Leo A Daly
Corporate Director of Hospitality
Managing Principal, Dallas
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Pat Miller of Leo A Daly about her work and the ﬁrm’s leading role in international hospitality design.
An acknowledged industry leader with an exceptional talent for design, management and client relationship building, Pat possesses more than three decades of experience in many facets of interior design.
Pat Miller is an industry leader in hospitality design with a rare ability to develop innovative solutions to the financing, teaming and problem solving needs of developers, REITs and hotel companies. Over the course of 30 years, she has developed a reputation as a valued resource and confidant in the creation of solutions for hospitality opportunities and is often asked by repeat clients to write complete programs. Under Pat’s leadership, Leo A Daly has been consistently recognized by top-tier hospitality magazines as one of the leading design and architectural firms in the industry.
NC (Nat Coalson): Can we first talk a bit about your role within Leo A Daly; I understand the scope of your job was recently expanded?
PM (Pat Miller): I wear many different hats in the company. The foremost is the Corporate Director of Hospitality for the company as a whole. I set company strategy on how we’ll do business in the hospitality industry as it relates to architecture, interior design and engineering. I oversee pretty much every hospitality project we have.
My second role—which is pretty daunting also—is the Managing Principal of the Dallas office.
These two roles have everything to do with hospitality, which allows me to be focused.
NC: What role do you have in setting strategy and guiding projects to completion?
PM: Every day, I put what I do in different ‘buckets’. One is to take care of our project work and our current clients; touching base with our project managers and project designers to monitor how those projects are going. I like make sure that we’re keeping up with the expectations of our clients. That’s very important because repeat business, to myself and to the ﬁrm, is a top priority.
I am constantly in contact with our hospitality design teams whether they are here in the Dallas office or working in our other offices on hotel projects. Our number one goal is to keep our clients happy and make sure their expectations are being met.
The second portion of what I do is looking for new opportunities—new business development for the ﬁrm. We review our strategic plan regularly, which talks about what our targeted markets are going to be. I keep our pipeline full of opportunities, so I’m either talking to new clients about their expectations for a property being built or renovated.
I travel quite a bit. I’ll go out and visit with potential new clients to tour an existing property and find out what they’d like to accomplish. Or just go and talk to a client directly about what they’d like to build.
NC: So a major portion of your job is managing client relationships and dealing with the clients, including approaching prospective clients whom your ﬁrm hasn’t worked with before, and guiding them through an RFP or proposal to get Leo A Daly in a position where you can bid on a project?
PM: Yes, I do a lot of that. Mostly what we do is write a Scope and Fee Proposal. With a lot of what we do, there is no RFP. It’s either word-of-mouth and a client has come to us by a referral, or we have sought them out because it’s the type of client we’d like to do business with.
NC: So in the ‘seeking out’, is that primarily your responsibility or do you have sales and marketing people who are developing leads also?
PM: It is my ultimate responsibility to keep my people fed. I do have a Director of Business Development, Tracey Bush, and Kellie McDonnell is our Marketing Manager. I also have four ‘seller/doers’—people who can go out and talk to a client on my behalf if I’m not available. The ultimate responsibility is on me to make it happen.
NC: Let’s say you approach a new or existing client. You’ve had some discussions about a new property you’d like to develop and maybe even verbally agreed you’re going to move ahead on it. What does your typical creative process look like? Your internal process for developing one of these properties?
PM: Because we’re an architectural, engineering and interior design ﬁrm, we’re pretty organized about how we work on a project. We have a process that we’ve put in place for doing very large, complex projects. We call that New Construction–Architectural, Engineering and Interior Design. It’s a whole process laid out for how we execute a project.
We have [another] process for doing renovation work, where the architectural, engineering and interior design are much more fluid, meaning they’re condensed into one project manager instead of an architect and interior designer.
Then we also have a process for what we call ‘Repair and Replacements,’ where a repeat client comes back to us for a smaller scale project. Let’s say they’d like to update an exhibit hall; it’s not really too complex. It’s a repeat client and we want to take care of them. We appreciate our clients so we will work with them for whatever they need.
Each one of those processes is mapped out and our design team knows that process.
NC: So as a company, you have ways to focus your creative process so everyone knows what to work on next?
PM: Exactly. [Our] process charts allow our designers to spend their time on designing and they know what they have to focus on. Then we also have a methodology to put that information in front of a client.
NC: Does that also mean that—in terms of developing creative solutions—your process is broken down into smaller bits where you have guidelines, say, for selecting fabrics, color palettes etc, or is it that specific? Down to guiding the creative strategy as well?
PM: No. What happens with creating the overall design concept/vision for our clients is this: Initially, I’m talking to the client about what their hopes and dreams are and whether their vision is either for a property that’s being repositioned or a new construction project. All of that information goes through me, is documented and then goes on to the design team. Then we’ll have an internal kickoff meeting that talks about what the client envisions. Sometimes they don’t have a vision and then I’m telling the design team what I think the vision ought to be.
