Will luxury take on new meaning in a post-virus world?

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In the latest episode of The Future of Travel, Clint Nagata, Founder and CEO of Blink Design, talks to David about the impact of the virus on the world of hospitality design. Clint believes the crisis will accelerate many of the trends we were witnessing before—such as increased focus on genuine local experiences, integration of technology and wellbeing as a core component of a hotel’s offer.

Clint also hopes that luxury will take on a new meaning in a post-virus world, with consumers having learnt to enjoy and appreciate simple things, rather than the brightest or most expensive.




David Keen 0:12
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.

Clint Nagata, founder and creative partner of Blink Design Group, welcome to The Future of Travel. Thanks for being with us Clint.

Clint Nagata 0:55
Thank you, David. It’s good to be here. Good to see you after all these years.

David Keen 0:58
It’s really good to see you after all these years, and it’s nice, because we’ve got a long friendship of—we were just saying—about 12 years. And we’ve both been in the same industry for that amount of time, and neither of us have ever faced anything quite like this.

Clint Nagata 1:15
That’s true. We’re both in the same boat together. It’s definitely challenging times—interesting times—to say the least.

David Keen 1:23
What positives do you take from it?

Clint Nagata 1:26
You know, we’ve re-looked at our businesses and, you know, always trying to stay one step ahead. For a design firm, it’s important that we always look to innovate. And I was asked the other day, “How does this pandemic really change—or does it change—the way we design?” And I think it does. It’s given us a new perspective on how to recreate guest experiences.

David Keen 1:55
In what ways, and can you… I mean, let me ask you the question before that: How can you change the way you design? How deeply ingrained is your design ethos, and can you actually change the way you design?

Clint Nagata 2:11
For me, it’s interesting, because you know like you, I have not stepped foot on a plane and I don’t know how many weeks now. For people like us that are always used to traveling, this sort of new norm has really forced me to take a step back and relook at what I would like to see or experience when I travel. And definitely—I think authenticity always comes to the surface, right? Having been stuck in front of the TV for five/six weeks, I always feel myself thinking about another place I want to be. And I think it’s always good to have that ability to immerse yourself in cultures. So to create and to continue to create environments that reflect the culture that exists and is very important to us as a brand, as a company. So this virus, if anything, has taught us to refocus on that and keep looking for new ways to create cultural experiences.

David Keen 3:21
Culture is a multifaceted dimension, and as you know, we work very deeply with it. In terms of forming culture, and integrating it into community, do you think there’ll be any kind of significant evolution post-virus of what is the perception of culture, and what people are looking for, and with particular reference to purpose and the generally accepted notion now that for the luxury travellers—or the travelers altogether—are going to be looking at—most typologies—are going to be looking for more purpose?

Clint Nagata 4:03
I think in a sort of pre-pandemic notion, or the desire the traveler to look for more genuine experiences, has always been there. I think the virus has sort of propelled it to develop even further. So whether you’re in the Maldives or in Thailand here, you really want to get a true sense of what that culture is. So I think it really has sharpened things. I don’t know if it’s really changed travellers’ perceptions as it currently stands. It’s just sort of changed the focus to be sharper.

David Keen 4:47
I’ve done an awful lot of work in the Maldives, and have worked particularly hard over the last seven or eight years to try and integrate local culture into brands—trying to get guests, for example, onto local islands and to create experiences on local islands for guests. To some degree, it’s been successful, and to some degree not. Again, just using this kind of bridge, the pre-/post-virus age—and that’s one form of community engagement—do we sense that we’re living in a more democratised world where all guests are going to be looking to integrate more into communities?

Clint Nagata 5:36
I think so, but I think it comes down to how do you interpret that into a desire or built form. And for us, it’s always important to interpret rather than to copy. So to have things that also implied. You know when we’re doing a project in Japan where we we’ve been researching the history of the place of Kyoto, and trying to approach it from the perspective of a local, so it’s not a foreigner interpreting Japan, but it’s a local is who’s retelling the story about their heritage.

So it’s important for us to really find authenticity and then try to take that authenticity and explain it through a design in a very interpretive way. So it’s not like you’re going to Disneyland, which is, you know, can be culturally correct but it’s a copy of something happened in the past

David Keen 6:37
In the Kyoto example, will you be imagining more branded partnerships experiences where a local barber, a sushi maker or whatever it is will actually integrate into the product itself?

