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SPOTLIGHT ON Ken Shannon, VP of Architecture, Design, & Construction at Playa Hotels & Resorts

By Anna Domingo, Founder for PADZZLE
8 May 2023
11 min read
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Sanctuary Cap Cana Aerial

With over 30 years of experience in international leisure and hospitality, Mr. Shannon has been responsible for leading Playa’s team of architects and interior designers in conceiving new build and renovation projects across various markets. In this interview, we will delve into Mr. Shannon’s vision for the unique design elements that make Playa Hotels & Resorts stand out as an industry leader, including their commitment to sustainability and challenging norms. We will also explore how hotel design has evolved for all-inclusive and luxury properties, and the impact that destination and location have on shaping the design.

Can you tell us about your vision for the Playa Hotels & Resorts design elements that make it unique?

I think sometimes we all tend to get into a groove and we may forget what it is that makes us unique, unusual, and hopefully, leaders in the space. I’ve been with Playa almost since it’s inception, and have seen it endure the tough times of both the Great Recession of 2008/09 and Covid in 2019-2021, and I have also observed it’s transition and recent succession plans. I would put this success down to three observations:

  1. Playa has accomplished to become an industry leader, employs some 12,000 full-time associates, and yet the company culture is based on the concept of a Family. This seems cliché, and perhaps many other companies like to say they are a family, but from my standpoint, it is absolutely true and is a vital part of the company DNA. A family will go the extra mile every time, and this shows in Playa properties, and especially in the design team’s work. There is a powerful culture of support for new and innovative design solutions, no matter how crazy the ideas may seem.
  2. We challenge the norms all the time. We know the standard components of an Ail-Inclusive resort, but we constantly question why we have them. For example, we keep increasing the size of our fitness centers in each property, far beyond what might be considered a ‘normal’ size. Interestingly, our research showed the importance of fitness and wellness areas for our guests, which is a complete departure from what All Inclusive once was. As an example the rise of Pickle Ball with our US guests, means we are pivoting to add pickleball courts to just about every property. Challenging the norms happens in every component of the hotels – we ask questions like what is a Coffee Shop? Can we combine it with a Lobby Bar? How can we make this experience more authentic and local? Are there any great folkloric stories or legends that might be relevant to this property? What is this country known for? Can we use these elements to tell a story, and can we educate the guest while also entertaining?
  3. We strive to be sustainable. This used to be an insignificant part of the design process, but today this is integral in every decision we make. One of our recent projects includes recycled plastic and recycled palette wood from the construction in the artwork of the reception and the lobby. Our energy needs are significant, so we are constantly investigating new technologies to lower those costs and to reduce our environmental impact. This is part of our Design DNA, and it’s only going to grow in importance.
Sanctuary Cap Cana Imperial Suite Private Pool

How does the hotel location shape a design?

The design process is so incredibly fascinating to me, and I love talking with our various designers and specialists regarding how they get from the first seed of a concept to a fully baked solution, which often takes long nights, months of meetings, and then endures the inevitable multitude of financial and schedule challenges that come in making the vision a reality. There are so many stories our creatives share, and they are all unique.

Our team of designers spends a lot of time observing guests in our properties. A design feature that seems so integral to the project is sometimes completely overlooked, while other design features that we have designed with less thought become the focal point of the project. This happens a lot in swimming pools; we design every square foot of the pool and try to imagine how the guests will enjoy certain spaces and features, and when the resort opens, we find they gather in an area where we never imagined! And when we check the social media sites, we are often surprised to read what guests say about elements that have become icons, when we really did not expect it. So, we learn, evolve, and we work hard to improve with every project, but it is humbling.

The destination and of course the location have a major impact on the shape of the design. We’re expanding the Playa portfolio monthly, but our core markets have been Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica up until recently. We’re really fortunate to have the best-in-class resorts in these destinations, but the properties themselves are so different that it is hard to imagine the same brands operate in all of them.

Sanctuary Cap Cana Premium Luxury Jr Suite Ocean View

How has the uncertainty of the market influenced development strategies? 

The hospitality market has never been stronger, and even though this now seems to be the natural result of coming out of a world-shattering crisis such as Covid, where the world market was unable to travel, it is still surprising to see how this trend has impacted our short and long term thinking. A few patterns and trends seem clear, and we try to pay attention to them as we plan. One is that there is strength at all price points today, and this means we have to offer something for everyone- from mid-level high value properties to luxury developments. We’re refining our development standards for each tier, and it’s a challenge to understand the evolving guest expectations for each tier. We study the various components of the resorts regularly, and we evaluate each of them based on a multitude of factors. I will give you an example. Performing theatre in a hotel is one of the most fundamental components of many of our brands, and yet we employ solutions to that challenge that vary widely among our properties. Some are enclosed carefully designed air-conditioned spaces, while others are open venues closely connected to highly themed Sports Bars. It’s so interesting to observe how the guests occupy each of these theatre solutions, and even more intriguing to see how the General Managers of each asset maximize the result to create a unique experience.