Then we gather all of the information we have and all the tools we need, like our project schedules so we’re running on time, and any drawings we need. We do a lot of research before our internal kickoff meeting. We look at what’s happening in the area, what type of people might come and visit this hotel and stay here. It’s a whole lot of research before we have our internal kickoff meeting.
Then we have our kickoff meeting with the client. In that meeting we restate to them what we think we heard and give them some ideas of different avenues we could pursue as it relates to the entire design.
For each one of our clients we focus on what is of interest to them. Obviously when we’re doing a new construction project that’s unbranded (for an independent), we’re creating the entire interior envelope. That is much more involved and much more about creating a vision because we also get to touch all the interior architecture. We have all of the space planning and the functional layout of hotels in addition to the FF&E and fabric selection.
NC: Taking all that into consideration, can you tell me—from your personal perspective—the types of projects that really inspire you? Of all these hats you wear and the clients you work with, the types of clients and projects you work with, what gets you the most excited?
PM: Well, we have quite a few clients that are very into design… but don’t want to tell us how to design. So they’ll say “come view this property” and “this is kind of what we would like to do for our guests” and they have a very big design viewpoint. They allow us to strip everything bare and come back with new concepts.
For example, we recently completed:
Irvine Marriott in Irvine, California [project description – PDF]
The Silversmith Hotel Chicago Downtown in Chicago, Illinois [project description – PDF]
Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek in Orlando, Florida
For each of these three properties we created a whole new experience. For the Marriott Irvine we created the Great Room, which is like no other great room in Marriott hotel’s portfolio. It’s been very well received by Marriott themselves, as well as, the guests that are staying there. The client’s ecstatic.
The Silversmith Hotel Chicago Downtown is a very old building on Jewelers Row in Chicago. That client wanted an edgier design and so it was “you tell us what you’d like to do.” We created a story about glamor and jewelry, because it’s on Jewelers Row. We reinvented the whole ambience from recreating all the spaces and space planning everything. All the way through the guest rooms, bathrooms, all the public areas. It has a very different look than the Marriott in Irvine.
In regards to the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, initially we were asked to just work on the bar areas. It was a big convention hotel, the bar was way, way too small—undersized—and the property has only been open around five years. So we took a look at it and gave our client options. One was the safe option, which was just going to expand the bar. The second one was to blow out the back of the building and create more of a terraced experience. In Orlando, you can spend more time outside. The third was to redo the entire lobby, the grab-and-go, the way you ﬂow through and all. The client thought the design was incredible. All three options were amazing and they decided to go with option three and really redo the whole experience for the guest.
There’s no set design for us. It’s really thinking about what our client’s looking for. Our design look is very, very different. I listen to the client and then determine which senior designer’s going to work on the project. Each designer has a certain eye or certain sensitivity. That’s how the design starts. We have lots of different options that we’re putting in front of the client and we let the client tell us what they feel most comfortable doing. Some are a little bit more timid because they’re an institutional client that has 300 properties and they’re not so sure they want to go that far. Then we have other clients that might say “I don’t know what I’m looking for but, in your portfolio of work, we like what we see, so give us one of those.”
NC: Continuing that discussion, I’ve seen a few mentions in Leo A Daly’s marketing about the role that emotion plays in successful design. Can you address that a bit? Maybe specifically how furnishings and decor—the parts of the design that the guests might notice and experience the most—how do you craft those, with respect to the emotion that you’re trying to create?
PM: We have over the years always focused on the five senses of the human being. If we take care of those five senses then we have created an environment that people can get excited about or feel calm about. We like to ask when you walk up to a hotel, what is it that you’re going to feel as soon as you walk through the doors? Each one of our projects are a very different feeling.
In the Marriott Irvine, the feeling needed to be different. It’s in an urban environment, an office complex, very corporate. When you walked in, we wanted to make sure that it felt cool, so there is a lot of white. We wanted to feel approachable, so we had driftwood-colored wood, a light gray. We also made it very easy to scope out the whole place and then determine as a guest where you wanted to go. You could go to the front reception desk; you could actually see them. You could head towards the bar, enjoying people and it’s really easy to slip in and out of that area. There’s a section where you can dine and it’s all very fluid back and forth. We opened up the back wall, using nano walls, so you could go out to a patio. There’s a ﬁreplace that grounds that area. From the front door, you have lots of options. You feel very comfortable and welcomed into the space. Then you get to choose where you’d like to go.
NC: In the initial stages of creative development, is finding the right words important to describe what those feelings will be? Do you use word exercises and those types of brainstorming techniques to come up with the right words to describe it?
