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SPOTLIGHT ON Ofra Gelman, Principal, Dwell Design Studio

By Sharon Hirschowitz, Global Head of Media & Communications for The International Luxury Hotel Association
19 July 2020
7 min read
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Ofra’s first project was the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas followed by the design and construction of the Mirage Conference Center. Both had no budget nor deadline. She has since had a reality check and has done extensive work on both hotels and mixed-use projects. The ILHA asked her how COVID-19 has affected the design industry and its influence for years to come.

What is the status of the design sector? How do you see it playing forward?
The hotel industry was hit very hard, but it seems that the hotel design sector was able to stay alive through this current downturn, mostly due to our ability to continue with projects that managed to obtain their funding pre-pandemic, and was able to move forward with little to no interruptions. We found that projects that were in the middle of construction have slowed down somewhat to allow workers more maneuvering space, and some had to shut down temporarily due to Covid-19 cases on site, but they resumed shortly thereafter, so we are still reviewing submittals and RFIs.

Additionally, long-postponed hotel renovations are moving forward steadily. Since hotel owners don’t like shutting down for renovations, and traditionally do it one floor at a time so as not to impact occupancy, these temporary closures created an opportunity to perform PIPs faster and more efficiently than before.

The projects hit the hardest are the ones that were in Design Development, or in the earliest stages of Construction Documents. Most of them were put on ‘hold’ due to cautious lenders and investors, or general insecurity about what the near future holds.

On a more positive note, we are starting to see new projects (in early stages of feasibility) come through for Density Studies and Schematic Designs. Since these projects will not open for two to three years, developers can look beyond this pandemic, and take advantage of lower borrowing costs, lower property values, and possible future lower cost of construction.

Are you actually seeing any reduction in the cost of construction?
Very little, but we expect more drastic decline in the next few months. In the past 5 years construction costs have skyrocketed to a point where existing hotel properties in most markets are cheaper than their replacement costs. Contractors were so busy that the current pause in new projects is allowing them to catch up. But since current projects exist on both ends of the process, in a few months they will realize that fewer and fewer projects are being released for Bid, so they will eventually have to wake up and reconsider construction costs. As occurred following previous recessions, the inevitable will happen; it may just take some more time before contractors realize that.

How do you think the pandemic will influence design in the future?
We are already seeing design changes with a clear look to technology to resolve most of hotel guests’ concerns. Anything ‘touchless’ is very popular: Keyless entries, remote check-in consoles, sensors for automatic doors, and voice-activated controls in guestrooms to operate thermostats, lights, TV, and drapery. Though somewhat expensive, most of these solutions are already available in the market.

We are also working closely with our Mechanical Engineers to prevent cross-contamination between rooms and install air purification HVAC systems. Some of the systems that are already available in the market have been tested specifically for Covid-19 and are reporting 99% reduction in just 30 minutes. These systems are relatively inexpensive and can be fitted post-construction as well.

As for guestroom design of new properties, we are moving towards minimalism to facilitate easier cleaning and sanitizing protocols. This means looking at integrated furniture and lighting to reduce movable FF&E and converting many carpeted areas into hard surfaces. Though many Upper Upscale and Luxury hotels have been implementing these features for a while now, we think they will become the standard for all.

We also anticipate that guests will spend more time in their rooms, so we are looking at flexible room layouts which may include a multi-purpose work/dine/meeting/entertainment space, and offer high-speed internet and many more electrical outlets for charging multiple devices.

Public Spaces are more challenging. Other than the obvious (providing more outdoor spaces and reconfiguring furniture to allow safe distancing), we are tasked with finding ways to facilitate interpersonal interaction at a proper distance. We are looking at options for adaptable spaces with movable partitions and glass dividers to allow gatherings in smaller groups and more private dining rooms (PDRs) at F&B venues. The days of allowing 5 or 7 SF per Occupant in Assembly spaces are probably over. I would not be surprised if local Codes and hotel Brand Standards will change their maximum occupancy requirements and mandate the use of touchless fixtures and controls in public spaces.

Any Effects on BOH Spaces?
That is a very important question. Hotel Owners are taking measures to keep their employees safe, and in turn, keep their guests safe. We are being asked to implement sanitation checkpoints at employee entries to BOH, provide washable surfaces throughout, and include showers and locker-rooms adjacent to employee lounges.

Can you tell us about some recent projects you have worked on?
Most of the projects we are currently engaged in are in Urban environments, and some are adjacent to college campuses. In both cases, they are of the Upper Upscale level of Boutique Hotels.

These hotels tend to be small in-fill projects with high-end finishes and contemporary minimalist designs to attract millennials. For the same reason, in both cases we are providing more F&B facilities (especially Bars) either at the Lobby level and visible to pedestrians, or on open-air Rooftops.

You started the North East Chapter of the International Luxury Hotel Association. Can you tell us about it?
When I joined Dwell Design Studio as a Principal in the Fall of last year I looked for business development opportunities, and through extensive research, I found out that the International Luxury Hotel Association (ILHA) was looking for people to start local chapters.

I liked the idea that it was a relatively young organization and very dynamic, so I reached out to Barak Hirschowitz who suggested that I start by forming an advisory board of 10-12 industry leaders. The Northeast Chapter was the first one for ILHA so I wasn’t able to draw on past experiences. I had to rely on the proverbial trial-and-error system and eventually, after 3 months of daily emails and new LinkedIn connections, I was able to form the Northeast Board with a great group of people from all sectors of the industry.

Once the Board was in place, it became much easier. We met for the first time in person at my office 3 days before we all had to adapt to the new reality of WFH. We decided early on to put an emphasis on three components: knowledge, networking, and charity.

We started with knowledge. We agreed on having roundtable discussions to allow members the opportunity to discuss different aspects of luxury hospitality, but since the pandemic hit us almost immediately after starting the chapter, we made a quick decision to turn them into live virtual webinars. This proved to be much more successful than we ever anticipated. With the help of Sharon Hirschowitz and Caleigh Louw, the Board was able to put together 5 webinars on various subjects currently affecting the luxury hotel industry. Initially, each webinar was moderated by one of the board members, but since then we opened it up to the general ILHA membership.

As for networking and charity – these are still a work-in-progress. We are looking at the possibility of hosting bi-weekly virtual social-hours for our NE chapter members, and we are in the process of reaching out to a couple of charity organizations that we hope to sponsor in the future. And one of these days (hopefully not too far in the future) we hope to meet in person!