Local culture and sustainable design will shape the future of travel

Last Updated


Anthony Mallows is President and CEO of WATG, one of the world’s leading design firms specialising in the travel and hospitality industries. He joins David and Catherine in the latest episode of The Future of Travel podcast series for a wide-ranging conversation about design, infrastructure and human behavior. Anthony reflects on the unique complexity of the COVID-19 crisis, considering that for the first time in modern history, lives have been threatened without aggression (i.e. we are not in the midst of a war).

Anthony is optimistic that leisure travel will return but argues that three key factors will impact what that ultimately looks like: the impact of this crisis on the human psyche, the tools (e.g. technology) made available to change behaviours, and the regulatory environment we’ll likely need to adjust to.

He believes local culture will play a much greater role in travel’s ‘new normal’, while sustainable design, or doing more with less, will finally become a true hallmark of successful development.




David Keen 0:10
Hi, this is David Keen. At QUO, we’ve worked for the last 20 years with many of the world’s best-known travel brands. During this unprecedented global crisis, our world of travel has changed, possibly irreversibly. This series will see us speak with many global leaders to understand how they see the future of travel.

David Keen 0:46
Good evening, Tony Mallows, President and Chief Executive Officer of WATG, one of the world’s pre eminent design firms servicing the travel and hospitality business. Welcome to the future of travel podcast, Tony.

Anthony Mallows 1:05
David and Catherine, thank you very much indeed. It’s a pleasure to be talking with you.

David Keen 1:10
It’s wonderful to have you on. As always, I’m with Catherine Monthienvichienchai, our Chief Branding Officer. Tony, how’s things in California? How are you living through the crisis?

Anthony Mallows 1:26
Well, it’s very interesting. California has always been a fairly laid back part of the world. And what’s very interesting here is that life has gone on very much the same but without the social interaction. Climate is a big factor, and people are cooperating and we have good governance from the governance level. So things are quiet, Sleepy Hollow, as I’ve called it to some of my friends. But because of the state of technology and what have you, we’re all very connected—particularly as we work and dialogue with colleagues and clients.

David Keen 2:07
Tony, from a social-impact point of view, how much do you feel the virus… how much impact do you feel the virus is going to have on society? And will that social impact be irreversible?

Anthony Mallows 2:25
I think it will have a definite transformation to how we live and work. And how much of that will transform itself into the future remains to be seen. But I think like any disruptive event, it has transformed the way people and society organise themselves. And from that, there will be some lessons learned about the necessity of moving and other ways of getting on about our daily lives. The degree to which it becomes a permanent part of the future, I think will rest primarily along how we handle this from a medical situation, as well as how we recover from the economic consequences of what the virus has done to many people’s lives. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do know it’s going to have a beneficial impact on how much we move and how much we do digitally.

David Keen 3:38
Do you see that being as in previous crises of throughout the centuries, this massive infrastructural change in cities? Will the epidemic spawn dramatic infrastructural change?

Anthony Mallows 3:54
Yeah, that’s a great question, because in the past, the infrastructural changed caused by social upheaval has been mainly physical. In other words, the transformation to cities, the way we move. I think this transformation is going to be far more subtle. It will affect the way we move and the way we organise ourselves in cities, but it’s going to be far more predictive, and far more virtual in the sense that we will anticipate what we want to do rather than have huge physical transformations to cities.

Anthony Mallows 4:37
What I think will change from an infrastructural point of view is the appreciation of public open space. What we talked about is the public realm, and less so from the point of view of big gatherings, and more so from the point of view of being able to get out into nature, commune with nature, and walk through it. So I think walking, biking and the public realm will be very different.

Anthony Mallows 5:09
The other infrastructural change that’s going to happen is that we’re going to become a far more connected society. But it won’t be won’t necessarily be physical connection. It will be information dialog, much like we’re doing right now. And I think the home is going to change itself slightly, because working from home has allowed us to spend more time with family, but also allowed us to still be productive without having to commute to a workplace at work. So the infrastructural changes I think are: far more subtle; far more digital; far more enabling; and less big, physical, open space other than the public realm.

David Keen 6:01
You know, six, seven weeks ago, we were living carrying on our lives in a relatively normal way. There’s – in the bridge that’s happened as a function of the virus – is certainly going to catalyse change. But why such profound fundamental change right now?

