimentation), and more flexibility in responding to clients' needs. They are in a better position to 'think outside the box' and come up with a concept that is unique and fitting with the hotel brand and positioning.
Over the past five years, I have personally had contact with at least eight interior design directors for large hospitality design firms based in Singapore who have moved on to start their own design studios. Some have had a following from loyal clients and others have acquired new clients within the first year of business. The truth is that there is more than enough work to go around. Previously these designers did not have the capacity to commit to large hospitality projects without initial funding to set up an office. Today, while some have invested in setting up office, others are simply producing high quality design and services working from a spare room at home or from a laptop with a virtual office setup.
When asked why these designers chose to break away and set up shop on their own, the overall response was that they wanted to be able to deliver good design - design that they believed in.
One has to look no further than acclaimed new hotel brands such as Alila and Banyan Tree, or the array of cutting-edge resorts that have sprung up in places such as Ko Samui and Hua Hin, Thailand, to see that these designers are not only busy, they are also delivering exceptional design.
written for Hotel Solutions Partnership