Apr 14, 2020

Episode 38

Kemper Hyers, Auberge Resorts Collection


Kemper Hyers had an unconventional start to say the least. Despite his love for design, the South Carolina native initially pursued a dance career in New York—a time in his life he compares to the movie Fame. But eventually design won out, and he started his own firm, styling for retail catalogues and stores. He learned the importance of editing from working with Martha Stewart, and when he joined Barry Sternlicht at Starwood, his life changed forever. He worked with the hotel visionary on launching brands including Sheraton, Le Méridien, Baccarat, and 1 Hotels. Like the rest of the design world, Hyers continues to grapple with today’s new normal, but he remains optimistic. The hotel business will be back, he says, but the trick is to be thoughtful and mindful.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen:  Hi, I’m here with Kemper Hyers of Auberge Hotels. Kemper, my dear friend, how are you?

Kemper Hyers: I’m great, Stacy. How are you?

SSR: How are you and your team trying to deal with this new norm amid the coronavirus that we’re all having to cope with these days?

KH: Well, I have to say, I’m feeling pretty blessed with my team actually because we, at Auberge, have obviously had a difficult last month trying to sort out the business, but we are nimble and little and so we are very much focused on the future. And that’s not just the glib response, we’re actually are taking this time to dig into lots and lots of things we’ve been wanting to do with Auberge on the brand side, on the product side, even training, lots of things that you just never get to. They’re the things you always say, ‘Next week. Next week. Next week.’ And this is giving us the time, as a home office team, to really focus on those. So the silver lining in amidst an incredibly dark cloud and it’s great because you wake up every morning ready to go, instead of waking up every morning, going, am I really home again? Is it Groundhog’s Day yet again?

SSR: What day is it. 

KH: So it’s been great. Yes. It doesn’t matter anymore, all seven days are exactly the same.

SSR: Exactly. I mean, you touched on it a little bit, but how else do you stay positive during this time, and what are you telling your team and what are the hotels telling their teams to stay positive? I hate to use the word because everyone’s using it, but unprecedented. I mean, we haven’t gone through something like this before.

KH: We’re staying positive by being in touch every single day. I do coffee with each of my team in the morning. Same with the hotels, we’re just reaching out all the time. And I think the other positive is we have deals in the pipeline, which were funded and are going. I mean, I am working on nearly as many projects as I was. So there’s real energy in what we’re doing every day, and we’re blessed that so many things are moving forward.

And I think the GMs who are dealing with hotels waiting to get their doors open again are hearing that news. It’s keeping focused on this will end, it’s so hard to remember that in the midst of this crazy, but this will end. We will all be back in business and our hotels will be shimmering and gorgeous again, and it’s coming back. So, the trick is to be thoughtful, be mindful, be ready for reopening. I think it’s going to be a very strange re-immersion back into the world of hospitality again, but there will be a day when we’re running beautiful getaways again and we just need to keep focused on that and on helping the people, obviously.

SSR: I think that’s a lot of the conversation, right, is what will hospitality return to? How will this change it for the rest of known time or even for the better? And I think it’s a little too hard to tell, but I do think this industry is so resilient and people love to travel and people love to experience new things. I guess my optimism is that it will come back. People will want to experience all these amazing places you and others have created.

KH: It will. I mean, it’s an innate part of the human condition, that we want to go explore, we want to go discover, we need to get out of our heads and get perspective and that’s never going away. And so it’s a matter of time.

SSR: Well, part of why we started this podcast is to get different perspectives, so that’s a perfect transition into talking about you. So let’s start at the beginning. Your father was a lawyer and your mom designed clothing and handbags. How did that influence you growing up, and where did you grow up?

KH: I was born Charleston, South Carolina and when I was 1, we moved to Richmond, Virginia. My father got a job with the railroad, so still connected to 19th-century technology when I was a kid. We went to the launch of the bicentennial train, it’s very big on railroads, which is such a romantic notion of travel and I’ve always loved them, still do. In fact, in my house in California, I can hear the new little local train that goes through, and it totally reminds me of my childhood. But anyway, we grew up with two brains in the house, right? One, my father was this corporate lawyer, railroad. My mother didn’t go to college, was a housewife in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Met a friend in a park, they said, ‘We should do something. Why don’t we start a business,’ and in the basement of our house, started a handbag and what became apparel business. Which went on, eventually, to have 300 employees and sold product all over the world and was incredible.

But you asked about growing up, I mean, growing up in that world, I mean, I remember, as a child, sleeping in boxes full of the handbag covers. And at 12 years old, I was holding this gigantic electric stapler, stapling as my summer job, stapling on all the little handbags to the handles. And I think that was a very entrepreneurial spirit. I didn’t have my first real fulltime job till I was 40. My brothers both still don’t have fulltime jobs, they’re both freelancers. It just gave us this spirit of just go out and be who you are, and I think that’s the one thing my two parents, though they were on two different sides of the coin, they both had this belief that each of us was unique, each of us was special, each of us would do something that we wanted to do and they were always uber supportive of that. And in some ways, it helped us all fast-track to things we wanted to do. We didn’t have to go live careers we didn’t like and then later, change. We were changing the whole time. It’s still changing, I think I’ve had seven careers.

SSR: Speaking of your first career, you moved to New York to pursue one in dance. Tell us about that.

KH: Oh my God. Have you ever seen the movie Fame?

SSR: Of course.

