The mid-range hospitality market has seen a continued influx across the GCC region in the past couple of years, with Dubai taking centre-stage for countless completed projects and ones that are currently in the pipeline. A number of interior design firms in the region are now working on hospitality projects that aren’t just focused on luxury, but about creating unique experiences.
One of the pioneering firms in this area of design is Studio HBA, run by Australian architect Justin Wells.
Wells has been a registered architect for more than 20 years and has owned and run companies in Australasia and South East Asia, focusing on the hospitality market. He describes Australia as a tough market where design is plentiful but work is few, resulting in ruthless competition. These circumstances led Wells to consider working overseas, and eventually landing an opportunity to run Studio HBA in Dubai.
“I was pretty adamant that I wanted to be a genuine contributor to something different. And the Middle East for me was the big show. And everyone wants a ticket to the big show,” explains Wells.
Building relationships with operators, developers and consultants was paramount when developing Studio HBA, but Wells explains that an insatiable appetite to understand and learn more about Studio HBA came about from the beginning. People were curious to know the difference between the two practices and how they worked.
So, what is the difference?
According to Wells, HBA has been well-known around the world for more than 50 years for its luxury hospitality. Studio HBA, on the other hand, opened only nine years ago, at the time solely dedicated to mid-scale, lifestyle hospitality. It provides a more customisable service and one that is more agile due to the kinds of brands that it works with.
Studio HBA has now developed to look at different services such as residential, retail, and food and beverage, among others, but its key differentiator is where it positions itself in the hospitality sector. And since mid-range has become such a growing market in the GCC, Studio HBA already has a large number of projects under its belt.
“The Middle East is the second most affluent market in the world that I can think of for mid-scale because it is a very mature market with luxury brands. The appetite for luxury and five-star is well-founded here, but then there is a gaping hole in offerings,” says Wells.
“The world has changed with the global financial crisis. Developers are now approaching return on investment differently, not wanting to wait 12 years and instead focusing on six years. Mid-scale hotels are a model that offers a faster return.”
Wells adds that mid-scale hospitality has also become a global trend, with millennials seeking more authentic experiences and stories to share about their travels, and some of the lifestyle brands on offer allow a more creative freedom in the design.
“You can see these major operators from around the world are moving and have been moving for some time towards new brands, almost a reinvention or recalibration of existing brands to offer something a bit more tech-savvy or social media focused. Call it what you will, but the experience that these people take away is based on all these mid-range lifestyle brands. We have seen that as a global trend and it’s going to keep going,” says Wells.
He adds that the interest and appetite for these lifestyle brands in the Middle East is unbelievable.
“We are very busy here and it is again because of the mature market and realising that 2020 is coming, and beyond 2020 as well, which I think is going to be the next wave. And beyond that is still [the 2022 World Cup in] Qatar.
People want to come to Dubai because it has positioned itself as a global city. So it needs to cater to the full spectrum of travellers – that is a cost point and it is also symbiotic that the accommodation offerings here are part of the experience,” he explains.
But even with the overwhelming interest, the mid-scale hospitality market comes with its own set of challenges. One of the key challenges, according to Wells, is taking clients on the journey.
“We value-add, and that is not necessarily about numbers, but about design. When someone visits Studio HBA they want us to really push the ideas and the design and look for something that is not just regurgitating a brand stamp,” he says. “This leads to clients going out of their comfort zone and it is up to the designers to lead them through the project in a way that results in an emotional investment from the client.”
Wells says that this also influences another challenge, which is breaking tradition and benchmarking against what has been done in the past.
“We’ve seen examples of where clients would revert to what they know and that could be their design understanding or approach to problem-solving. We like open-mindedness because it is the by-product of creativeness. If we can be open-minded through our design or problem solving then often the way we approach a solution can open up interesting opportunities that we hadn’t considered before.”
The speed of delivery is another issue in the Middle East where everything needs to be happening tomorrow, Wells laughs. “The expectations within that time constraints is the best practice. And that leads to competitive advantage through the speed of delivery,” he adds.
However, the greatest and most obvious constraint of the mid-scale market is cost-effectiveness. Wells says that it is an issue the studio is always aware of and tries to overcome through re-inventiveness of materiality and how to best use materials for capital expenditure so the client receives the best value.
“A lot of the materials are cost vs quality,” says Wells. “Once we land on something that is new, and we know for that cost point it offers so much more intrinsic value to the design, we can then build the design around it.”
He adds that mid-scale can be more experimental with materials such as concrete, linoleum or vinyl for flooring. A lot of clients assume that such materials have cheap connotations but using them in alternative ways results in added-value design.
One of Studio HBA’s key projects is the Hard Rock Hotel, where alternative materials play a starring role, using brass piping to reflect piped music and metal instruments, but also to add an industrial look.
Other projects that Studio HBA is currently working on include the Ibis Style Hotel in Dubai, Novotel Olaya in Saudi Arabia, Arwa Elements Hotel and Serviced Apartments in Qatar, The One, Ramada Plaza in Dubai, Dhahran Expo Center in Saudi Arabia and Gym Khana Restaurant in Al Jomrok Hotel in Qatar.
Studio HBA has 20 designers in Dubai and a team in Bangkok delivering projects in the Middle East.
“The talent pool in Dubai has limitations, obviously if everyone is very busy in this part of the world, finding and encouraging people to be here is always a challenge,” says Wells, adding that the two teams have very different ways of working, with the Dubai team being focused on modern tools of design while the Thai team uses more traditional means such as illustrating.
There is no right way to design or process the design, Wells says, adding that the contrast in staff creates a more holistic offering that is one of the advantages of Studio HBA.
Wells says that it is time for Dubai to really get itself on the map for diversity in hotel offerings.
“If everyone is supporting the idea of being a little more bespoke then that is again supporting Dubai and the overall GCC. That would allow us to have a role in the global footprint of creativity. Constraints and repetition will bob along but I think it is time for Dubai to understand that it should position itself as more avant-garde.”