This post originally appeared at American Express Open Forum.Lauren Rottet started her international architecture and design firm during the height of the recession in 2008. Many of her peers thought it was a crazy move.
Within four years, the firm opened offices in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Shanghai. Rottet Studios has worked on several iconic hotels: The Surrey in New York, The St. Regis Aspen, the new Presidential Bungalows at The Beverly Hills Hotel and The James Royal Palm.
And the studio is growing. According to Rottet, 2011 was one of the strongest years for hotel occupancy and development. And 2012 is already just as strong.
We talked with Rottet to get the details on her firm’s rapid success.
How did you get your start in the hotel industry?
I have always wanted to work on hotels. But I was known for my corporate [design], so it was hard to get into hotels, at first.
People knew me and they knew my design. They probably weren’t comfortable with me having a huge name behind me. I finally broke from the large firm [I was with] and I started with my own practice.
How did you operate a business differently during the recession?
My first firm was started in the 1990s, the height of another recession. You didn’t have anywhere to go but up. If you can make it during the recession you can make it at any time.
We cut expenses as much as we could and we trimmed as much as we could. We just started heavily marketing. We even hired a PR firm during the recession. We knew that publications and getting your name out there [are] more important during the recession than any other time.
Do you only work with clients with larger portfolios?
We definitely have low-budget projects. We understand that some of our clients are startups. As long as someone has respect for design and understands it, we can work something out.
What are the challenges of managing a company overseas?
There is a different way of submitting proposals and you usually have to pay more money up front. In certain parts of China, you’re required to connect with architects who are associated with the government. Now, the work has been getting intense.
There’s a lot of hotel business in Asia right now. We have good word of mouth. But when you’re competing for business, and there’s so much business there, you have to up your ante to compete with the big boys.
How do you develop your brand?
People are looking especially for a boutique design, [they want] to create the ambiance. You have to listen well, and you have to distinguish between your brand and someone else’s brand.
A lot of it is being careful about the look, and not trying to be all things to all people. There are days [when] you realise that every big money project is not what you’re all about.
We’re careful about how we photograph our designs. It’s all about the visual. We use a lot of natural light and space. When you’re photographing light, you need to be very careful so that it doesn’t look bland.
How do you develop relationships with the bigger hotels?
You have to be aware of them, court them and show them what you can do. They usually already know who they want their designers to be. The hospitality industry is relatively small and everyone knows each other.
What trends have you noticed in the hospitality business?
There are definitely more women architects. When I started, there were very few, only a handful in our classes.
Also, I have realised that we always have to reinvent ourselves. As designers, we’re responsible for a lot. We’ve decided to get more involved in the production and selling side, too. We’re starting to art curate most of the hotels that we work on. We’re starting to design the furniture a lot more.
What was your favourite project to work on, and why?
I loved working on the Surrey Hotel in New York. I dreamed up the details, drew it and saw it realised. I also love the work we do for our Hastings client. We’ve done 20 projects for them and they are so open-minded. They know what design can bring to the work environment. They didn’t want Paul Hastings to be another old law firm.
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