China Acquires High-End Hospitality Design

May 11 2014, 12:12pm CDT | by

A Chinese firm now has a provocative new capability that could catapult it to the forefront of global hospitality design. Do they appreciate the legacy behind it?

In early March this year we received the announcement that Wilson and Associates, designer of many of today’s top luxury hotels, had been acquired by Shanghai Xian Dai Architectural Design (Group) Co., Ltd.

Press releases in the USA called it “an agreement to join forces with East China Architecture Design and Research Institute (ECADI)any affiliated to Shanghai Xian Dai Architectural Design (Group) Co.”  (A year earlier, in 2013 Trisha Wilson, Wilson Associates’ founder and President, had announced that she was stepping down from her position as President and CEO.)

This is big news in the high-end hospitality design industry.  Dallas-based Wilson Associates  has grown from its founding in 1971 to an international force in luxury interior design, with offices on both coasts of the US, and in China, India, Singapore, and the Middle East. The arc of the firm’s growth parallels that of the increasing breadth and depth of luxury hotel offerings worldwide.

It was not that long ago that luxury hotels meant the Grand Hotels of the old world, where decorum and propriety (at least on the surface) were expected from both staff and clientele.  Grand Hotel Budapest (the Wes Anderson movie, released March 2014) was a stylistic jaunt down a memory lane of such a world.  Replete with eye candy; a bravura performance of Ralph Fiennes; loony cameos by everyone from Bill Murray to Tilda Swinton (kudos to Ms Swinton for the guts to wear wrinkles and smeared lipstick); the movie also reveals the wide divide between the 1% and the rest of us. They get every whim pandered to.  We do the pandering – seemingly sharing some of the same spaces – but with our noses pressed up against the glass windows (no one came close to those glass ceilings) that kept the great unwashed from participating and partaking.

Leave it to the Americans to break the glass barrier.

The 1950s saw the growing popularity of leisure travel, with the Hawaiian Islands being the destination of choice for most Americans.  The Islands were far enough away to be exotic, yet still part of the United States, and posed no challenges of a foreign language, cuisine, or culture.

Once on the islands though, the visitor had a limited choice of crowded Waikiki beaches; bus tours to pineapple plantations or muumuu factories or both; assembly-line luaus, and Don Ho.

This all changed in 1976 when Christopher B Hemmeter (1939-2003) opened his first hotel, the Hyatt Regency Waikiki in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Hemmeter went on, for the next 10 years or so, to develop ever larger and more ambitious resorts in Maui, the Big Island and Kauai, all based on the principle of creating memorable experiences for the hotel guest.  Hemmeter believed that the average Hawaii vacationer – Mr and Mrs Middle-America (my term, not his) – had worked and saved all their lives for this vacation of a lifetime, and we owe it to them to give them more than a just a bedroom.

Hemmeter made destination resorts fun – swim with the dolphins! Take a boat-ride to your guestroom! Grotto bars! Swans and waterfalls next to the lobby! PGA-champion designer golf courses! The list goes on.  Some may now sniff and scoff, but in their time these were truly new and game-changing ideas. Hawaii in those days had the Mauna Kea for the riche, and the Outrigger* for the rest of us. (Those who wanted to get away from it all went to the Coco Palms in Kauai – no phones, no TV, forget cell phones. )  Hemmeter’s brilliance was that he saw what it is that people aspire to; his success was that he found a way to make it available to you and me.  That principle is true today as it was over 40 years ago:  guests come – and come back – for the experienceMake it fun, make it unique, make it accessible.

Today some of the biggest proponents of the guest experience are from the gaming industry, most notably Steve Wynn and the Sands’ Sheldon Adelson.  In an interview  with Forbes magazine, Wynn said something very similar about creating experiences for the common man.  Wynn was a contemporary and a cohort of Hemmeter’s; we see the same moves albeit very differently executed, in the Wynn resorts – the carefully choreographed arrival drive up to the porte cochere, the knock-their-socks-off chandeliers, the picture-perfect fountains and waterfalls, the investment in art and antiques.  Who inspired whom, who first conceived each outrageous idea, one can only speculate.  (I do have to pause here, and give a shoutout to the Wynn’s over-scaled and over-the-top passementerie.)

In the mid 1980s Hemmeter was developing plans for a Southern California resort, in large part inspired by San Simeon (“one man’s idea of a house”).  One of three interior designers involved in the project was a certain up-and-coming firm based in Dallas.  Hemmeter sold the project before construction began, and it has morphed into something quite different (but there remain yet hints of the original ideas).


Wilson and Associates went on to become the force it is today, effectively the go-to firm for luxury gaming, destination and hospitality projects.  One of its earlier projects is the Palace of the Lost City, in Sun City, South Africa. Wilson credits her firm’s involvement in that, and other South African projects, for her affection for the region, her decision to build a home there, and the focus of the efforts of her charitable organization, the Wilson Foundation.

Trisha Wilson’s and her firm’s successes and accomplishments read like entirely American phenomena.  A result of being in the right place at the right time; the requisite moxie, smarts and tenacity; the social consciousness; even, might one add, the typical Texan graciousness and charm.

With the firm’s acquisition by ECADI, industry observers wonder: how will this ownership change affect the design and culture, and eventually, inevitably, the process and the product?  More intriguing yet, how will the Chinese parent company be affected by this mixed marriage?

* In fairness to the Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, I am writing about the typical Outrigger product c. 1970s.  Many things have changed since those dark days.


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