Hyatt Ziva Cancun Aerial

What are the properties you designed that you are most proud?

(10 YEARS AGO) In 2013, we embarked on the Hyatt Ziva and Zilara projects in Montego Bay, Jamaica, which was a massive conversion and rebranding of an underperforming luxury EP property. We delivered the premier resort development in the destination is some 15 months. Right up to opening day we were refining and changing the design, and some of the changes were significant. We added a multi-level room building over the Entertainment/ F & B court just before pouring foundations! We also decided to nourish the shoreline to create a beach, just 4 months before opening, which was a tremendous logistical challenge with heavy equipment crossing into finished landscape. That hotel is now ready for re-investment, so we are looking forward to improving the guest experience over the next several years.

The Hyatt Cancun Ziva was delivered in 2015, and it was probably the most demanding conversion/ rebranding we have every undertaken. The existing hotel was designed by a very famous and talented Mexican Architect some 50 years ago, but it had aged badly and required major intervention to reach its potential. The arrival experience was compromised with a low-level entry and lobby, so the obvious solution was to build a new raised lobby building to enjoy elevated views. But this new lobby building was difficult to connect with several of the existing buildings located on the ground floor. The solution was to build a huge and wide pedestrian bridge at lobby level, constructed right over the lower level

buildings, which became the ‘Main Street’, anchored on each side with a North Beach and a South Beach. It was a crazy solution, and one that resulted from the synergy of multiple designers and a very trusting owner- Playa.

Playa’s first green field, new build project was Hyatt Ziva and Zilara Cap Cana, in the Dominican Republic. The project, launched in 2017 and delivered in 2019 was the compilation of the collective knowledge of the entire Development and Operations side of Playa. There were endless and ongoing high energy meetings to establish the base program, and in all there were 37 master plans produced before the final solution was agreed upon. And even when the construction contracts were signed and civil works underway, there were many, many huge changes made on the site to improve the offering. The resulting twin hotels, one family and one adult only, have become the number 1 and number 2 ranked hotels in the country and lead the luxury market (opportunity to say how we are transforming the all-inclusive market). The resort overperforms every year since opening, and huge credit goes to an outstanding Operations Team and GM who take tremendous pride in their leadership position and work tirelessly to improve and refine the product.

Sanctuary Cap Cana Spa Relaxation Room

How has hotel design evolved for All Inclusive and luxury properties?

Wow, that is a great question. We like to go all the way to the days of ‘Dirty Dancing’ and those famous resorts operating back in the 1950’s and 60’s in the US North East when we discuss where we started, but there is so much more to the story. At a basic level, there was an All-Inclusive formula in mind that was created to entertain guests for an extended length of stay, and to simplify the experience, remove the stress of sticker shock at check out, and to focus almost entirely on the family market.

Today we focus more than ever in maximizing efficiencies back of the house such centralized kitchens, palapa restaurants and buffet offer experience.

We invest lot of time improving back of the house to ensure the most optimal operation of a property.

The two most significant changes in the industry are the emphasis on luxury and the separation of the two markets- Families versus Adults Only + Improvements in Food & Beverage offerings. Regarding the move to luxury, the most recent properties in the AI space have huge junior suite rooms, amazing restaurants with world class chefs, and a huge swing to exclusivity and to some degree, privacy for the individual guest. This is exemplified in the swing to more Villa offerings with private swimming pools and a much-elevated level of customer service. The concept of the Club, and an even more luxurious experience, is fundamental to the offering. And the distinction between a Family Hotel and an Adults only hotel is now an industry wide standard, each with very different amenities and offerings.

At Playa, we are putting a lot of energy into three distinct parts of the resort offering. First, we have a much-elevated F & B offering, and we work very hard to create unique dining experiences in venues that have a memorable story, which typically relates to the destination. Second, we take Wellness very seriously, and this is reflected in our large and well-equipped Fitness Centers and Spas. And lastly, we are elevating the Entertainment side of the offering to all new levels, every hour of the day and in every part of the resort.

How do you track trends or different generational preferences?

We do this in many ways at many levels. These days of course, there is so much information on social media that bombards us every day. We know quickly if we are doing something wrong, as we monitor these media closely. But we get the most valuable feedback in two places. One, the Operations Teams are closely integrated into the Development teams, and we share ideas on an hourly basis. Once per

quarter we all get together and discuss what we are seeing, face to face, not on a virtual call. Second, we spend a lot of time staying at our own hotels and our competitors hotels as guests. We observe the frustrations, we remember the laughs and the tears, and we ask a lot of questions. I cannot imagine a better occupation than this; we are in hospitality; we live to make people smile.