KH: Okay, well, I just lived that. I lived that for five years. I mean, it was the early ’80s, New York. I lived in the Dance Belt, which was the nickname for Hell’s Kitchen at the time. Auditions. I did a whole musical with Stephen Schwartz, spent hours in the studio with him, choreographing, writing music. We eventually did a show on Broadway. I think we did two nights and then it was over. I auditioned for commercials. All my friends were waiters. It was everything you see in the movie Fame. Maybe without that one scene with Irene Cara, where she’s had that bad incident with the photographer, but it was everything else.

And it was amazing and it was very freeing and it was uber exciting, but there just came a moment where that was childhood dream and something I had been loving and wanting to do since I was a little kid, and you started to become an adult and it just didn’t make sense anymore. But it has the theater, theatricality, all of that is very much a part of who I am and it’s certainly a part of why I love hotels because they’re such stage sets, and so it’s like a natural habitat for me.

SSR: Is that how you transitioned or why you transitioned into design?

KH: It is. I mean, I’d always loved design. When I was a kid, every doodle I ever did was of a building. I grew up in the south.  I mean, if you go to Richmond, Virginia, it’s like a museum of every typology of architecture you can imagine. But the pivot really was driven by in 1984, I guess, I worked with a children’s theater company in New York and I was the choreographer and we did an exchange program with six Chinese kids. China was just barely opening to the world. And so six Americans switched places with six Chinese, and we did Peking opera, and we spent a month in China and it was amazing. To say it was life-changing is obviously an understatement.

I mean, that was still a time everybody was in Mao jackets, everyone on a bike, there wasn’t a car to be seen, the villages hadn’t changed in thousands of years. It was just amazing. And what it made me realize is as an actor, singer, dancer, waiter, I was never going to see the world. There was no way to see the richness and live the richness of the world. And I came back and I had always loved architecture and applied to Columbia and got in and just, overnight, changed courses and began a life in design that went through a lot of different machinations, but has always had as its touchpoint design.

SSR: So why did you pick Columbia? Was it because you were in New York or was there another reason that drew you to that school?

KH: It was because I was old. I actually had dropped out of three schools already, UVA, NYU, and York University in Toronto. I just was like, why am I going to these schools to be an actor? That’s ridiculous. I can just go out and be an actor. So when I came back to New York after that China trip, I was like, you know what, I want to go to the best.

SSR: Was there any class or any professor at Columbia that you remember always or that was a challenge for you stepping from, I mean, a world of dance and theater to architecture?

KH: Well, Bob Stern was running the architecture school when I was there, so it was a wonderful time of post-modernism. My degree actually ended up being in architectural history because people were, at that moment, really looking back. And of course I was in a McKim, Mead and White designed school and it was absolutely beautiful, sitting on a hill kind of thing. So mostly, what I remember is the direction of the school then and it really did affect me. And you and I had an interview once before one time and you asked me about who I loved and McKim, Mead and White was on the list, they always have been because at the end of the day, there’s a certain classical proportion and a certain understanding of the roots of our western architecture anyway that I just find very powerful and always have. And it’s why I’ve gotten along with people like Barry [Sternlicht] and Anouska Hempel and all those people because at the start, they are all classicists in their way, though the actual expression of it is very modern.

SSR: Right. So during architecture school, did you do any internships? How did you help forge your career, or was it just you did architecture school and then you stepped out and was hoping for a job? What was your thought process through school? Or did you have one?

KH: I did one summer with an architect in New York, and then I stepped out of school, it was 1989. It was the year of a similar economic situation to the one we’re in now and I had a very dear friend of many years and we looked at each other and said—he was at an advertising agency, I had just come out of school—and we said, ‘Let’s open an interior design firm. The economy’s garbage, we don’t have any money, let’s just start this and see where it goes.’ And we were in business together for seven years. Ultimately, that business, we fired our last client maybe three or four years in because we were doing residential design, and I just don’t have the stomach for it. My hat is off to anyone that does residential design because it is so personal and so convoluted with the relationship you have with your client that we finally fired the last guy, some guy in Park Avenue, that we just were like, “I just can’t do this with you.” And we looked at each other and said, “What are we going to do?”

And we had shot one of our projects for Glamour magazine back in the day, they were doing a little story on a young woman living by herself out in New Jersey with this cute little house, which we had redone. And we shot it and we styled it with a photographer and at the end of the shoot, the photographer said, ‘You guys should be stylists, you’re amazing at this.’ We had no idea what that even meant. I was like, ‘What is a stylist?’ And he described it and we said, ‘Well, we’ll do another one of these with you.’ And so we went and did another one and, eventually, that’s what we did as a business and we did that for, I don’t know, five or six years. We did television sets and catalogue and all the magazines at the time. Of course magazines were in a different place then and they were publishing big stories and shooting amazing stuff. Just a wonderful time to just be in editor’s heads and be with people, writing stories, making news, shooting every kind of food and object you could imagine. It just was feeding us with all this, what’s happening right now.

And so it set us up to be very good at understanding trends and whatever, so a lot of what we shot was catalogue and we shot Pottery Barn for two and a half years, did their catalogue out in California. And eventually, I did shoot for Crate and Barrel and I ended up meeting the CEO, Gordon Segal, there who’s a man I adore. I’ve been so lucky to meet such amazing people. And so I went to work for him and I was a sort of style director. I ended up designing all the catalogues, redesigned them. They hadn’t been touched in 15 years and set up all of the merchandise. So all the merchants would lay all their stuff out on a table and I would come in and say, ‘Let’s do picnics on page 20 and pull together a picnic story. Let’s do sleepover on page 30 and pull together a sleepover story.’ So it was my understanding of where the world was mixed with style, which I’d been doing, mixed with design, so I could look at the product and put it together and that gave them this editorial content, which was where the whole direct marketing business was moving at the time. So it was like this perfect synergy, and I was at Crate and Barrel for two and a half years and loved every second of it.

