Sep 17, 2019

Episode 25

Julie Monk, Director of Hospitality, HOK


Julie Monk grew up in the Midwest but her career has taken her all over the world from Denmark to New York and Hong Kong, where she is now based. The trained architect has worked on projects big and small, but HOK’s director of hospitality points to two things that have solidified her passion for the hospitality industry: the merger between BBG-BBGM and HOK and her time living and working in Asia. Both of which transformed her worldview, allowing her to be fully immersed in all facets of design.

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Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Julie Monk From HOK. Hi Julie, thanks so much for joining us today.

Julie Monk: Hi Stacy. Thanks for having me here.

SSR: On this rainy New York day. Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

JM: I was born in Chicago and grew up in the Midwest, outside of Chicago, Indiana, that kind of thing.

SSR: And did you always know you wanted to be a designer or have any early inklings about design?

JM: Pretty much. Well, actually, my mom signed my sister and I up for ballet class, and we went to ballet for a couple of weeks and after a couple of weeks the ballet instructor called my mom aside and said, ‘That one’s pretty good,’ pointing to my sister, ‘but I suggest you give the other one art lessons.’ So, my mom signed me up for painting lessons and I loved it, and that was kind of the beginning of my interest in arts. And then I had an aptitude test when I was 14 years old and they said I was good in art and math, and I decided that I’d be an architect.

SSR: Well, there you go. And so where did you go to school for architecture?

JM: I went to Ball state university.

SSR: And did that further cement your love for it or make you think differently at all?

JM: The first year I thought differently because it was a really challenging design studio and having to think in completely abstract terms. That’s just not something we do in our day-to-day world. But once I got past the first half of the year, I just totally fell in love with design.

SSR: And you also studied environmental design, right?

JM: It’s just part of the degree.

SSR: So did that infuse a love of sustainability at all into your work?

JM: In some ways it’s about designing environments in a proper fashion and systems. But, actually, it was so long ago people weren’t really talking about sustainability back then the way they are now.

SSR: And so what was your first job out of school?

JM: So my first job in school was probably better. We had a forced internship or an internship that was part of our design program, which was a big part of the Ball State curriculum that they featured when they were signing up all their students. And we’re supposed to do that at the end of our third year. And so I went around to all the architecture firms in Indiana trying to find an internship for the summer and fall when everyone was supposed to have their internships. And I couldn’t find a job. As a matter of fact, I was referred to one office that actually had a woman architect in it and they thought I’d have a better chance there than I would at all of the male-dominated firms. So I kind of put my hat in my hand and went back to school and started my fourth year early.

And luckily for me, we had a visiting professor from Denmark Knut Freece, who at the end of the term my boyfriend dared me to ask him if he would give me an internship in Denmark. I did. And I was given the internship in Denmark. So I ended up going to Denmark for seven months to work with Knut. And he was an amazing architect and designer, and his specialty was designing conference centers, a brand called Scanticon. So his program for us for that one term was to design a conference center hotel. So we did that. The end of that was when he gave me the internship. I went to Denmark and worked with him for seven months designing hotels, and that’s when the hotel thing started. The travel thing and the hotel thing both came out of that, going back to school and not having an internship on time.

SSR: What was it about hospitality that you loved so much that maybe you loved more of than what you were doing in your school?

JM: It was just part of what we were doing in school back then, but what I really liked about it was how you really had to care for the people in the process. Ball State really focused on was the process of design, not just the art of design. There were so many variables that you had to think about when you’re designing a hospitality project that you don’t necessarily have to think about when you’re designing other project types. You really have to think about the human experience. And I liked that a lot.

SSR: So you went to Denmark, you go back, finish up school, and then what’s next?