Anthony Mallows 6:23
I think that this is the first time where lives have been threatened without aggression. In other words, this is not a war, but lives have been threatened. And when that happens, social psyche is transformed somewhat into behaving differently. Now, whether we get over that and return back or not, I have no idea how soon that will happen. I think some things will not change. I think people still want to travel. People will still want to explore. And I’m talking about leisure travel now, business travel I’ll talk about in a while if you want. So I think this change will come about, not only because we’ve had a shift in our psyche—about how we interact and how we travel and how we move—but also that regulations have come into play. Plus technology has come to the forefront, which are really the managing tools of how we behave. And I think those three changes—the psyche, the tools, and the regulatory environment—will indeed have an impact on how we live going forward and particularly how we travel and how we recreate.

Anthony Mallows 7:52
How they will be exactly I don’t know. I think one of the biggest changes will be in the short term. We don’t know whether we are out of this demise yet, this malaise yet. But when we get to the other side, I think one of the things that’s definitely going to bounce back with a positive effect is regional travel, because not only of the pent-up demand, but because the ease with which it will be to move regionally. So I think you’ll see regional travel, recreation travel, coming back much faster than transcontinental and international travel. But I could be wrong. I don’t have a crystal ball.

Catherine Monthienvichienchai 8:36
Tony, when you think about travel in the future of travel, how do you think consumers will interact with that travel experience going forward? What kind of experiences, what kind of destinations, will they be seeking, and how is that different to what they were looking for prior to their prices?

Anthony Mallows 8:53
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think two things. One is that I remember when I was starting out my consulting practice and was looking at interesting places around the world to go and travel and seek work out. I remember having to have all kinds of medical checks and shots taken, whether it was for malaria, whether it was for some kind of disease or what have you. And that was quite cumbersome at the time, but not everybody did it. I think in the future, we’re going to have a much higher level of scrutiny of health, but it will be fairly innocuous, in the sense that we will just go through those protocols, just as you need to have a passport that’s got so many pages in it and is current.

Anthony Mallows 9:42
So I think the elevation of one’s health status is going to become far more prominent. It will almost become something like having to have the driver’s license. Given that, I think on the management side destinations, there’s going to be a complete revamp of how a place is managed and operated. And that will become one of the defining characteristics that will let people choose where they want to go and how they want to get there. I can imagine also airlines ranking themselves on their protocols, not for safety, not only for safety, but also for health. And I thank you’ll… that’s a good thing when people have got to manage the environment more carefully.

Catherine Monthienvichienchai 10:45
Kind of take another step further and think about destinations themselves. How would they react to this crisis? Do you think that—How do you see master planning changing in terms of destination design and how… do you think that the virus will be a catalyst for more authentic design or more imbuing those destinations with a deeper sense of culture and meaning.

Anthony Mallows 11:05
People always want an experience, particularly a memorable experience. So from WATG’s perspective, exceptional design, creating a memorable experience, will always be part of the attraction. And I don’t think that’s going to go away. It will, I think, be in more exclusive—and by exclusive, I don’t mean expensive—but by exclusive I mean in fairly remote, smaller-scale locations. But they will be networked together so that the traveller can experience several different destinations. But it won’t be on the scale of which we’ve seen on some of these large beach destinies. They will, I think, contract somewhat and be far more specific and place located.

David Keen 12:09
Tony will the—we were talking before we started recording about the depth of culture, authenticity of culture. We’re speaking as a firm, about purpose with both public and private clients, and the evolution of purpose in terms of perception of brand or perception of destination. Will the most-successful both private entities and destinations be measured by how far how exacting their culture is being reflected, and how much purpose they’re actually building into those entities?

Anthony Mallows 12:55
Right. I think that’s going to be that, so that’s a beautiful idea. The degree to which an individual culture can be immersed into the operational experience for the guests by the manager, the operator, the destination—I think that will become far more relevant and attractive in establishing a brand.

Anthony Mallows 13:22
So, for instance, if you took a global flag, and what I think is going to happen is that there will be sort of operational levels of excellence, which are global, but then the destination itself is going to be tuned, refined, enhanced, so that the destination is the brand. So you will be living in a brand structure where there’s confidence in how it’s managed and maintained, and also individuality in the culture that permeates that particular destination, even though you may be a global brand.

Anthony Mallows 14:06
So I think you’re going to have, from a cultural perspective, greater differentiation and location, and then those destinations that will succeed—will understand—how you manage to global standards of health, cuisine, service, and at the same time integrate the local culture in how you were treated, the spaces you inhabit and how you experience a destination.