SSR: What do you think that gave you in terms of perspective? Was there a perspective or a learning curve or an eye that you have now carried throughout your entire career that has helped you or has helped shift how you approach projects?

KH: I think that probably the answer to that is I have always enjoyed design through a lens. It’s why I’m not a practicing interior designer today. I’ve never enjoyed the process of this fabric with this exact frame and we’re going to go to that length and the trim will be and the room will be and the porch will do. I love all that and it’s all great and I love being in the mix of that, but I’m so much more excited by it when it’s the customer is this, the brand message is that, this location is all about this, the vibe we’re trying to create has to feel like that. Then a lot of the subjectivity goes away and it feels very specific to what we’re trying to do. My job is to be the pied piper of that specific idea and to carry it forward. And hotel projects go on forever, for two or three years, and it’s very easy to lose the compass in that time.

And so I see my role as keeping that compass pointing, keeping that idea vivid and alive through the process, keeping everybody excited about it. And I’d say, if I had to look at what my through line is, I mean, certainly styling, designing catalogues, designing television sets, decorating 5th Avenue apartments. All of it, hotels, everything I’ve done in hotels, from the OS&E to the collateral to the uniforms. It’s why I’m a generalist in that way is because once I have the compass, I’m very excited about bringing a specific idea to life.

SSR: Love it. Talking about other greats that you worked with, before we get to Barry [Sternlicht], which is where your hospitality career comes into play, but you also worked for Martha Stewart, correct?

KH:  I did. I did. That was an amazing time. When I worked at Crate and Barrel, obviously it was based in Chicago and I was flying there every Monday morning at 7 a.m. and flying home every Friday night at 7 p.m. and it was just full on while I was there. And at some point, my fake life in Chicago became more real than my real life in New York and I said, ‘This has got to stop, I got to come home.’ I was in a domestic partnership at the time, I was like, ‘I need to get New York.’ And at that point, in the late ’90s, 2000, Martha Stewart was it, and I thought if I’m going to do this product style nexus, there’s nobody I’d rather work for. And so I met with Martha and got a job and was the style director for her retail that had to do with home. So we were launching something called the Signature Collection and it was flooring, furniture, fabric, paint. It was a whole home collection that was being launched through individual partners, Sherwin Williams for paint, Shaw for flooring, Bernhardt for furniture.

And so each of them were a unique, one-off partner launch, but together, they formed living Martha Stewart’s life in your own home, and that was the theme. I designed this enormous showroom in High Point, which was actually a recreation of all of Martha’s houses at the time, Skylands and Lily Pond and all those amazing places that she had created. So it was just this incredibly multifaceted job and I was totally in love with her. You hear lots of stories about Martha, my particular story is this incredibly inspiring woman, who was intolerant of any kind of lack of quality. She was just an amazing curator and collector, and what she collected was really fine. And she was also a teacher, and it really connected with me because I love to share and I love to hear stuff. And her whole brand was really around her being a teacher and it’s real, Stacy. With her, what she lives is real.

We would go shoot at her house, just as an example, and we’d arrive late in the afternoon because the shoot was the next morning. Martha would pull out a piece of salmon, stuff from her garden, she would cook us all dinner, set the table, sit down, we’d have an amazing dinner. We’d all trundle upstairs, exhausted, she’d do all the dishes, she was up until God knows when, three in the morning. And then when we came down at seven to go start the shoot at eight, she’s there making lemon infusion with Meyer lemons from her greenhouse, and she’s made fresh crêpes. She loved learning and growing and getting new information and new stuff, and she was a maker long before they were makers. She’s just this Wikipedia of style and craft and design and lifestyle. And it’s everything, it’s food. It’s a very good set up for hotels because it touches all the categories.

And so I was living in all those categories at the same time. So, she was just an amazing mentor. Just amazing. And I would’ve still been there probably, except Barry Sternlicht called me one day on the phone from my desk and it was a life-changing event, as are most things that Barry ends up touching.

SSR: So was there one thing that you have kept with you, or what was your greatest lesson learned from working with Martha?

KH: She could look at a line of product, rolled out. For example, we would do the furniture line, she would see every season. We’d bring all the furniture. We worked for six months on that collection and every paint color just so. It all made sense. The metal New England-y chair with the new upholstered French armchair, how they all worked together, how they all told a story, how each one went into a collection, whatever. She would walk in and she would look at that collection and she would say, ‘Change that paint color. Take out that chair. Make that shorter. And I don’t understand why that sofa’s in there, doesn’t make any sense to me,’ and she’d leave. And we would pull that stuff out and I’m telling you, in that little edit, the thing was probably 200 percent better. And it stayed with me forever.

SSR: Amazing. Okay. And then you said your life changed when Barry called you. So how did he call you? How did he find you? Tell us that story. And we’re talking about Barry Sternlicht, for those that don’t know.

