Illustration by Daniel Mitchell http://www.daniel-mitchell.co.uk/
Sometimes you just have to say ‘yes’ and worry about the consequences later…an email arrives saying we, G.A, have been invited by one of our biggest clients to speak at the Asia-Pacific Hotel Design Association’s 4th annual conference in Dalian, and am I free to do this? The first thought is: what would I say? The second thought is: I have so much going on. The third thought is: where on earth is Dalian? The third thought, after a quick bit of Google mapping, tipped the decision in favour of a ‘yes’. Dalian is pretty close to North Korea, a “2nd tier” city (‘only’ 6 million inhabitants – about the size of greater Kuala Lumpur – and everyone in Dalian refers to how ‘small’ the city is). It has an interesting history, having been founded by Russians, invaded and taken over by the Japanese, Russian again after WW2 then ‘gifted’ back to China as a sign of friendship between the two Communist countries.
I had never been to a “2nd tier” Chinese city before, and was interested to see a new part of this giant country. The conference, coming hot on the heels of our G.A rebranding and the opening of our Shanghai office would also be great exposure for the company. So it was a ‘yes’ then and let’s worry about the rest when it happens – necessity is the mother of invention, after all. It was later I discovered there were no direct flights to Dalian from KL. This meant flying China Southern airlines from KL to Guangzhou (4 hours), then transferring on a domestic flight across from Guangzhou to Dalian (3 hours)*.
‘View’ of Guangzhou coming into land. I have been there twice. Whenever I have been there it was covered in this soul-destroying pollution. For more thoughts on that, see Why we should be thankful for the haze
After a near-miss at customs in Guangzhou, I arrived at Dalian at night. I was greeted with a full bouquet of flowers and whisked off to Starwood’s 300-key Castle Hotel, part of its Luxury Collection, designed by HBA and only opened 1 month ago – the venue for the APHDA conference. The hotel was a reinterpretation of a French chateau, replete with marble flooring, chandeliers, grand staircases and reproduction furniture – a style very popular in China to denote ‘luxury’ and ‘success’, but distinctly odd and a bit Disney-esque to my British eyes. I can understand, however, why this kind of design is so popular in a country that has laboured under grim public/civic-minded architecture for so many years.
The Castle Hotel, Dalian
I was immediately impressed by the scale of the event, about 1,300 delegates were in the audience – and the way it had been set-up to include the biggest names in the industry, from across China, Hong Kong, Singapore. Previous guest speakers had included Tony Chi, Peter Remedios and Jean-Michel Gathy – so no pressure then. And I was one of only a handful of Westerners in the room.
View from Dalian’s main square (the biggest in Asia). The world’s biggest and flattest half-pipe skatepark. And a giant unfinished bridge mid-construction in the background. Smog wasn’t as bad here, but still noticeable.
The theme of the event was “Future Hotels”. I am a fan of future-gazing, like most people, so this theme attracted me and I wrote a speech focused on what the hotel design of the future would be like. I won’t go into it here, but if you are interested I will post a separate link to the video of my speech when I have it. The speech went down well, mainly because of G.A’s reputation in the region thanks to our great work on projects like W Taipei. For that I can only say again what great (and hard) work our team is doing around the world. It also went down well because of the student-based audience – I suspect that not many event speeches in China encourage the audience to think and participate in a dialogue. I was nervous about doing this, given my experience in Asia in general is that people are very reticent about asking questions in a public forum. However, on the advice of Susan, my brilliant translator, we decided to go ahead and open up the discussion. It was only after the speech, that I started to get a sense that ideas like ‘crowd-sourcing’ and group participation, discussion are considered more radical perhaps in China than elsewhere, especially amongst a large group of students (and to the back-drop of the student civil disobedience in Hong Kong). I sensed there was a formula which they had been expecting – design firm principals turn-up and show their portfolio, talk about the past, how they ‘made it’ and got to their current position etc. Given that I am not a designer, I was reluctant to do that, so focused more on a group session trying to define the future of hotel design, using ideas harvested from the G.A global family and examples of our current work as stimulus. What I certainly didn’t expect was to be mobbed by students, suppliers and clients alike for the rest of the conference. One man approached me asking us to work on a boutique 60-room hotel project apparently attached to the Great Wall of China (!) Seemingly everyone wanted pictures, signatures or to exchange business cards. After nearly an hour of this, it was frankly a bit overwhelming. I suppose everyone is due their 15 mins of fame, but it also got me thinking….is there something in Chinese culture where role-models are held in very high esteem, perhaps without the criticism or cynicism you would find in the UK? Or maybe our work was just that inspiring…I hope the latter. Either way, it seems that G.A is now ‘big in China’. For all those in our team that worked on these projects, I wish you could have been there to see it – I am sure it would go some way to make the long hours and effort worthwhile. *A footnote about China Southern Airlines and an example of the general statistical craziness of China…. I learnt this during my days working with Malaysia Airlines on the launch of their own A380 services from KL to London. China Southern Airlines is, I am told, the only airline in the world to fly profitably Airbus A380s (the huge, double-decker ones). Why? Because China Southern flies their A380s converted almost entirely into economy-class seating, more than 500 people being flown this way in one plane. But here’s the killer – they fly them exclusively domestically. So whilst in the UK we may have invented the concept of the double-decker bus, in China, they created the double-decker plane. Literally bussing Chinese around their country from city to city.