Anthony Mallows 14:41
To me that’s a very good thing, because very often, local culture within the service of a bigger idea—and I think local culture or culture itself will become far more evident in the distinguishing characteristics of a brand, and particularly a location.

David Keen 15:03
How does that manifest in design?

Anthony Mallows 15:07
That’s a really good question. I always think it starts with understanding, when you design a hotel or a destination resort, you not only have to design for the guests experience so that where they are—the culture, the setting, the physical environment—is far more transparent and accessible to the guests. But you also have to do it for the employee. So understanding how they live and work—it’s a job. So the design, I think, will not only be more responsive to the guest environment, the guest experience, but also should be tailored much more to the employees ease and satisfaction out of the how they perform their work.

Anthony Mallows 16:03
Therefore the back of the house, I think, is going to get far more attention. Not because you’re spending more money at the back of the house, because if you put greater emphasis on the back of the house and how the employees are treated. What facilities they have, they will be able to transmit, not only their culture but also their professionalism, far more effectively into the guest experience. So I think it’s going to be quite refreshing to see the answers that investors, owners and operators have on what kind of facilities—not only for the guests, but also for the employees—need to be designed and built into the resorts in the future.

Catherine Monthienvichienchai 16:49
If we turn to the hotel space, specifically, and we think about some of the recent trends that have shaped the hotel hotel design and hotel experiences, we’ve seen our co-living, co-working spaces. Guestrooms getting smaller. Public spaces getting bigger, with a much stronger focus on design. How did you see those kinds of trends continuing? Do you see a reversal of those trends, or what’s your take on this?

Anthony Mallows 17:14
Catherine, right now, I don’t see a reversal of those trends, but I do see a third space expanding, which is far more diverse public realms within resorts. Social spaces being far more—I don’t want to use the word ‘fragmented’—but far more diversified so that you can socially interact in different ways, rather than simply in two or three different kinds of location. And I think also that landscape design will become more and more part of the social spaces. When we go talk about the room itself, I think there’s never one approach.

Anthony Mallows 18:06
There are some destinations where the room itself is becoming multi-family, multi-generation suites that are not really suite hotels. There are in fact hotels where multi generational families can gather together. So I think, on the room side hotel design. I think you’re going to continue to see the evolution in several directions—sometimes smaller and sometimes larger—but that will depend on whether the setting can… wants to be compact and efficient, and not in a sort of downtown location.

Anthony Mallows 18:49
I think what might drive a lot of that is the new economic reality that investors, operators and owners are going to be moving into when it comes to building new hotel product. Because I think there will be a shift in supply. Demand will be there, but demand will be down, certainly for the next three years. But after that, I think the demand is going to be far more nuanced and niche, rather than being able to build for a trend, and the financing and the economy where you put the investment in the design of a hotel is going to adjust itself far more into a tailored experience. And that might very well mean an emphasis, not so much on the room, but on the public spaces, versus the other way around if it’s more multigenerational.

Catherine Monthienvichienchai 20:04
and more interesting that’s very interesting but what do you think that means for the hotel landscape in terms of the brands. Is that… I mean, are we going to see the emergence of more smaller independent niche players, or do you think the big brands will still dominate? Or even the alternative accommodation options like Airbnb and the likes?

Anthony Mallows 20:20
Yeah. Yeah, that’s very good. I was at a conference up in LA recently and there was a big discussion about three trends. One is the independent. Two is the international flags that are continually diversifying into more and more different product lines. And thirdly, whether in fact the non-global operators—the Airbnb and what have you—are going to become another market.

Anthony Mallows 20:55
And I think those trends are going to continue. I don’t think this coronavirus epidemic is going to transform that that much. They will be, however, extremely new and, I think, clearer protocols and ways in which the customer can judge whether a destination or an offer is what they want and suits their profile—whether it’s a risk profile, economic profile or logistical profile. I think those criteria will be far more evident, but I don’t think there’s going to be too much of a stratification of different product offerings. There will be a shift in the volume, the amount of that. And I think the independent operator is going to be somewhat more challenged than the more global operators who have the ability to market and institute protocols.

Anthony Mallows 22:04
I’m not that close to how that is transforming itself, but I do think that the independents—whether it’s something like Airbnb or an independent hotel operator—are going to be working in a far more competitive and challenging environment.

Catherine Monthienvichienchai 22:29
Right, and from a design perspective, I’m curious how you feel the role of technology and automation may come more integrated into your designs within hospitality. Thinking about how, not just about hygiene standards, but how guests will probably want to be touching less surfaces as they move through different spaces. What role do you think technology will have going forward in terms of that regard.