KH: Yeah, I suppose there are other Barry’s in the world, but he’s my Barry. I don’t know. I was at my desk in the Clara story of the Starrett-Lehigh building, which is a beautiful space, and the phone rang and it was Barry. And he said, ‘I’ve heard about you.’ I could back up by saying that one of Barry’s biggest rules was he never hired anyone from the hospitality business, especially in design. One of his mantras was the way you’re going to reinvent hospitality is to bring people in from other disciplines that are going to look at it in a new way. I’m still that way because of him, it’s one of the things he’s taught me. And to this day, I hire that way, I hire designers that way, I build teams that way. The more I can get outside influence, the better.

I’ll tell you why Barry called me. He called me because he had this belief that the way to evolve and excite the hotel business is never hire anyone from the hotel business. So there I was at Martha Stewart, doing retail, doing style at a company he greatly admired and he was like, ‘I want some of that energy in my team.’ And when I got to Starwood, you had Jonathan Browning, who went on to do a lighting fixture line, you had Ellen O’Neill, who’d been creative director at Polo for furniture. You had people who’d done creative visuals at stores, you had designers who had only ever been at little tiny precious, amazing residential design firms. It was totally mötley crüe, which was amazing because everybody looked at everything new and that’s just what Barry wanted.

So anyway, that’s how I got the call. I went out to meet him. Obviously just blown over by him. I think he probably had all of two minutes to talk. And I’ve actually always dreamed about working in the hotel business. I’d written a novel in high school about a boy that grew up in a hotel. I was obsessed with hotels. I used to play in a big empty hotel in downtown Richmond, Virginia that just was ever so slowly closing over decades and there was never anyone in it and we would just run up and down the stairs and act out scenes and go in the rooms. For me, it was this ultimate romance of travel and even as a building typology, I just thought they were amazing spaces for people to gather and just loved it.

Anyway, so totally hooked from the minute I got there and, of course, working for Barry at Starwood in those days was all about reinventing the industry, that’s what he wanted to do. Barry, I can tell you, his compass point, I mean, everybody talks about Barry as being spreadsheets and bedsheets, that he’s got this right-left brain that’s amazing. But his biggest compass point when it comes to hotels is design. And so if you work in design for Barry, you’re in a very revered position for him and, truthfully, it’s how he sees hotels. You talk about brand with him and within two minutes, he’s migrated from what the concept is of the brand to how it’s going to look and how it’s going to feel and how it’s going to taste and it’s very design-centric. When he looks at people, it’s what are they going to wear? Tell me about what that’s going to be. The visual is incredibly important to him, and it’s his center point for how he thinks about any individual brand. It’s why all his brands look so different.

And I don’t know how many people know this, but Barry went to art school as a part of his education and he’s a painter, thought he was going to be a painter and then his parents were like, ‘Oh, no, you don’t. You’re going to go back and you’re going to learn business,’ so he went to Brown and became who he is. But there’s an artist in him always and it’s a visual artist. And he’s an avid reader, he writes beautifully and all of that, but really the visual arts are who he is.

SSR: Amazing. And what were you working on? Were you working on Le Méridien and the Sheraton brands?

KH: I was actually hired because Barry had this idea to reinvent Sheraton, which, unfortunately, we never quite pulled off, but I was hired to help with that effort. At the time, it was something like 25 percent of Starwood’s business, it was this huge piece of the brand that had never quite found its way. Western was cranking and W was going and Sheraton just couldn’t make it. So he brought in a team, we tried all kinds of cool things to the brand, but it was so big and it taught me a valuable lesson about who I should be working for, it’s part of the reason I’m with Auberge now, is it was so big, it was just impossible to turn that ship. Just too many hotels, all of them too big, the budgets to redo them, huge. It was tough. And Starwood is still, Marriott now, is still working on that project, they’re still delivering that. I’ve seen some really cool things actually come out of it recently, but that’s still something that they’re working on. So that’s what I went for.

Then we bought the brand of Le Méridien and I’ve always been a big Francophile. I went to France the first time with a little group of students at 13, have gone back alone 1000 times since. Paris is one of my favorite places on earth. And so when this French brand came in the portfolio, I was so desperate to do it that I took over an empty office, I got with two or three other people in the design office and I built the entire branding strategy on little printouts pinned to piece of foamcore and I built a maze inside the office and I put on the outside, the new Le Méridien logo and I called the CEO. At that point, Barry had gone back to Starwood Capital and the new CEO had started, and I called him down and said, ‘I just have something to show you.’ And I opened the office door and took him in this foamcore maze and told the story of the brand and by the time we got to the little center of the maze, he was like, ‘I love it. This is it. Let’s do it. Let’s do everything.’

And I had shown 100 initiatives. I was like, ‘Let’s do 100 things that’ll reinvigorate this brand.’ He’s like, ‘I like all 100.’ I was like, ‘I wanted you to like three. Okay, sure, let’s do all 100.’ So the launch of the brand began in that little thing. And in fact, we left it up forever because every person who started touching the brand did that little foamcore maze, and then the fire department found it one day and made us rip it out. And so we actually did it virtually after that. But it was a super fun way to launch a brand and it meant it was super personal to me, but also it was a beautiful European brand coming to America and that just was such a lovely project to work on.

I think Le Méridien is still finding its way, for sure, but the initial branding of that was probably some of the best work I’ve ever been involved with, with a great team obviously. There’s a creative services department, Eva Ziegler was the brand manager then. It was just a great team of people that came to do that. I think I left shortly thereafter for other reasons and went to Starwood Capital with Barry, but I’m not sure that ever really got standing up on its two feet, but what it was was beautiful.

SSR:  Yeah. What was it like working with Barry in those early days, really just getting to dig deep into what a brand is and what it should be and working side by side with him, first on Sheraton and then briefly on Le Méridien before you left? But what were those early days like?

