Mission Possible: Creating better communication for a successful project

CORTE MADERA, CA—Effective communication is what keeps a hotel project from collapsing. Without ongoing dialogue, project players waste time digging through endless email chains for answers instead of moving forward with hitting project milestones. This creates a tension-fueled environment for everybody involved. Avoiding friction through open-mindedness and humility can ensure communication remains useful and productive among project players, and impactful on generations to come.  

Panelists discussed how to keep communication open among project players.

Industry leaders met at RH Contract’s headquarters here in October to discuss why and when communication breaks down during hotel projects. Panelists explored how dialogue among owners, designers and purchasing agents can be improved to avoid communication missteps by developing more cohesive processes among project players.

Co-moderated by Hotel Business Editor-in-Chief Christina Trauthwein and Publisher Allen Rolleri, the duo questioned the panelists on why communication is so essential to the design process; how to keep designers focused on budgets while also enabling creativity; and what project players can do to ensure everybody is held accountable and aware of what needs to get done.

Face-to-face communication wins
“The more we get together on a project, the better it is,” said Kemper Hyers, chief creative officer of Auberge Resorts Collection, a privately held hospitality company located in Mill Valley, CA. “Face-to-face is just the best thing you can do to get everybody back on track.”

Even though new technologies like Slack bring team members together, communication still breaks down. “We all tend to hide behind the keyboard,” said Paul Jones, owner of Project Dynamics Inc., a Las Vegas-based procurement company. By avoiding in-person interactions, project players miss out on potential opportunities to connect on deeper levels—especially since people typically act differently online than in person. Face-to-face interaction removes the initial barrier players hit when communicating.

“The camaraderie that comes with verbal communication—it’s something that every company should emphasize because there’s not enough of it,” he said.

For project inquiries, more often than not, email isn’t the most effective form of communication. “We’re emailed to death,” Jones said. With email, instead of moving projects along, key project players end up stuck behind a screen answering never-ending threads. Typically including too many recipients, these overly extensive chains become increasingly burdensome to everybody involved—to the point where many respondents begin questioning the necessity of email exchanges.”

“I know we talked about challenges with types of communication—that’s where the email process comes in because when that’s done to a little bit of an extreme, it just kills productivity,” said Dane Patunoff, VP of development and construction at KHP Capital Partners, a San Francisco-based real estate private equity firm focused on investments in boutique and independent hotels. “I don’t know if anyone’s getting enough work done, or they’re just trying to handle the 300 emails the project’s generating on a given day.”

There are ways to encourage employees to rely less on emails. For instance, Patunoff has been trying to do his best to increase chances for project players to talk face-to-face by promoting opportunities at project sites—otherwise projects could potentially suffer.   

“I do have a lot of projects that consistently suffer on the coordination side,” he said. “We try to partner with well-respected people in the industry—who are good at what they do—but it is often a little too siloed, and it’s hard to pull everyone together and get these drawings on the same page. And when you kick that out to the contractor, and they can’t find what to do depending on what drawing set they look at, then you’re just—all of a sudden—in damage control mode through this construction window—even if you, maybe, got through your design development schedules successfully.”

Talk early
To take hold of the process, in an attempt to avoid issues with construction, managing the communication process immediately is essential. “Our process is to start the communication as soon as we can with the key players,” said Bruce Wright, principal and SVP of development and construction at SB Architects. For him, communication is all about “getting the entire team—not just the designer, but the fabricators,” he said.

Initially, his firm typically presents an owner with a “three-legged stool”—which is made up of an architect, a landscape architect and an interior designer. “Then, pretty quickly, I like to follow up with an operator, especially if it’s a hotel, saying, ‘Do you have an idea of what this might be from a brand perspective?’” he said. “Because we need to get those folks involved, so that we’re meeting their standards and expectations. Everybody has their own unique requirements, and, if you don’t have them part of the team early on, you’re going to go back and redo a whole lot of work, and we can save a lot of pain and suffering.”

Project speed bumps are inevitable, but hitting them earlier than later can help with preventing project players from scrambling for answers in the future. “Our job, I think, as architects, at least in our realm, is helping to guide the process and create waypoints and milestones to make key decisions as to when to build a team and be smart about that growth,” he said.

