Q&A with Debbie Higgins, Canoe Hospitality

Almost five years ago, Canoe Hospitality lost not only its leader, but a great man who built and propelled the company forward: Steve Higgins. The FF&E and OS&E procurement and project management company was founded on his principles, and now, he’s passed those along to its current president/owner and also his sister, Debbie Higgins. An industry veteran herself, she aims to continue both Steve’s legacy and the success of Canoe, taking the company into the future. Hotel Business spoke with Higgins about her goals for the company and some trends she’s seeing in the space.

How has your career in hospitality prepared you for this role? I have spent the past 30 years in both the hospitality and healthcare industries. I founded one of the first 100% woman-owned purchasing and design firms, opened offices in new territories for Higgins Purchasing Group, and introduced hospitality design concepts into the senior living industry.

How has Canoe evolved in the past couple of years? Canoe has focused on developing its team to include people with diverse professional backgrounds including law, accounting and finance, design, international freight and logistics and supply chain management. We believe our multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving, coupled with our extensive procurement experience, provides our clients with unrivaled resources and intellectual capital.

What are some trends you’re seeing in FF&E and OS&E? First, we are seeing the increased interest in vintage. This requires an experienced purchasing agent who knows how to make vintage items meet commercial requirements, retain design intent and satisfy budgetary requirements. For example, 75% of the lobby furniture in the Proper Santa Monica are globally sourced vintage items. The end result is a cozy, eclectic feel that you cannot find elsewhere.

Second, we are seeing a trend toward a residential design influence in hospitality and senior housing. Converting a residential design aesthetic requires a purchasing agent with robust sourcing contacts and solid contract industry knowledge.

Third, project timelines are shrinking. A purchasing agent must have the experience, foresight and communication skills to navigate their client through this expedited process to avoid delays and excessive costs.

Can you detail the legacy that Steve Higgins left behind? I spent 30 years working with Steve; we are staying true to the heading he set for Canoe and using our knowledge and experience to bring new levels of service to our clients. Steve’s legacy lives on in Canoe, and in the many talents he has mentored throughout the years. My goal is to honor that legacy while also creating space for the next generation to lead Canoe into the future.

What has Steve taught you from a leadership standpoint? Steve passed away on Christmas Day. It was very difficult for him at the end and he was struggling physically. Two weeks before he passed, he insisted on dressing up as Santa Claus, as he did every year, for the office holiday party. That took incredible strength and courage. Steve exemplified leadership through service, stewardship and a sense of humor.

What does Canoe’s portfolio look like? Canoe has a mix of boutique venues and brand-standard hotels and resorts, domestically and abroad. We also service senior housing, multi-housing, restaurants, malls, convention centers, offices and educational venues. Frankly, we have some challenging projects and we love it; we thrive on it.

Do you look for specific types of hospitality properties or projects to tackle? We have many return clients and we have built some fantastic relationships with hotel owners and developers. The synergy we develop with our repeat clients is hard to beat. That said, we also seem to attract many first-time hotel owners and operators, and I have enjoyed guiding them on their first foray into the hospitality industry. Their passion is refreshing. We’re not afraid of a difficult assignment: novice owner, residential designer, tight budget, historic building, short timeline, vintage and custom scope—whatever it is, bring it on. We are genuine, passionate and professional people, and we want to collaborate with the same.

What does the future for Canoe look like? We will continue to honor Steve’s legacy of leadership through service. We will invest in talent and technology to support our multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. New leaders will emerge and, hopefully, new partnerships. We are excited for the challenges ahead.

What challenges are you seeing in the industry? How do you plan on overcoming those? The trade tension with China is posing some interesting questions. It remains to be seen whether China’s role in the hospitality furniture market will decline as other countries and regions emerge to service the needs of the industry. Can those countries and regions upgrade their skilled labor, supply chain and infrastructure before tensions ease? This issue is moving at the speed of a tweet; it’s fascinating to watch. We will keep our clients up to speed on the latest developments and provide them with global sourcing alternatives that meet budget, timeline and quality needs. Our multidisciplinary team can see problems from different angles, and we pass on these perspectives and insight to our clients. HB

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