KH: Well, I mean, he was a kid. I mean, it was amazing. I mean, he seriously was a kid and his eyes just gleamed and he worked on impulse, he worked on his gut. Never did a focus group, never did any of those things that brands do. He just said, ‘I think it feels like this, I think this is where the customer is, and I think this is what we should do.’ And he had the influence and the charisma and the chops to push it forward. And he was a real beacon. If Barry said it, we just did it. In some ways, there was no hierarchy at Starwood in those days and certainly when I got to Starwood Capital, there was no hierarchy. It didn’t have to go down the organization. Barry would walk in with the housekeeper and say, ‘Do you get what we’re doing here?’ It has to be this and boom. It was vivid. It started the storytelling that is the way you get everybody moving on a brand. He was just such a charismatic leader and he believed in his vision and he never wavered from it.

He would waver about, ‘Oh, I just saw such and such a cool design in Copenhagen, we should bring a little of that in.’ He was very good at bringing lots of new to the mix. When we did 1 Hotels, he had an idea and to this day, that idea has never changed. And you need that if you’re going to build a brand, it has to be that strong and that central. And I always believe the best brands come from real people and one of the things that I think helped Barry so much is the brands came from him, so they came from a real place, they came from a human being’s actual impulse, not some story knit together from 1,000 different inputs.

SSR: Is that why you decided to leave to go with him to Starwood Capital, as you’ve mentioned, to then launch 1 Hotels and Baccarat Hotels?

KH: Yes, certainly. I came to work for Barry, that was the goal then. Starwood went through a lot of machinations, it was because there was no hierarchy and Barry was such a personality, when Barry left, Starwood began to shift and they wanted the design department to report into construction. And the day they announced that, I quit and walked out the door. And I actually had my partner at the time come and pick me up, and we were sitting there waiting in the car while someone brought out all my stuff and I was all hanging my head, and I looked up and there was a dry-cleaning delivery van parked in front of us and their license plate said the word, Barry. So I picked up the phone right then and there and I called Barry, he’s like, ‘Dude, are you kidding me? Come over. When can you start? Start on Monday.’ And so it was funny because Barry had an agreement with Starwood, he could only take one person and he took me.

SSR: I mean, that’s just so amazing that that happened. And so for those that don’t know, you’ve launched a couple brands within a year or so of each other, even less, and they couldn’t be more different, which was the luxury Baccarat Hotels, which opened its first in New York and then 1 Hotels, which is all based on Barry’s sustainable vision. So, can you talk a little bit about what it was like to launch those two very different brands at the same time and being back working with Barry and helping to bring his vision to life?

KH: Yeah, totally. I’m speechless. I’m like, ah, that’s a lot. Definitely it was schizophrenia, but as I said, for me, having a very specific lens allows me to be able to do 100 different things all at once. It’s like putting on a bomber jacket for going out on a Saturday and putting on a three button jacket, whatever, fancy suit for going out to dinner in New York on a Friday. I mean, you put on that suit and you’re in that head and you can think specifically about it and, certainly, Barry has that skill. You could show him, I don’t know, a swatch of paint and he’d say, ‘No, no, no, that’s Baccarat. We’re not doing that, that’s not for this.’ I mean, he’s very specific in his channels when he thinks about design. So it was easy to keep them all apart.

And one nuance that’s interesting about both those brands is that Baccarat, at the time, was a 250-year-old French company that Barry acquired as a part of a huge purchase of hotels in Europe. And so he didn’t invent that brand, and so for Barry, that was a brand of additive strength to an existing brand profile. So it was more evolving the brand and bringing what was crystal goblets that sat in your cabinet and getting them out on the table and getting them used every day and getting people drinking espresso in a crystal glass, which we do at Baccarat, and getting them to have champagne in Baccarat and getting to live that lifestyle in a hotel environment.

Whereas 1 Hotels is something Barry really came to personally. His kids were talking to him about the waste and the hotel industry and also just in life and at home, and they were showing him what the future was going to look like. And one day, he woke up and  said, ‘This is the future, why am I not a part of it? I’m going to create a hotel brand that is born to address this issue as opposed to so many hotel brands, which have tried to weave it in, but they’re immigrating into the space, Barry wanted to be born into the space.

That made the brands very different to work on, in a way. So not only were they visually hugely different, their DNA was so different. One was to tell the story of French luxury, one was to change the hotel industry and make the hotel industry prove that you could build a hotel, have a compelling experience. I won’t say a luxury experience, even though it’s high-end, it’s have a compelling experience, that, at the same time, was doing good. And that was the goal.

SSR: And I mean, there are so many different properties that you opened, Miami, New York Central Park, 1 Hotel Brooklyn. 

KH: Baccarat New York. And all of those in the same, I don’t know, six month period, which was crazy.

SSR: I don’t think we saw much of you until the hotels opened.

KH: I didn’t sleep much, that’s for sure.

SSR: Was there one hotel that sums up the 1 Hotel brand. I think 1 Hotel’s very special. I think what you and the design team and obviously Barry have created is something that we all should be doing, right? Others do it, but it’s an entire brand that really respects where it is and how it was made. Is there one of the 1 Hotels that really stand out for you as your, I hate to say crowning jewel, or the best example of what you created in those years?