JM: Then I immediately left Muncie, Indiana and went back to Chicago. Muncie was not the place for me. I guess I’m a big city girl, which you can tell by all the places that I’ve lived in my life. So, I went back to Chicago and I made a list of six firms that I wanted to work for and went and interviewed with those six, and then I waited until one of them called me. And the one that called was Welton Becket Associates. I went to work with them for a couple of years in their Chicago office, and they designed hotels and commercial spaces so it kind of fell right into the kind of work I wanted to do going forward. And there was a little bit of travel involved too. They were sending me places to do things even though I was just a young student right out of school.

And after about two and a half years, Becket decided they were going to close the Chicago office, so they offered a couple of us transfers to Santa Monica. I went to California for a week just to see if I liked it out there, and I found out that it was one of those places where you had to have a car. If you missed the bus, you’d have to wait 24 hours to go the next day. There was just no public transportation. I couldn’t find the downtown. There didn’t seem to be any kind of city center in LA, so I came back and I said, ‘It’s not for me, not where I want go.’ And they said, ‘Well, we could let you try New York, but nobody wants to live in New York.’ So I went out to New York for one weekend, did kind of the same thing. I stayed out really late and walked the streets of New York until two or three o’clock in the morning just to make sure I felt really safe. And then Monday I had an interview with Peter Gorman, and I took the job and moved out to New York two weeks later, and never looked back from there.

SSR: And what year was this?

JM: That was 1982 that I moved to New York.

SSR: Was Peter Gorman with the same firm?

JM: So we were all with Welton Becket at the time. And after about two years there, the people that were leading the firm who happened to be named Brennan and Beer Gorman decided that they wanted to buy Welton Becket’s New York office. They were leading the office. They were responsible for all the work that was there. And of course, as leaders of the office that was owned by someone else, they felt that they weren’t being recognized financially for all of the efforts that they put in to developing business and creating goodwill with clients and all that kind of thing.

So they went to Beckett and said, ‘We’d like to buy the New York office, we’ll pay you annually to keep the name.’ And he said, ‘I don’t need you.’ So two weeks later they resigned and opened up BBG, Brennan Beer Gorman. And a good friend of mine, Mark Boekenheide was their first employee, and I was their second employee.

SSR: What was one of your early projects that really you think defined your career before you went over to BBG, or was there one?

JM: I think it was more about work ethic than anything else. I worked on the Great Wall Hotel in Beijing a little bit and worked on the Sheridan Stanford a little bit because they were all ongoing projects that were already in place. But we did a lot of competitions back then, and I was willing to do anything—stay up late, take care of all kinds of things that other people might not have been interested in doing. Actually, one job that I did work on with Becket that transferred from the Chicago office to the New York office was that the Chicago office was awarded the design of the E.A. Juffali headquarters office building and Jeddah. And when that job came into the office, they first offered it to the Jewish guy. And he said, ‘No way, I’m not going to work on a project in Saudi Arabia.’

Then they offered it to the woman and they said, ‘We just want you to know you’ll probably never go to Saudi Arabia. You’ll probably never see this project, you’ll probably never meet the client because you’re a woman. Do you want to do it?’ And I said, ‘Well, sure, I want to do it.’ It’s a project. There wasn’t a lot of work going on at the time and I was like, I’ll learn something from this experience. Through that, we finished the project, I met the client, I went to Saudi Arabia three times to see the efforts of construction and everything that were going on over there, and was there on the opening party day. So all the things that you weren’t supposed to be doing, I did anyway. So that was probably my biggest project from the Becket days.

SSR: I love it. And so how did you get to meet the client? Was everything that you were told beforehand just as a warning or did you have to kind of push your way or entice your way to be able to see it?

JM: It was of course circumstances. So on the project we designed both the architecture and the interiors of the project, and the architecture went on smoothly and that was mostly models being sent over with our design director, taking care of all the meetings and that kind of thing. And then when we went on to do the interiors, they were like, ‘Can you do the interiors?’ Because I was a girl, I guess they thought I could do a really good job. So we got everything set up and the client decided to come to Chicago to have that meeting instead of my director going to them. And my director said, ‘I really don’t know what’s going on here, so you just sit over there in the back corner and I’ll do the talking. If I start saying something wrong shake your head yes and no and I’ll know to back off or whatever.’

