Every year for our HD NextGen Forum (this June we hosted the event at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC), our editor in chief Stacy Shoemaker Rauen sits down with an industry stalwart to kick off the event. This year was no exception. Larry Traxler, Hilton’s senior vice president – global design, stopped by to discuss his early career, Hilton’s prolific portfolio, new brands, raising donkeys (I’m serious), and how Bora Bora is boring—his joke, not mine. But for a man who has traveled to 80 countries and continues to push the bounds of design and hospitality, he certainly knows what he’s talking about. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
1. How did you get into design?
I got into design by accident. I was a really good artist in high school, and I happened to graduate summa cum laude. My art teacher was probably my closest friend and she told me not to go to art school, and that’s what I really wanted to do—that was my passion. She got me interview with the dean of architecture at the University of Cincinnati, and six years later, after a blur of archi-torture, I was an architect. I took no drafting classes in high school and I knew nothing about architecture when I ventured into it. It was accidental but a happy accident, quite frankly. It has led me to my real passion in life, which is travel and hospitality.
2. Any career highlights?
I got plucked out of Jordan Mozer’s studio by Michael Bedner, and he put me in [HBA’s] Singapore studio as a design manager. This was during the Asian financial crisis [in 1997] and all hell broke loose after three months in the country. During that period of time, everything dried up in Thailand including all of the great resort projects we were working on. Malaysia went to hell. The fantastic projects we were working on there went away. In the month of August—I moved in June—we had $3 million in uncollectible fees because all of our owners disappeared and the projects were dead.
We lost our managing director, and I took over. We had to start figuring out how to make money and keep everyone employed. We started going to India and China. A lot of what I do today is because we were the pioneers in India and China, trying to figure out how to get international contracts done, how to get money out of India. I found ways of working around structures and working with owners who didn’t speak my native language. It taught me how to listen and absorb. You need to absorb everything the city is telling you and listen to the what the business aspects of the deal are before you start thinking about design.
3. You launched three brands for Hilton in a handful of years.
The first brand we launched in 2014 was Curio. There are all of these hotels that are iconic properties and we would turn them away. They didn’t meet brand standards. What we were doing was taking the je ne sais quois of that property by trying to fit into a mold it didn’t fit into, so we created Curio, a collection that allows you to maintain the unique identity. But you get to come into the Hilton family, you get the reservation system, the honors program, etc.
That was launched early in 2014 and four months later we launched [lifestyle brand] Canopy. We’ve had a gestation period of four years, which is a long time to work on an idea. But because we worked on that idea for four years, there was a lot of careful thought put into it. It was that whole idea of regionalization, creating a local collection, and sense of place. Canopy is built around great service, a great room, and great public area that is energetic and connected to the neighborhood.
[Midscale brand] Tru [has] really tight rooms but has really generous public areas. People can come down, work in an incubation space, and enjoy the city they’re in. Tru is a big success. It launched in January, and we have over 200 signed deals.
4. How do you find the right design collaborators?
There are great designers everywhere. We can pick from crème de la crème. The ones that shine are the ones that listen to the owner, the brand, and they figure out a solution to the design problem that not only is stylistically important and relevant and creates a great space but also answers the business questions. Design is about creating space for people to collect, for people to have celebratory occasions, for people to remember things. It’s about creating a space that’s impactful and memorable. It has to make sense from a business perspective.
5. How do you relax?
My wife and I build libraries in Africa. We just dedicated a library in Rwanda in a remote village on top of a volcano that we stumbled into six years ago after going gorilla trekking. We’re working with [an organization] that raises dogs to give to returning vets. And we’re doing a donkey rescue. People raise donkeys and sell them at auctions and they go to kill pens and become dog food and we’re trying to stop that.