KH: Wow, that’s tough. This is like having kids and being asked to talk about one of your children. But I’d say each of them had a different crowning achievement for the brand. Miami was the first and what it did is it established a lifestyle. Miami’s a sexy town, it was a big hotel, it’s on the ocean. Actually, Central Park was the first. I think Central Park opened just before Miami. They opened neck and neck. But anyway, Miami showed that it was a sexy idea, which was important. It didn’t feel crunchy or granola or any of that. I think Central Park proved that the business case made sense because that hotel, the day it opened, it was full and it’s been full every night since. It’s just people love the notion that you can go into a hotel and just your shoulders fall out of your ears, you feel the plants and the air and the materials and you just are like, ah, I’m away, I’m feeling almost like I’m in a resort vibe, but I’m in the middle of the city.

So they loved the duality of that. Each room has a little overlook that sticks out of the façade of the building, so you’re kind of hanging over the street. And you can curl up, it’s like a little nest, and you can curl up there and just watch the city from there and so there was this real cosseting thing that went on in that hotel. So that proved the business case of an urban 1 Hotel, that you could do green, you could spend the money, do it right, get those materials, show their provenance of where they came from, use Hudson wood on the floor and use recycled leather in the lobby and do all this stuff and you could make it make sense as a business. But I think the one that put it all together, because both of those two hotels were reuse, that Miami was the old Gansevoort and the one in New York Central Park was an old 1920s apartment building that Gloria Swanson had once lived in.

But Brooklyn was the first one we built from scratch. And so I think in that case, we were able to put the roots in deeper. You had the construction story and how that was done. When we first got that project, it was a competition that the city did for Brooklyn Bridge Park and the original competition had shown much more of a masonry kind of building. And we had a call with the development design team and Barry called me before and he said, ‘Kemper, it’s a lighthouse. It’s a beacon on the river. It’s a beacon on the river. Get them to do it. Get them to do it.’ So I got on the phone and I was like, ‘Okay, guys, first thing that has to go is all of that masonry. I need a glass box, like a greenhouse, that just glitters on the water. That’s more 1. We’re about outside, bringing the outside in.’ That whole hotel has giant 5-foot sliding doors that you can slide open. Even if you’re on the 10th floor, your room is just totally connected with nature.

And we were in a city park, literally in a park, so just from its placement, it was so right for us on the brand to support Brooklyn Bridge Park and what goes on there. We had the same landscape design that did the park do the landscape of the hotel. The vision was if you look down on the hotel, you were seeing the landscaped roof and all the landscaped terraces. And the idea was the hotel would be invisible. It would be camouflaged if you were to look down on Google Earth at the hotel and the park. So, just very rich, an amazingly rich project, that one. I mean, they all were, but I’d say that one’s just a little step ahead because we did it from scratch.

SSR: And I love how you took the brand beyond the design and the architecture. I love how on your website, there’s a transparency tab where the brand reports how much they’re saving in terms of water and plastics and just their dedication to sustainability in general. How do you think, especially now, today, amid everything that’s going on, how do you think that brand is relevant to the way people want to travel today?

KH: Certainly all of that veracity that’s on that page that you talked about, on the website. My friend, Kane [Sarhan], who worked a lot on the marketing side of this and on the brand side with Barry and I and the rest of the team that worked on it. One of his big beliefs was if we’re not real, we’re not real and certainly Barry wanted the same. So there had to be reality to all of it and the only way to get people to understand that reality was to share out. But it was my belief from day one, that it was about how you were going to feel at this hotel, that you needed to almost empathy-like feel what it is to live a lifestyle that is more sustainable and want to take it home with you. At one point, we were going to have a meter in every lobby that showed how much electricity we were we using, how much gas, what the temperature. And while that’s great, that’s not going to get people compelled to go home and change their life.

And if you can get them to empathize and really identify personally with what you’re doing, you can get them to go home and change. And in the early days, we had data that 40% of our guests went home and changed something about how they were living as a response to having stayed with us. So, they got it and it was real. And so you ask the question of how does it connect to the traveler? I think it was a lighter form of traveling. That’s what I think about with 1. It just lightened a lot of what hotels had come to do by rote. It lightened the number of people you needed to touch, the connection was just much more personal. It lightened the amount of things you had to use. We were always about the luxury of less, what can we take away? This stuff isn’t needed, it’s a waste of resource. We need to apply that money to other things. So the formula changed, and I think the guests responded to it. They’re like, ‘oh, yeah, these are the things I care about. They’re actually doing the things I care about.’

SSR: That makes a lot of sense. So what made you leave? What made you leave all this? And it’s a dream job for many people to go to Auberge and become their chief creative officer and actually move across the country to California, so you left New York.

KH: Woo-hoo.

SSR: And now you’re a Californian. Tell us about that.

KH: Well, I mean, for one thing, launching those two brands, that was an epiphany-like experience with Barry and he’s gone on to launch Treehouse since and there were certainly other brands in the making. We were doing a lot of brands, we did the Principal brand in the UK, we did a little brand in Florida. There’s lots of brands coming, a lot of brand building. I think one of the things was that while Barry is so uniquely qualified to make brands, because he is the consumer, he just channels the consumer and what they want. At the end of the day, Starwood Capital, as a creator of brands, it’s a private equity company that deals in real estate, and there was something about that, our assets got sold and we described them as assets and there was a part of me that wanted to get back to really a hospitality company and I think that was part of the drive.

