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A Conduit for Expression: Cooper Carry’s Bob Neal on Evolving Design

ATLANTA—Everything changes, including design. Bob Neal, veteran hospitality architect at Cooper Carry, has paid witness over more than 25 years in the business. There is the rising cost of construction and, along with it, comes increased budgets. However, Neal believes that changing attitudes about design isn’t always connected to larger budgets. A shift in perception can set the stage for change to take place.

“It can also be a result of good planning, a willingness to accept innovation and to be open to new ways to approach accepted norms,” said Neal, principal at Cooper Carry’s hospitality studio. “With some clients, we are the conduit for their expressions, and their personalities are imprinted in the design solutions as much as ours. They realize that design is a commodity and that it will help sell their products. They have pride in contributing to neighborhoods and making a difference in the quality of people’s lives. This level of collaboration with our clients is gratifying. Of course, they fully intend that their projects will meet project investment goals, but they are willing to search for the appropriate balance between art and business.”

Cooper Carry’s hospitality practice is a multicultural group of architects who strive to achieve significant and sustainable design solutions, he explained. He’s been part of this team since 1988 and for 15 years has served as principal of the firm’s hospitality studio.

“We believe that good design practices create value for our clients and that our participation contributes to their achieving economic successes for their projects,” said Neal. “We are globally recognized as one of the foremost architectural hospitality practices, providing transformative designs that are innovative, creative and appropriate to content. We believe in the power of place and in the connection of people in our design solutions.”

In terms of Neal’s design philosophy, there is a powerful revelation that motivates him every day: “I think that people are inspired by creative ideas and that creative design can affect attitudes when they are experienced,” he said.

A sense of place is central to many cultures, and Cooper Carry strives to “connect people to place.” It’s about pulling out the best of a locale to help inform the desired outcome. According to Neal, the design is contextual and the team looks for opportunities to find what makes a place unique or what makes it special.

“Each project site has characteristics that separate it from all other locations and that is where we start,” he said. “Our designs are based on ideas that are established at the beginning of a project, which inform our decisions throughout the various phases of design. We often call these ideas guiding principles. If we can clearly identify what we want to achieve, we can test our design decisions against these principles.

In a conversation with Hotel Business, Neal talks about inspiration, recent projects, and evolving design trends.

How do you sustain creativity?

I search for inspiration every day. Whether it’s how to create new architectural forms, the use of a specific material, technological advancements, new construction techniques or planning ideas. You never know what the day will bring; I wonder how you can approach the same issues in a completely different manner in order to find something new. You can learn from your experiences, but you can’t get too comfortable with ideas that you came up with yesterday.

What trends do you find noteworthy? How are things evolving?

In the Bath: The typical answer has been that bathrooms are being designed to create excitement in the guestroom. However, that has been the answer for so long now, I don’t consider that to be a new trend. The hotel industry is starting to question several norms that have been previously considered standards, and it seems as if more clients are open to conversations about anything that might create differentiation.

Focus on F&B: We’re seeing that owners are rethinking how food and beverage operations can create more returns on their hospitably investments. For a while, the thinking was that hotels needed to lease their dining operations to a third-party restaurant. But in many instances, all that did was give the impression that it was a third-party restaurant located in a hotel, but still a hotel restaurant. It didn’t provide enough separation to establish its own brand.

We still see that third-party operations are popular, but instead of trying to create separation, the intent is often to do the opposite. The lobby bar and restaurants are moving further into the lobby, and in many cases, the lobby is perceived as an extension of the bar. Where in the past the hotel interior design firm designed the restaurant, more and more we are seeing that restaurant design firms are designing the food and beverage operations. And, it doesn’t stop in the lobby. Clients use these designers to create rooftop amenity areas, banquet rooms and breakout areas where there is a new focus on improving revenue strategies. In 2015, Cooper Carry and acclaimed restaurant design firm The Johnson Studio joined forces to expand our services and ability to collaborate on restaurant and hotel design.

Check-In Gets a Check Up: In addition, we are starting to remove registration areas out of the lobby. By placing them in an adjacent space, it creates unique opportunities to rethink lobby design. It also doesn’t require redesign of your lobby should registration areas be downsized or eliminated due to evolving check-in trends.

You’ve worked on the Kimpton in Charlotte, NC; a renovation in El Paso, TX; and the Hotel at Avalon in Atlanta. How do these projects reflect a focus on the F&B concepts you mentioned?

Yes, all three of these projects have a large focus on F&B design; however, they have different approaches depending on the market and their locations. The Plaza Hotel in El Paso is a historic repositioning of a hotel. When it was built, the lobby was quite large and the restaurant was small and located off to the side. We completely switched those uses. Now the bar and restaurant are in the primary space and the lobby is downsized and intimate.

The Tyron Park Kimpton in Charlotte incorporates a restaurant on the ground floor that is accessed from a separate street from the hotel entrance. You walk through a park to enter the restaurant, providing it with its own identity. A rooftop bar has been designed that can incorporate weddings, special functions and indoor/outdoor dining.

The Hotel at Avalon has been designed to capitalize on the main street environment that exists at Avalon. It is an extension of the retail and dining opportunities that exist along its streets. These projects are all being designed by The Johnson Studio at Cooper Carry, working closely with Cooper Carry Hospitality.

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