Clint Nagata 7:00
Yeah, so we’ve been trying to find experiences that are explicitly based on life in Kyoto. Not necessarily life in Japan, which is a much broader perspective. And to find ways to introduce someone that’s of that place into the hotel itself, to give that really authentic experience. So trying to create moments for that experience to happen is very important and, you know, providing a very on-brand experience, as you would say>

David Keen 7:36
Some of the work that we’ve been also doing over the last year or so, particularly, is looking at the youngest generation, the generation Zs, and their desires. Not just for sustainability, environment, community… but to be more integrated into the worlds where they’re traveling, or where they’re going to. I think that possibly will become more pronounced as we go forward and in terms of… you know, we were talking before we started recording, saying you’re creating now for five to 10 years down the track. So we’ll be well past the virus. Is that coming into your design ethos? Is that coming into what you’re what you’re looking to do?

Clint Nagata 8:17
Absolutely. We will always try to stay years ahead, because we will design something, you know, best-case scenario, you may open in five years. Worst-case scenario, you may open in eight years. You don’t know, so it’s sort of having a look into your crystal ball to say, what a traveller will be like in the next 10 years, right? And you have to look at this generation—the Millennials—and design experiences that suit where they’re headed as a generation.

David Keen 8:51
How you do that when a millennial or generation Z person today is 20, 22 years old. In 8-10 years they can be 30, 32 and they’re very different.

Clint Nagata 9:04
Yeah, I can’t agree more. I mean, our approach as a firm to really give the opportunity to our young designers who are that age, that generation, to actually have a lot of creative say in our projects that we think help fuel a different experience, particularly for that generation, that mindset. You and I are not in our 20s anymore, and it’s good to look at the design problem from a fresh set of eyes. So we always try to refocus, let our staff—we have great, talented staff—let them come up with designs that really embody their lifestyle, and their lifestyle today, but their lifestyle going forward as well.

David Keen 9:56
Do those designers imagine space in a different way from say, for example how you imagine space?

Clint Nagata 10:03
Well they do, but that they have different perceptions on space, on time, on what luxury is. It’s very different from what people, our generation, envision those things to be. So it’s something that we always try to pull back in as were the audience’s, the guests, where their perceptions are coming from.

David Keen 10:33
And how much does their desires, their ideas, their imagination gel with your clients’?

Clint Nagata 10:42
We have clients that also have that same generation, so that vibrancy between the two is quite fascinating. I always just sort of take a step back, let that orchestrate, let that happen together naturally. And we find that our clients are quite happy. They get the answer to their questions from their perspective, which is… for us, a happy client makes a happy architect.

David Keen 11:16
How much is the aesthetic of Blink—and this is not a PR question, I’m just intrigued from a generational idea—how much does the design aesthetic of your firm… has it evolved, is it evolving? What we will see in five years time, and from what you’ve done over say the previous five years?

Clint Nagata 11:42
I think as a design firm you always want to evolve. You always want to grow to… It’s always about keeping up to date keeping things fresh and, you know, we’ve always managed to reinterpret our design ethos, if you could say we had an ethos across different platforms. So we sort of… I’ve always sort of viewed Blink as a platform for design, and from that platform, we are able to create different experiences. And besides, taking into consideration the site location, the operator if there’s an operator or a hotel brand, and last but most important to us as the owner—you know their vision and their dreams. These things always help us to reframe, and we look at projects differently. And I think as a result you end up with a different looking hotel, every single time.

David Keen 12:50
As you know—you’ve listened to a few of the podcasts—we have been speaking very much as this moment, in what will become history, as the bridge between analogue and digital. And I think that no more really applies to design, where historically even up to January of this year, we were in an analogue age, and now we’re moving into a digital age. How’s that going to impact, how’s that gonna change?

Clint Nagata 13:27
I guess in design, if we talk about design from a technology standpoint, you know, we’re always trying to look at new technology to make our designs more current, whether it’s building technology. You know words like upcycle are totally new—although it’s not a new experience or method—are important nowadays. We’ve always tried to bring technology into… also how do we present our designs as well.

So that’s really been pushed to the forefront in the last month or so. Trying to explore different ways of constructing things within a shorter timeframe or with more relevant materials because of cost or whatever. Obviously, the virus has impacted a lot of businesses from a cash perspective, so we’re looking to deliver projects on a shorter timeframe or on a smaller budget.

David Keen 14:42
Do you… let’s move on to the more…. we’ve been talking more generically… and now to speak a little bit more about the impact of the virus on our business in Asia. How much has it impacted your business over the last two months?