And then perhaps the second part of the drive is I’d lived in New York since I was a dancer in 1980 and just felt like it was time to move somewhere and get a new perspective. I obviously travel all the time, so I get on a daily basis a new perspective. But from living, I’d been in New York my whole adult life, since I was 18, so I wanted to move. It was that. And then I looked at the choices out there of who there was and I wanted an approachable style of luxury, I didn’t want to be at a brand that was stiff upper lip and too precious. I wanted a small team that was super nimble. I didn’t want to repeat that Sheraton story, at a brand that was too big and I couldn’t move it. And I wanted a team of people who were committed and at a time in their life when they’re like look, I’m going to do one thing, I’ve got one thing left in me that I’m going to do great. And so I wanted that.

I didn’t want to do the startup that was going to go on for 15 years, I wanted people who had a passion for making something great right now. I wanted a company that had a single owner with a vision, so that it wasn’t boards and 1000 different visions, trying to wrangle them, whatever. I wanted somebody who said this is my company, this is what I want it to be. But I think, truthfully, I just wanted to be back in the hospitality business, where it was about taking care of people and that was why we were in business, to show people an amazing time in a place that they were coming to learn and live and experience and just taking care of them. Being in retail for all those years, you were lucky to have a customer read a catalogue for 45 seconds. You were lucky to have them in a store for two or three minutes before they left. You just didn’t get to spend a lot of time with the customers.

But in a hotel, you own them 24 hours a day for X amount of days and you’re getting them married, you’re helping them sleep, you’re feeding them, you’re clothing them, you’re shopping with them, you’re doing everything with them and I love that. It’s what I love about being in this business, it’s why I stay in this business, it’s what keeps me curious and excited and interested in this business. And doing it from the hospitality chair where the guest is really the focus as opposed to, perhaps, a little bit the guest is the focus, but the deal is the focus was really part of what drove that. And Auberge  lined up against all those things, it was exactly the brand I was looking for. And, certainly, California is the place I was meant to go to next, so that also worked out great.

SSR: Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing at Auberge. How long have you been there now?

KH: Two years.

SSR: Wow, time flies.

KH: Can you believe it?

SSR: That’s crazy. So okay, tell us a little bit of what you’ve been doing since you joined the company and what projects you’ve been working on? And what’s next for the brand and where you see it headed?

KH: So I think a lot of what we did when I first got here was … The company began a next phase, I would say, which is stronger growth and more regions. As you know, Auberge was very much a West Coast, Mexico, central U.S., and it’s certainly time to take that beautiful little jewel and grow it much wider. And to do that, we had to build a bit more bench strength around the brand and around the team and around all of that. So the last couple of years have been doing that. We got into the brand and codified it a little tighter. We built a new website, we’ve added a lot of interesting positions to the team, an experiences manager. I got a design team in and we’ve built a stronger, broader team to take on the growth that’s happening at the company.

When I got to Auberge, there were, I want to say, nine or 10 hotels, that was two years ago. A month ago, when this whole thing happened, we were at 19. We’re headed in the next, I don’t know, 15, 18 months to be 20, 25 hotels. So the velocity is huge and so the team and the company that needed to get built for that is what we’ve really spent the last two years doing, while at the same time, of course, designing lots of hotels which are coming. The one that’s coming this summer is the Commodore Perry in Austin, which I am uber excited about.

It’s being designed by Ken Fulk, who is just the Willy Wonka of design. I am so excited to be doing this with him. It’s in a beautiful old 1927 Italianate villa in one of the neighborhoods near the university in Austin. And it’s got a private members’ club. It’s just so swank. It’s on 10 acres, so there’s an in-building, there’s the mansion, there’s going to be this uber cool little restaurant called Ludi’s, which is done by two young chefs who are back in Austin, thrilled to be back in their hometown and they’re doing just this amazing spin on southern hospitality, southern cuisine. There’s an old chapel, The mansion was turned into a school in the ’40s and there’s this amazing chapel, which we’re going to use for events. It was built when a religious school was there.

So it’s just this very multilayered thing. And of course Ken’s design is Half of it Is found it round top, half of it, he’s designed. We’ve been respectful of the architecture. The ownership group is incredibly sensitive that the architecture should feel really of the place and of the time and all the new stuff we’re doing believable to the original vision of the house, which was a Gatsby-like party house built on the edge of town at the time. It’s just amazing. It’s going to be so exciting.

SSR: And you’ve worked with so many great designers in your career. You mentioned ones that you like to use that might have a more residential focus or not so hospitality driven, but can you talk to us a little bit about your process and how you like to collaborate with designers and even how you choose designers? I mean, everyone’s always looking for that next wonderful job, so any advice out there to the designers listening?

KH: Okay, advice No. 1 is call me because I can’t meet everybody and I’m always dying to find new people, so call me. Maybe I learned this from my time with Barry, but my process is incredibly instinctual. It’s like being a casting director or a producer, I guess, I just have an instinct for who’s an interesting compliment to the story we’re trying to tell and that usually ends up with a pretty short list of people with a pretty clear lead. Because if you’re casting a movie and you’re looking for a cinematographer, you know who you need to get the story you need told, told. I only hire designers who are number one, not overexposed in the hospitality space. I’m still in that head of I want people from outside the industry. I tend to want to find people who are at a tipping point in their business, where they’ve either done a ton of residential and maybe done one commercial thing, or they’ve done restaurants and it’s time to do the rest.