So he starts doing the presentation, and the client is sitting between the two of us. He’s in the front of the room, I’m in the back of the room and the client’s in the middle. And the client’s head is going back and forth because they’re watching him constantly looking at me to get the sign that he’s saying the right stuff. The client finally said, ‘I don’t know what you guys are doing, why don’t you just let her make the presentation?’ Because they were educated in the West, they didn’t really have all these taboos about women working on their projects and that kind of thing. And that’s when we went to the Merchandise Mart together and did a lot of shopping for their individual offices and that kind of thing. And then he said, ‘Just come on over to Saudi Arabia. I’ll have my wife invite you as her guest’ because I officially couldn’t travel there on business. ‘Come over, take a look at what’s going on and let’s keep working on all of these things from there.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s do that.’

SSR: So going back to BBG, so your second employee, what enticed you to go with them?

JM: BBG are really terrific people, and we had a lot of mutual respect for one another. And it was the fact that they were just giving me opportunities. There weren’t any glass ceilings around. There were no obstacles. Everyone who was talented and dedicated that worked with them was given the breaks. It wasn’t based on gender. It wasn’t based on background, university, or any other qualifications, they just wanted people who are interested and passionate about working hard. And so it felt really comfortable to stay with them. And Becket came into town and was like, ‘Let’s go on a business trip together.’ So I got to see how he was operating, and his motivations weren’t as simple as BBG’s were. David Beer and I have been very good friends for a very long time, so it made it very difficult to say no to him when he asked me to come work with them.

SSR: So you head over to BBG. What was one of the first projects that you worked on or how did you help grow the company? What was your role there?

JM: I was an architectural designer. Actually our first two projects were for Sheraton here in New York City, the Sheraton New York and the Sheraton in Manhattan. And a rebranding of those projects, which were pretty big and pretty exciting. I think the scopes of work that we went after originally at the time, which were based on an upcoming change that was happening in the zoning laws that allowed both properties to be expanded at the time. And once those laws were no longer in existence that expansion would no longer be possible. So Sheraton was really looking at how they could use the laws to enhance the value of their property. So we did a couple of projects for them, neither of those proceeded.

And I would focus on pretty much most of the design projects that were going on. I did an office building in Albany [New York] for KeyBank. We did a huge 450,000-square-foot office building in Hartford, Connecticut, which became the Aetna building. Pretty much just following through. David would do the design, I was kind of like the project architect. And I became an associate. They also pursued corporate office interiors and whenever those projects came along, the woman got to do them, which was great. So we were doing pretty much commercial projects and office buildings and hotels whenever we could get them. And then eventually, as was the fashion at the time, many architectural offices were opening up a parallel interior office, like KPF had KPFC and that kind of thing. All of this was due to Gensler who went out and said, doing corporate interior is its own specialty. Don’t let your architects do it, they’re not as equipped to do it; they don’t really understand workplace. They don’t understand how people use their spaces. You need to have specialists that are doing the interiors.

And it was kind of about the same time that the same revolution was happening in hospitality interiors, with Howard Hirsch coming in and really establishing hospitality interiors as being a separate profession apart from architecture and residential designers. So Brennan Beer Gorman came to me and said, ‘Would you like to head up this new company that we’re going to make? And if you do, we’ll put your name on the door, but it will be dedicated exclusively to interiors. And if it doesn’t work out and you change your mind and you want to come back to architecture, that’s no problem.’ So they offered me an equal ownership position in an interior firm that was yet to be established, or a smaller percentage in the architectural firm if I ever changed my mind and wanted to as my safety net.