PM: We do. That’s part of the presentation we give to our client. That’s the overall story… the feeling we share with the whole team, including the client (who might have a project manager, a CFO, they may have a procurement company, a contractor). We use words to describe that the feel of what we’ve designed. Everybody can relate to them. When you see words of ‘glamorous’, or ‘brilliant,’ you look at the design and those words reinforce the design.
NC: Can you share a couple of resources, when you have free time and can just sort of catch up on what’s going on in the industry, where do you go? What do you look at? What do you look for? Magazines, web sites? Do you use social media?
PM: I look at it all. I have magazines everywhere. I keep them forever! I have design books. I have city books, areas around the world. I also have all the trade journals that talk about who’s doing what, who’s buying what, who’s selling what, all of that, so I’m in tune with how the industry is moving.
NC: Is there any one resource that comes to mind that you always tend to go to?
PM: It would be Hospitality Design magazine.
NC: Any advice you would give to younger designers getting into the hospitality world?
PM: For young designers I think it’s really important to have life experiences. I think they need to get a hold of every trade magazine they can. Read why a design is the way it is. I also think that they need to visit pretty much every hotel that they can find and go in and say “what makes this place special or not special?” so they can experience what they’re feeling. Then they have to figure out a way to convey their design emotionally to their client.
Another really big point for me is that young designers need to develop a personality. And it’s not the “I’m showing up 9-to-5”. They have to have a personality. That’s what the client is looking for. You’re going to have a long haul from the time they say ‘go’ to a project completed and you need to understand that they need your guidance all through that. If you just show up and not really engage, then why have you?
NC: And developing an authentic personality, being honest; not just creating a persona?
PM: Nooo… because I can read through those in a New York minute!
NC: How about any advice for prospective developers working with contract designers?
PM: I think the main thing for a client is to marry up to a design ﬁrm that can truly achieve what their goal is going to be. There are clients that really like just a big name. You know that’s what they’re looking for. There are others that really need help. Because, let’s say, they’re a financial institution and now because the industry is doing well they’re in the hotel industry, where they were never before. So they need to select the ﬁrm that will help them explain how they’re going to get from A to B.
NC: Is it common that a client might work one design ﬁrm for a certain type of project and then go somewhere for a different type of project, depending on the property?
PM: Yes, it happens. I think because we have clients that hire us for all levels of hotels, it really has to do with our service as well as really understanding what’s appropriate for their projects. They all have budgets. If we design to the budget, we don’t need to value engineer and the project actually comes out the way it was intended.
NC: Maybe a little more about you personally? Are you still involved with NEWH?
PM: Initially when NEWH started in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area I was one of the charter members. I was an assistant to the Membership Director. Then the Membership Director went on maternity leave and I became the Membership Director. I’m very goal driven. I decided that, if we could, we needed enough members to become a chapter. (Which we did.) I talked to every woman I could possibly find—back then it was only women in NEWH—and I encouraged all of them and got them all signed up.
When we got our charter, I became head of programs, then a vice president, and then chapter president for two years. I also figured out that if we could get over 100 members we could have 2 delegates on the national board. I recruited everybody I could and got them signed up so we could have two at the national board level. After I was president for two years in Dallas, I went on the national board to do strategic planning for the board.
My whole reason for wanting to be involved in NEWH is because it was promoting women in the industry; when I first started working on hotel projects back in ’83 there were only men. There were men managers, men owners—there were very, very few women. I thought, ‘we need to get our numbers up’. And we had things in common. Corporate designers didn’t understand why on a chair we had three fabrics, fringe, buttons and amore. It was just a totally different world. It was really nice to have other interior designers, vendors, project management groups, and even owners’ reps, so that we could all talk the same language. Back then there really weren’t that many of us. The other part of it was to have fundraisers to collect money to give scholarships to give to women (and now men) in the industry to enhance our industry’s future and encourage them to stay in the industry.
NC: As recipient of the Joyce Johnson Award, that award was given to you as collective recognition of all those things you’d done for NEWH? Any one thing in particular that really stood out?
PM: I think it had to do with all the things I’d done. I was very focused and wanted to succeed and I thought very strongly that vendors, designers, owners reps, contractors, everybody in the industry needed to share informatiofi so that we all could be stronger.
NC: When you’re not working, what do you do? Hobbies, passions… what do you love to do to relax and unwind or regain your own inspiration?
PM: Pretty much I’m a workaholic from Monday morning till Friday night. On the weekends, it’s just my husband and I and we like to visit with friends. I really love being outdoors. Nature, to me, is just incredible in how it can just rejuvenate you. When I work so hard, just being outside in the sunshine, or even the rain, it just rejuvenates me to no end. I love to read; I love to take walks. I love going up in the mountains of Colorado. Way, way up in the mountains, like 12,000 feet. I love it all.
I was recently in Denver. I came out from my hotel to get into my rental car to go see a client. And you look up and you see these pristine mountains and you think “life doesn’t get much better than this.”