Ian Carr and René Gross Kærskov, Co-CEOs, HBA
HBA has been an industry benchmark in excellence for over 50 years. Co-CEOs Ian Carr and René Gross Kærskov talk to SPACE editor Can Faik about the company’s impeccable reputation, vision and international presence…
With more than 50 years of experience, HBA/Hirsch Bedner Associates creates the signature looks of today’s luxury brands, independent contemporary boutique hotels, urban resorts spas, world-class residences, restaurants, and casinos. From continent to continent, each HBA interior is the result of a unique and sensitive response to location, architecture, and client vision. With more than 1,500 designers around the globe in 26 offices and a recent expansion in several locations in Asia.
Tell me about your roles at HBA.
We’re critical thinkers when it comes to what HBA does and what we can do in the future – issues that have major implication for our design, the operation we provide and the locations we occupy and the markets we are in. We’re always questioning what we should be doing, how can we do it better and the next moves we should make as a group; going forward, we want to be the very best we can be.
What five words come to mind when you think of HBA?
Critical, emotional, accomplished, flexibility, unique.
What makes HBA different to other design companies?
HBA has a culture of stepping into the unknown – we’re not fearful of grabbing opportunities and running with them. HBA has built a team capable and ready to take measured chances using our depth of experience and knowledge of markets. As a result, we’re confident of the most positive outcomes in any situation. We’re the single most trusted firm in the industry and our aim is to keep and build on that status.
What trends in hotel design are you noticing at the moment?
Recently, hoteliers are looking to get away from the formulaic, they want to be seen as providing an individual collection of properties rather than a vast chain of similar hotels . Increasingly, we have been asked to create one-off – it doesn’t matter if it’s a Marriot or a Hilton, each hotel needs to be looked at as a singular space rather than as a collection. HBA designers are from different backgrounds, cultures and disciplines of design, and we encourage our staff to explore to experiement as far as our clients want us to. We have to be more dynamic, individualistic and more expressive – the future over the next 20 years is to create a unique collection while maintaining HBA’S core knowledge of luxury operational smartness.
How important are public spaces in hotels?
20 years ago you would have vast lobbies, vast circulation routes leading to multiple restaurants and huge banquet spaces but these are less and less common nowadays. I think operators are learning that the guest doesn’t really want a choice of four-five fine dining restaurants in the evening – they’d rather go out and sample local flavour at smaller restaurants frequented by locals. As far as the remaining public space is concerned, what’s left really has to be excellent and very flexible as we are talking about lobbies that also have to function as places to meet, work, drink and even dine.
With so many hospitality designers in the industry, how does HBA stand out from the rest?
HBA has been the number-one hospitality design firm for perhaps 51 years. Our longevitiy ensures we stand out from the crowd and it’s a real measure of quality: something that is supremely dependable but also something that can attract the talent from around the world that’s really doing avant-garde things. We can deliver high-end luxury and any sort of design style, plus we have the flexibility to work with many brands across the operating spectrum.
How is the current economic climate affecting the hotel design market? And has HBA felt the effects?
The world economy has been all over the place for the past 10 years and HBA has felt that with adversity comes opportunity – we’ve demonstrated strong growth and are three times the size of the firm that we were in 2007. The good thing about being a global company is that, in economic terms, when the United Stated is down, Asia could be firing – you haven’t got all your eggs in one basket.
Have you seen exceptional growth in any part of the world in hotel design?
With current economic climates, China seems to be coming back some what in the hospitality market, Japan is really picking up, Korea has really had a decent amount of work and the States has been a great source of new projects for HBA over past three-four years. We have different pockets all over the world, then, and it’s ebbing and flowing. That’s one of the things that makes this a very interesting industry to be part of.
Is there anything exciting that you are working on at the moment that you can tell us about?
It sounds trite, but we think every project is exciting and think you can see quality in the smallest of public area and restroom renovations from a lift cab to the largest gaming casino in the world. HBA has upwards of 300 hotels on the drawing board at the moment and some of the finest residential projects in the world.
What is the biggest thing the company has learnt over its years in the industry?
I guess what I learnt is never make an enemy of a client, a project manager, or an operator because this is a small industry! We put people, service and relationships right at the forefront of everything we do; we don’t want to be great designers alone we want to be renowned as the best people to work with, collaborative stakeholders who are reliable and go that extra mile.
What has been your favourite project to date?
Ian: I particularly enjoyed working on the Peace Hotel in Shanghai – it had been the 1929 Old Café hotel but had lost its identity over years of communist rule. Just to unearth and peel back its history to reveal and restore the patina of the old property was deeply satisfying.
What’s next for you and HBA?
HBA has never been stronger and the marriage of offices, partners and principles is a real achievement. We see this as only the starting point and we want to build the most integrated high-quality hospitality design service in the world over the next five years.
What does design mean to you?
Design is what creates that sense of being at one with your environment – whether that environment is loud and vibrant or all about purity and simplicity.
What do you love about being a designer?
Ian: I wanted to create things from an early age and I was lucky enough to fall into a great career largely in the Asian arena,which was a great choice of market given the phenomenal growth its seen in design awareness over the last 30 years. I love design as no day is remotely similar to the last.
What would be your dream hotel project?
An amazing restoration project by the ocean – something like the Gore Face hotel in Colombo, Strand in Penang . It would be fascinating to tackle something like this at this stage in my career.
Where currently ranks highest on your travel wish-list?
Ian: I would very much like to go back to Sri Lanka; as a young man I stayed in what was then a war-torn country for eight months – the people were so positive, though, and it’s an incredibly beautiful place. Ideally, I’d love to go back for another eight months!
Where do you see hotel design in the future?
Individual style is the key driver of the hotel world these days – it will continue to be all about creating eclectic, one-off interiors that give the guest a true sense of being part of something that’s as unique as they are.