So I said, sure, let’s just give it a shot and see what we can do. And that was in 1987. And in 1988, Sheraton, our same client that we’ve worked on with the Sheraton Manhattan and Sheraton New York, decided it was time to renovate the St. Regis hotel at 55th and Fifth Avenue. So, you have to realize that none of the hospitality projects that I worked on so far had ever been realized. So I was doing a lot of planning, doing a lot of design work. Then they came in and said, ‘We’re going to renovate the St. Regis hotel, and we want Julie to work on it.’ So a project that was quite architectural that maybe should have gone into the architecture company was one of our first projects and Brennan Beer Gorman won the interiors. And it was an amazing, amazing project.

Now we were the architects in terms of dealing with the façade of the building and all of the planning and interior of the building. We worked with an interior design on the actual FF&E and interior decoration. Because we were responsible for all the moldings and how all of the interior architecture itself worked. So I just want to make sure that’s clear. It was still an amazing job to work on. It’s like the first one that was really built. So that was three years of my life while still overseeing the rest of the design and commercial projects and things that we were doing in interiors. That was my launch, my true launch into hospitality.

SSR: And how did you take that and then grow it? BBG did a ton more, especially on the interiors side. So how did you take that one project and then kind of turn it into more?

JM: That was a tough one to be the first, and it was a tough one to reintroduce to the market in 1991 because the economy had tanked, and the reputation around the St. Regis was that it was way over budget and it took longer than it was supposed to take. So it was almost like I’d just done something really great in my career and I was ashamed to talk about it. But because of the economy doing what it was doing, we started pursuing a lot of work in Asia, and we had done the design competition for the Peninsula in Bangkok, and won against some very heavy international competition. So that was super exciting. And through all of that, we ended up opening an office in Hong Kong in 1991. And it was through all of that, of going over there and selling our services to a market that was extremely busy when things were really, really flat in the United States that we took a foothold on interiors.

I remember we went to visit the Sheraton people in KL, including Chris Bachran, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we do these projects. We did the St. Regis in New York,’ and he goes, ‘You what?’ I said, ‘We did the St. Regis in New York.’ I’m just waiting to hear this thing about over budget and behind schedule and all that kind of thing. And he goes, ‘It’s the most amazing thing. What it’s done the reputation of Sheraton is immeasurable.’ He said, ‘You really put us on the map. We’re no longer just that roadside motor inn that’s out there and that has spread internationally just like wildfire so quickly.’ He goes, ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.’ And so finally, after two years I was able to feel really proud about what we’d done at the St. Regis. And then of course, you know we use that project and meeting with clients and selling our services and skills.

SSR: So from there you went and did a ton of other projects. Is there one at BBGM that you look back as your most favorite or one that was even your favorite because it was most challenging or you learned something from that you still keep with you today?

JM: We learn something on every project. So it’s hard to single out. It’s kind of like the St. Regis was the launch. Because it was the first one, it’s like always going to have a special spot there. But we worked on so many different projects and each one brought some lessons, because we’re not out there promoting a particular style and everything that we do, we want it to have its own clear vision. This was way before this became a popular thing to do, but we tried to find the basic elements of that project that made it unique and then exploit those from a design point of view. So that each project that we worked on had a completely different expression and a completely different design solution.

So, in having that type of a philosophy, it’s really difficult to say that one was more of a milestone than the other. You’d learn from projects, maybe negotiate the contract differently the next time or insist even harder that the client finished the mockup room in a timely fashion or different elements, like the importance of renderings, the importance of communicating with your clients all the way through, so it’s very clear what you’re doing for them and what it’s going to look like when it’s finished. So there’s no real surprises in the process, but it’s an evolution that you bring them along with the process that we’re going through as designers from start to finish.

SSR: We hear a lot of it from designers opening their own firms or opening smaller firms within larger firms that the one thing they never got was actually the business side of design and to know about contracts, to know about negotiation. How did you learn that along the way? And was there anything you wished you’d known before you started the interior section of the BBGM that you’d know now?