When it comes to managing the drawing coordination project, architects are the ones expected to take lead—according to Wright.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Claire Eeles, RH Contract; Stephen Chan, Eagle Point Hotel Partners; and Bruce Wright, SB Architects

“Typically, what happens, and I’ll see this a lot with hotels, is that the interior design team has a separate schedule, I guess,” Wright said. “They might be brought on late; they’re not an early player in the process. There’s some misalignment with what the project goals are when the team gets put together, and that can have a negative result. There are times where clients are extremely focused on what the interior design aspects are of the project, and that begins its own special little experiment that’s happening. In the meantime, you’ve got structural engineers trying to put things together, so, again, just trying to bring everyone’s awareness of what their responsibilities to deliver at certain points along the way are helps mitigate the issue.”

Humility begets openness. Open communication among owners, developers, designers and purchasing agents offers opportunities to find middle ground.

“When I look at it from the perspectives of the designer and the developer, I’m going to add two words: ego and humility,” said Michael St. James, managing principal at Acumen Development Partners, West. “When you come at it from a position of ego, people shut down. I do. When I’m approached from a position of humility, now there’s negotiation. I don’t have a resort without my designers. I have a rectangle. I have a box. Maybe I have something I could put a bow on and sell to somebody else at the table, and they can take it, but I don’t have a finished end product without my design being brilliant. How are you going to be brilliant if you put them in a straight jacket? You can’t. You need to give them room to breathe.”

What’s the budget?
Sometimes, it seems as though designers and architects aren’t given budgets for hotel projects. Oftentimes, this becomes apparent later on—after a procurement company gets involved and has to inform the client of the bad news: You can’t afford the design.  

“That’s the part that’s hard at the end because then all of us have to fix it,” Jones said. “The effective nature of everything is key—right up front. What is the budget? What is the brand? Where are we going with this one?”

Being up front about budget restraints can open up conversations about potential project workarounds. “Okay, so we have this natural walnut veneer that costs $12 per square inch,” St. James said. “What if we take a maple and stain it? I don’t think the people at this table are ever going to know that it’s maple. That’s going to be our little secret, and we’ll chuckle about it for years to come, but what we’ve done is we’ve achieved the same design integrity at a price point.”

This is where humility can come into play.

“You’re never going to get that when I’m bullying somebody from a developer’s perspective, or I’m just trying to defend the integrity of my design from an architectural standpoint, so that humility is really refreshing and an important component to communication,” he said.

Design challenges
Thad Geldert, creative director at EDG, a hospitality, restaurant, and commercial design firm, based in Novato, CA, agreed with bringing designers into the process early on—to provide them with a sense of ownership, an opportunity to collaborate holistically with the remainder of the project team and to keep project leaders informed of project updates.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Paul Jones, Project Dynamics Inc., and Thad Geldert, EDG

“Having that transparency and that communication on the front end will hopefully foster and create a collaborative energy within the team; that collaboration gives a sense of ownership to all parties involved and can set a course for a successful project,” he said.

Budget restraints don’t have to shackle the wrists of designers—at least not tightly. Deciding to go with designers familiar with the surrounding area of a project could go a long way for project players, especially in terms of communication. Being local, these designers typically have a better understanding of the market’s culture and possibilities.

“From that local flavor perspective, it’s becoming more and more preferable to work with a design firm that’s local to the project; not only is it logistically better, but just understanding the essence of whatever market, whatever city you’re in,” said Maki Bara, president and co-founder at The Chartres Lodging Group, a San Francisco-based hotel investment company.

There are times when projects are doomed from the start, from a design perspective. For example, the designer might not be right for a particular project. “I think it’s appropriateness,” said Elizabeth Fournier, design and project services manager at Rosewood Hotel Group, a hotel company with an office in West Hollywood, CA. “It’s the appropriate designer for the appropriate project, the appropriate brand—because time and time again you see the wrong designer doing this brand and so forth, and that’s also a big level of communication and education that has to happen.” At times, this happens when there’s a misunderstanding of a designer’s identity—what that particular designer stands for and represents. Other times, the expectations behind what a designer can and can’t do are simply misguided.

“One of the changes we have seen with the designers is that they’re expected to be experts at everything these days,” said Sophia Nguyen, VP of design and development at Seattle-based Noble House Hotels & Resorts, a portfolio that encompasses independent properties across the U.S. “They’re expected to know waterproofing. They’re expected to know how a chair is made. That’s not quite fair.”