Clint Nagata 15:02
Yeah, it’s… I think we’ve found yourself to be a pretty reasonable situation all things considered. We still get a lot of requests from work, not just in Asia but overseas in the US, and Middle East, Africa. So, from a… you know, are we still getting opportunities to do projects? Yeah. Are projects on hold or has it been delayed? For the most part, no. Because, again, our projects take such a long time to come to fruition. We’ve been busy. Our projects are still under construction. You know we are still looking at opening hotels as early as the end of next year and as late as 2023.

David Keen 15:57
Do you see the long-term impact of the virus on design in terms of social spaces as something that was going to change substantially.

Clint Nagata 16:08
I think if you think of the pandemic in terms of not having found the cure or vaccination, with that in mind, then yes design will need to change. Because spaces that relied a lot on social interaction would no longer be as favourable, I guess by consumers. We always want to keep that distance—social distance. But assuming post-pandemic that there is a cure, then I think we end up going pretty close to where we are today. It just ends up being—in the history of hotels and resorts—ends up being a social… slight blip on the timeframe.

David Keen 17:02
Right. Yeah, I tend to agree with you. Again we were talking about change in lifestyle and changing behaviour. I sense that there’s going to be a pragmatism, perhaps a more upgraded humility, in overall consumer behaviour. Maybe I’m being optimistic. I do wake up some mornings and think, it’s just going back to what I was, when people are gonna… people they’re not gonna be as pragmatic or humble as we hope they’re going to be. But do you think that should that be in a general shift in behaviour, that will impact the lifestyle brands and lifestyle segment?

Clint Nagata 17:48
I hope so. I mean it’s, if anything, you know, every time something like this happens in the world, you always see people rising to the occasion changing and helping each other out. So I hope, like you do, that it does sink in that. That this virus has taught us to do things that we didn’t think to do naturally before.

David Keen 18:15
That’s absolutely true. What about wellbeing? Do you think that the obviously pre-virus, in the analog world, the ancient world we used to live in. Tere, wellbeing was becoming more and more popular. Is both physical and mental wellbeing going to be a trend, you feel from the clients that you’re speaking to, and from your own mind, will become a much bigger trend in the future.

Clint Nagata 18:43
I think it’ll become… I hope it’ll become more of a lifestyle that a lot of us will embody. And when we have projects where we are working on a quite a considerable wellness component. In fact, you know, if you go back just a few years ago, the word ‘spa’ was much more prevalent than the word ‘wellness’.

David Keen 19:09
Right, ‘spa’ is analogue.

Clint Nagata 19:13
Wellness is digital, and I think it’ll just become a natural part of our lives—that you automatically think of health or wellbeing as you go about living your lives. It just becomes in sync with your life.

David Keen 19:30
And will that be precipitated in the higher-end luxury specs?

Clint Nagata 19:35
It is. In fact, we are currently working on projects where the wellness component is considerably larger than anything we’ve ever done before. It embodies everything from, not just treatments, but also more proactive or more lifestyle-changing… sort of teaching about wellness and making wellness part of the guests experience at the hotel. They’ll be more active rather than passive.

David Keen 20:07
And I’m pretty confident that the pandemic will actually be a catalyst to a greater universal need. Clint, you always say—and the work you’ve done over the last 10 years is amazing—you always talk about being prevalent in the luxury space. We, as a firm, are now trying to evolve the perception of luxury from a hospital through to a high-end hotel or resort. What are your thoughts on that? What do you believe is luxury, or is the luxury of the future?

Clint Nagata 20:53
I was asked the other day what I thought about ‘affordable luxury’. And I’ve always felt that luxury shouldn’t be limited to one segment, just to the wealthy. I think there’s a lot of room to create something on the lower segments of the hotel industry that still cater to luxury. That will redefine luxury in a different sense, it’s not about, from my perspective, not about having the most brightest thing, the most expensive thing as luxury. Hopefully this pandemic will have taught us to appreciate things, all things and not just things that are expensive as luxury, that there is space to enjoy—to appreciate simpler things—that are still luxurious.

David Keen 21:49
So, it would be fair to say that—I mean, whether we use the word affordable luxury or any kind of luxury—that the democratization precipitated or catalyzed by the virus, will accelerate, or should accelerate ,greater appreciation in all areas of hospitality.

Clint Nagata 22:11
I think so. At one point, I was toying around the idea of having really small rooms, but really well-thought… like a pied-à-terre. The idea that of having these really great little jewel boxes… but well done. You know, why does a 15-square-metre room need to feel like a low-end product?

David Keen 22:41
I couldn’t agree with you more. Clint Nagata, Founder and Creative Partner of Blink Design Group, thank you so much for being a part of The Future of Travel. Stay safe.

Clint Nagata 22:53
Thanks, David.



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