Architect, project manager for the Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa, hospitality consultant, and chief operating officer. Seth Matson has donned many hats in a career that has seen him traverse the globe while working on some of the world’s iconic design and hospitality brands. Luxury and creativity can be melded to create a service experience, he says – an important definition, considering that with design and property conglomerate Ayana he’s about to launch a whole new concept in the residential hospitality experience.
Can you tell us a bit first about your background and how you found your way in to the hospitality industry?
I trained as an architect in Canada and started my career working there on a wide variety of projects, including urban design projects, medium-rise residential, shopping centres and cinemas. Eventually, after taking a job with a Montreal-based American firm that specialised in regional healthcare facilities I found myself developing an expertise in hospital design. I’d always said as a joke, be careful what you’re good at because you’ll end up doing it the rest of your life, so I knew it was time for a change. When I first started doing hotel projects I knew I had found my passion. Up to a certain point there are similarities between hospitals and hotels – until you understand that the former are places people generally don’t want to be in, whereas the later are places people dream of being. Hospitality design is in some ways the purest expression of architecture; although it must be completely functional, if it’s successful, it must also inspire delight.
You were involved with the construction of the Armani Hotel. Can you tell us a bit about what that was like?
It was an amazing opportunity to be involved in a project like that almost from the beginning. The Armani design team had never undertaken a hotel before and Emaar had never operated one, so we had to invent everything from scratch – of course we had the help of some very talented people. I arrived in Dubai in 2005 when the raft of the Burj was just being poured, and worked initially with NORR, the architectural consultants, coordinating the design with the requirements of the hotel, and working closely with my great friend and mentor Peter Van Wyk, who was the director of design and construction at Emaar Hotels and Resorts. After about a year he asked me to join him at Emaar as the Project Manager for the Armani Hotel, and I spent the next five years on site coordinating every detail of the project with the design, operations, and construction teams. It was a small, close-knit team, and it really felt like we were working with the best and brightest on a once-in-a-lifetime project.
Being the first of its kind, what did it take for the hotel to live up to being unique?
As much as I was committed to implementing Mr Armani’s design vision in every detail of the project, I really believe that what made the hotel unique was the level of service that was (and is) offered: from the development of the lifestyle manager concept where a dedicated personal concierge would assist you throughout your stay, to the detailed standard operating procures and brand standards that were created, the extensive recruiting and training that all went into ensuring the delivery of a level of luxury service consistent with the brand reputation.
About your move to VX Studio (formerly VE Experts) now Ayana Holdings, how did that come about?
I spent more than 10 years at Emaar, the last four as the director of design and technical services for hospitality development, and I simply felt it was time to try something new. I started my own hospitality consultancy company last year and was consulting for Emaar, Dubai Properties and a number of other developers. I had also previously worked with both Abdullah Lahej and Hamid Kerayechian (the Chairman and the CEO, respectively, of Ayana Holdings) from my time at Emaar, and was very interested in their vision of creating a collection of innovative companies focused on all aspects of property development. They offered me the opportunity to take over the management of VX Studio as its COO, as well as partner with them to create Aquila Hospitality, a new company dedicated to providing hospitality quality service and experience to non-traditional and dispersed properties, such as vacation rentals and private villas.
How is a move from a firm known for design to hotel experience management (if you will) a natural evolution of the business?
What most people define as luxury, whether they realise it or not, is actually a combination of aesthetics (good design), and excellent service (having needs taken care of before they are even articulated). These two things together are what create an exceptional hospitality experience, so I think it’s a natural progress to go from thinking about good design in the physical sense, to thinking about designing an entire experience.
If you were to explain your job in five sentences, what would you say?
I believe my job is essentially to take the lessons I’ve learned about hotel design and operations and create a one of a kind hospitality experience outside of a traditional hotel. It’s a matter of thinking through all the functional details about what people want and how they use space, ensuring they are addressed so seamlessly and fluidly that the mechanics of it are invisible, and maintaining consistently high quality standards, so that Aquila Hospitality becomes a trusted brand, known for creating unique, inspiring experiences that are authentically grounded in a place.
There must be some demographic, or economic opportunity that you’re tapping into with Aquila. What would that be?
The fact is, there are many under-served demographics in the hospitality industry, which is why there has recently been such a proliferation of brands and sub-brands. I see great business potential in creating a collection of highly customised offerings that piggyback on the global reach of existing sharing platforms to tap into small niche markets. In particular, we’d like to reach people who are looking for unique, authentic travel experiences and don’t want to stay in anonymous big brand hotels, but still want predictable hospitality level services, and people who want luxury hospitality services provided in their own homes.
Managing properties for the affluent must be labour intensive. How many staff do you expect you’ll need to hire for the project?
The starting point of exclusive service is an extremely knowledgeable and helpful concierge. Because a concierge needs to be able to offer every service without being able to predict which ones will actually be required, most of these would be outsourced to pre-vetted, trusted partners. Direct staff costs would be fairly minimal.
What do you expect is the main challenge to overcome in the business you are entering? And is it something that should be easy to tackle?
The main challenge, I believe, is that it’s already a crowded and confusing market, with hundreds of options for travellers and short-term renters: the big hotel brands, property management companies and individual home owners all competing on a very uneven playing field. The industry is going through some fairly radical changes right now, with traditional hotels being overtaken by new hospitality models, so there’s great opportunity. Clearly defining and differentiating your product, and making sure people know about it is the key to success.
You’ve had a diverse range of experiences. What are some of the most important lessons, as well as leadership lessons that have helped you get the job done?
For me the most important lesson has been to always remain professional and treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t agree with their point of view. Whether it’s in the architecture, hospitality or the construction industry, the world is smaller than you think, and there’s a very good chance that you’ll run into the same people down the road in a different context, so you can’t afford to make enemies or burn bridges.
What to you, is creativity? And given your line of work, how much do you let it rule when trying to deliver results?
For me creativity is coming up with the right solution to a problem, it’s not doing something different just for the sake of doing something different. If it’s something that no one’s ever done before, it could be a brilliant solution that solves a complex puzzle, or it could be that no one has ever done it before because it’s just not a very good idea. I’ve always considered myself more of an editor than a designer. A good editor must know right away what works, how to improve it, and what is extraneous to the overall concept. That’s the level of creativity I try to let govern my decision-making.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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