I mean, Auberge, me, the team, we can train them in the things they don’t know. What we can’t do is see the design of a hotel for the first time. We can’t do that anymore because we’ve been doing it for too long, and so I count on these people to come and look at it totally as if it’s the first time and that’s really important to me. And then there are lots of designers I love that I’ve used more than once, who, just their natural way of behaving is they look at every project as if it was the first time. And I also want designers who absolutely love what they’re doing and have something to say. I’m not a big fan of chameleon designers that can do anything put in front of them. I love the authorship and the passion of someone who’s just this is who I am, this is what I believe, you have a project that vibes with what I believe. Put those two things together and both light up from each other. That’s the experience I like to have when curating the team to do any given hotel.

SSR: I love that. It’s all about chemistry, right? And just having that relationship between the designer and the hotel, and you and the designer, and the owner and the designer. I mean, it all just has to work, right?

KH: It all has to work. And sometimes it’s bumpy, but it’s better bumpy and cool than smooth and dull.

SSR: You’re such a passionate person, but what keeps you getting up every day and doing this day in and day out? I mean, what is it about the industry that keeps you going, or just your job that keeps you going, or design in general?

KH: Well, I mean, for one thing, in any given day, it’s a little like you, Stacy. In any given day, I’m talking to eight different designers in a day, all full of that passion, that stuff they’re doing. So there’s this very easy feeding thing that happens, which is amazing about this job, in that you’re just hearing creativity all day, you know what I mean? Which is great. And my job is to then curate it, edit it, parrot it back, get it clear, and keep it moving forward unmolested as it goes forward. But that’s a huge source of energy and creativity for me.

I love the guest. I know that sounds so cheesy and trite, but I’ve always been a retail person. I love the customer, I think the customer’s the coolest thing. And thinking about how the customer’s changing, thinking about the specific customer that wants a Drôme versus the customer that wants to go to Chileno Bay versus the customer that wants to go Solage in Napa or whatever, they’re all different. They may all be the same human being, but their mindset to go to any one of those hotels is totally different. And designing for them and designing for them to feel when they walk in that door, they go it’s exactly who I want to be. This is the stage set I want to crawl into and this is the life I want to live while I’m living here, that actually really feeds me.

Between that and just the creativity I get to be in the room with all day long and play with and push and prod and pull and do, it’s very life-giving. I mean, I didn’t even know this career existed the day Barry called me at Martha, but it’s been a life-giving thing every day since. And what is that? 15 years. More than 15 years I’ve been doing it.

SSR: I will say I was at The Lodge at Blue Sky briefly before all the ski towns got shut down because of COVID-19. You walk into that hotel, which is one of your newest at Auberge, which you collaborated on with Design 360 Unlimited, and you just walk into that hotel and it feels like somebody gave you a hug, like you walked into somebody’s house and it’s just exactly what it should be where it is, a little bit outside of Park City. What you’re talking about is just so true, especially to today’s traveler, right? We can all be the same person, but what we’re looking for on that trip or that day or that experience changes, right? So it’s like how do you speak to that person in that moment on that trip?

KH: Yeah, absolutely. And Lodge at Blue Sky’s a great example. I mean, every Auberge hotel, our whole brand DNA is these are one-of-a-kind hotels that are of their place. And Auberge is really the guarantee of that beautiful style of luxury that we do that isn’t fussy and doesn’t keep you bumping into people, like, ‘Hi, I’m Henry, can I get you …’ It’s much more natural and it feels like a real connection to the people. So Auberge is that guarantee of the experience and then each hotel is of its place. And in the case of Blue Sky, I mean, the real thanks goes to the ownership there because they had a vision for that whole mountain. It goes even beyond the hotel. There’s a rescue program with horses that they were doing no matter whether we built a hotel there or not. There’s a whiskey distillery on the other side of the ridge that was happening whether we were there or not.

So it was this community of things they were passionate about and the hotel just was almost the coming together, it was the living room for all those different disciplines and passions to come together. And I think that’s why you feel that because there’s a real authenticity to that story and what’s gone on there. The design supports it and certainly the scale of it, the windows, the views, the way it sets on the land and all that helps, for sure, but I think that’s what you felt, Stacy. And that’s the lens you want to build all these hotels through. That’s the best you can do.

SSR: So since this podcast is called “What I’ve Learned,” we always end on one question, what has been your greatest lesson learned?

KH: But if I had to pick one, it was certainly my earliest lesson learned. I’m a Virgo and one of the things about us Virgos is we’re very precise and some of my design partners and friends might say a tad controlling. And it makes me want to be very much in control and have everything be perfect and it’s always been a part of me. And when I was young, Joe Knox, who was my theater director in high school, at one time, I was on stage doing something and I screwed it up and I was so distraught. And he walked up to the end of the stage and he said something, which is a statement people know but at the moment, it just connected to me so deeply, I have used it a billion times since, which is don’t fight it, feature it.

And to this day, my favorite thing now, I’ve actually totally changed, is when I have a building that the hotel doesn’t quite fit in or I have a site where the view is a little wonky. I now love stuff that isn’t right because instead of fighting it, I turn it around and make it just the reason to go to that hotel. And it’s a driver actually of how I creatively think about everything. Nothing bores me more than a gigantic budget, a perfect site, a great team of people who are all just perfect. It’s like okay, can do this in my sleep. I’m much more excited by the thing that has a tripping point and that tripping point, I find, every single time, makes the most beautiful, the most special, and the most remarkable hotels.

SSR: I think that’s the perfect place to end, Kemper. We could talk all day. I love you so much. Thank you so much for taking the time to do the podcast with us.

KH: So happy to do it, Stace. I’m surprised we didn’t go all night, but next time.