Anthony Mallows 22:52
So what, when I’m talking with our designers, and we’re looking into the future on what’s going to happen, we think—and we’ve seen it emerging in a lot of the work we’re doing—is that technology is going to make it simpler, easier and less complicated. But technology is never going to take away from the tactile, experiential, visual, audio sense of place. So design for us is still very much focused on a unique memorable experience by how the setting is designed. And so we maintain a position in the marketplace and with our clients and what we do, that exceptional design is still one of the most important ingredients to creating an experience that’s memorable and enhances the brand. And that comes not only from who your client is and what their business objectives are, but it’s also understanding how you reinforce and draw out those unique physical messages in the design of place.

Anthony Mallows 24:20
So I still think it’s going to be very much about the materiality, the tactileness, the colour, the light, the view, the distance. So, we still are very confident that we are finding clients very receptive to the notion that technology will make it easier to get there, and to process all the logistical stuff, but exceptional design remains the whole mark of creating a memorable setting so we think design has a role to play. We always have.

David Keen 24:57
Tony, I sort of go—back we’ve only got a couple of minutes left, but I want to go back a little bit to master planning, and I know you’re passionate for environment, and for social responsibility. Do you think that in the future, or in the near to midterm future of the work that you are going to be doing in terms of master planning, so that to drive both the internal and external communities. Will the social responsibility aspect dimensionalise widely and become more relevant to both owner to owners as well as consumers?

Anthony Mallows 25:39
Yes, and I’m biased in that way. I mean I started thinking about the limits to growth when—in the early 70s. No, but I am biased but I do believe this pandemic we’re going through has in fact one remarkable positive benefit. It’s made people, far more aware of the fragility of the environment that we live in, in the world, and far more respectful of how we manage our environment. So I think, resilient design, sustainable design, doing more with less will become the hallmarks of successful master planning and development. And we’re seeing this already with some of our clients—who 20 years ago would have thought a little bit about cleaning up the beach—now they’re putting huge amounts of resources, effort and knowledge into ensuring that marine life on the edge of the beach is managed, taken care of, respected.

Anthony Mallows 26:43
And I think that is, to me, one of the very very positive outcomes of this current malaise we’re dealing with, which is a total appreciation and enhanced value on the environment, such that destinations that don’t manage themselves and adhere to standards of sustainability—social, environmental and economic—will no longer be able to defend their brand or compete as effectively as those destinations and those operations that are far more in tune with the physical environment.

Anthony Mallows 27:30
To me, it’s one of the—hopefully—one of the most positive things coming out of this. And just the fact that we move less means there’s less pollution. So we’ve also got to think about how we will do that. And I think there are technological developments about jet fuel and biofuel that we will be able to move. And we would want to then move to a destination that is managing the environment and treating it with even greater respect than we would have thought. So we would leave those places with an enhanced understanding of what good stewardship, means for the destination and for us as human beings on the planet.

David Keen 28:18
And then the last word, in your esteemed career and stretching back 40-odd years, do you think that the moment that we’re in now is the most pivotal you’ve seen during your career?

Anthony Mallows 28:34
Yeah, that’s a very good question. both my parents met during the Second World War, and when I was growing up as a young boy in Johannesburg, I would notice how they behave. You know, they didn’t waste anything materially or intellectually. And I’ve seen how technology has created an abundance of wealth for certain societies, and I think this is one of the most transformative conditions, globally, that will hopefully bring us to a better understanding of how we should manage our lives, we should treat the environment, and how we enjoy life on the planet.

Anthony Mallows 29:27
I have never seen anything like this in my life, whether it’s been economic, whether it’s been social or not. And we still don’t know where we are in this situation. I hope that the developed world will realise it has a responsibility to the rest of the world, to help manage this outbreak, because it’s not over yet. But I’m very positive that the long-term outcome will be very positive, because it is a transformative experience and—in my life—I’ve never encountered anything like this.

David Keen 30:10
Tony Mallows, Chief Executive Officer and President of WATG, thank you so much for being our guest on the future of travel, and for your chilling but incredibly resonant comments. Thank you, Tony.

Anthony Mallows 30:26
Now it’s been an absolute pleasure to both you and Catherine. All my best to you, and be aware, stay safe and be an optimist.

David Keen 30:39
Cheers. Thank you.

Catherine Monthienvichienchai 30:40
Thank you.



Everything we do begins with a conversation.
This is a good place to start.