That being said, that’s what a designer signs up for when agreeing to a project. “You’re right,” Geldert said. “It is challenging, but we are given the mission to be stewards of all of those different aspects of the project, so we do our best. I come back to that collaboration. When there is that collaboration and that open communication, yes, every project has its hiccups, but it’s how you move through that and the agility at which you address these challenges that is the key.”

Oftentimes, content management is the real challenge for designers and architects, and the balancing act ends up being on them. “There’s so much information,” Wright said. “It’s how you manage that content. It’s how you make sure that what you’re putting out there is communicating the specifics of what needs to be built, but not more than that. It’s so easy to model everything now. It can produce all this amazing work, but it’s the content that comes out on the other side, and somebody has to build the thing. There’s a lot of responsibility as architects to manage information and put out the right information at the right time.”

Being aware of a player’s abilities—especially a designer’s—is how a project manager can keep a project on schedule and avoid disasters resulting from weaknesses. At some point, though, decisions will need to be made if a player is unable to deliver.

“It’ a tough call because we’re all dealing with deadlines,” said Stephen Chan, principal and co-founder of Eagle Point Hotel Partners, a New York-based hotel investment firm. “We have lenders, and there’s capital behind us. We have to make shifts and adjustments to get the project done. It’s always that constant tension.”

Not all written communication is bad
While many project leaders agree on the shortfalls of relying too much on written communication, there are times when the written word is of the utmost importance. “Where our most successful projects come from are that early collaboration, early integration, but I also think that something that is missing in terms of communication that sounds so obvious and silly but it’s effective: recordkeeping and note-taking,” said Catie Mangels, VP of acquisitions and development at Two Roads Hospitality, an Englewood, CO-based hospitality company.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Sophia Nguyen, Noble House Hotels & Resorts, and Catie Mangels, Two Roads Hospitality

Sometimes, having someone take notes isn’t enough to keep meeting attendees in check—another measure could be added to assure consensus among key players, and it’s another simple solution.

“We’ve even gone so far as to make everybody sign the notes at the end because if you don’t have a record, there’s nothing to reference,” she said.  

Recordkeeping can be a challenge for many project leaders. “I think things are moving so quickly—given the technology and advances in communication,” Geldert said. “We’re all moving so fast. It’s hard to be able to slow down and do something as basic as what you’re talking about. It’s a challenge, but you have to have it. Things can get lost so quickly because there’s so many layers to what we’re creating.”

Without someone documenting notes, project leaders run into unforeseen challenges. For example, if documents aren’t updated, a designer could accidentally end up working on the wrong version of a drawing, which would undoubtedly throw off the project.

“Right now, we’re moving so fast,” Jones said. “Just to be able to keep track is a challenge in its own right—for principals and the [assistant]who serves the coffee in the meetings. It’s just too crazy.”

Education is key
Educating team members on the value of communicating effectively can be challenging for many project executives, yet it’s necessary for leaders to articulate how communication among project players can be improved at every level. “How does education play into all of this, so that you can teach or you can pass on this knowledge?” Nguyen mused. As in any field, learning goes both ways—the student learns from the teacher and vice versa.

“There’s a level of humility because we want to teach the younger generations, but the younger generations do have something to teach us,” Fournier said. “They’re the ones on Instagram finding the chair that we’re looking for. They’re finding the wallpaper. They’re finding that next designer who’s up and coming, and going to make an amazing project.”

The younger generation is also in the middle of finding its own voice, which is where today’s leader can make a difference on the communication front. “How many of our voices ring in the young ones?” St. James asked. “What will we say or do that will influence them? We don’t know. I know that each one of us has had an impact on those that will follow in our footsteps, and when they learn to sing their song, and when they learn to speak in their voice, we’re there to interpret and we learn from that.”

Eventually, though, the students will move on to become teachers—continuing the cycle.

“We can help them find their pitch, but at some point, we have to let them go and we have to empower them to make decisions on their own, much the same way we were treated,” he said. “At some point, we were let go. We were given the reins, and look what we’ve done with that. It’s that fine line between guiding, mentoring and trusting.” HB

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