JM: It was pretty much just evolution and maybe because I did so many architectural projects as a project manager before I started the interiors company. I would work closely with Brennan, who is primarily the partner that was responsible for that kind of thing and negotiating all of those contracts. And the fact that he respected my opinion. For instance, when we negotiated the St. Regis New York contract, I was still pretty young in my career and it was a pretty standard AIA contract. I was like, ‘You know what, we’re going to spend more time in construction than anybody typically would just because of the virtue that it’s a renovation project, and it’s a very complex historical heritage building kind of renovation project.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t we just make that a timecard phase instead of a flat fee phase?’ And he did agree to that, and it was a good thing in the end. It was a very good thing in the end. Giving me responsibility for all these things, they just said call the lawyers, take care of all these things, and go for it. They would watch over my shoulder, of course, to make sure that I’m not missing any kind of major stuff, but pretty much just learn on the job.

SSR: Learn by doing?  So you mentioned that you went over to Asia, you guys launched an office over there, and you spent a lot of time traveling there, and in 2010 you went there somewhat permanently. What did you learn from going to China and what did that mean in terms of really establishing, an office there, a presence there, and growing your business there versus doing it from afar?

JM: Well, we had an office over there. Our first office was in Hong Kong from ’91 to ’99. There was a huge economic drought in Asia, and we closed our office in ’99 and pretty much brought everybody back to New York for a few years. And then in 2002 because of the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, we thought it would be smart to get back over there because the report was 50 new hotels were going to be built to support the Olympics. And so we went to Beijing and had a fellow from our New York office who was originally from China go and head up that effort for a few years. In 2005, we moved to Shanghai. Personnel changed, and we had a couple of new faces come in. It was a good, but it wasn’t super successful. And then after we had the economic crash here in the United States, we had some people quit from our Shanghai office, and I went to my partners one morning and I said, if we’re serious about this China thing, and we should be, because their growth rate is still at an annual 15 percent versus whatever’s not happening over here, we should get active and somebody from this room needs to move to China.

And my partners looked away, they looked down, they started whistling. Because of family commitments and other things that were part of their lives, it would’ve been a real strain for them to go. And I said, ‘I’m happy to go.’ So everybody was quite thrilled with that. So I got to China. I’d been traveling there extensively for work that we had going on. And part of the reason that I was interested in going was in December of the year before I took three trips to China and that was just a killer, but it was necessary because we didn’t have the coverage there and opportunities came up that we couldn’t predict.

So I went over in end of February 2010, and I got there and we had one girl in our Shanghai office, Daphne and me, and I just said, Daphne, ‘Okay, here’s the story. Translate everything I say. I say something really stupid, make up something else, and tell me afterwards what I said wrong. Help me learn about being in China and what it means to be Chinese and what it means to do work in Chinese.’ And she was amazing. And so we spent the next three months just going around and meeting clients. We signed on a couple of projects right away, which makes everybody feel really good. But it was after the three months, I realized that the business model that we had in China was the reason it wasn’t working so well for us. The reason why we hadn’t been really successful.

In many of the places that we work in the world, we go in as Americans and how we do our business and what services we provide is very much accepted by the countries in which we’re working. For instance, Thailand, no problem. Middle East, no problem. They really understand that they don’t have the talent and the people necessary there. So they know that going outside and outsourcing the talent is what needs to be done in order to have really sophisticated design and architecture. In China, they have 1.3 billion people, and they’re coming from a culture where generations—Mao thought being an architect was the greatest profession that anybody could be. So everybody in the whole country was trained as an engineer and architect. Instead of being an accountant or a lawyer or all these other trades. Everybody had that mentality. So there was very strong tradition the Chinese were proud of.

And going in as Americans and what I call kind of an arrogant manner, it wasn’t acceptable to them. Like I said, if you have 1.3 billion people, they can have it their way. So, we had to figure out a way to massage our way of doing business and to respect their traditions and their thoughts about who they are and in terms of their process. And it boiled down to one thing, which was kind of interesting. This is a country [the U.S.] of individual entitlement. My friend Greg, they wanted to put the construction trailer for the Second Avenue subway in front of his condominium building and he’s on the board, he said, ‘No, I’m not going to have any of that.’ So he went down and got a bunch of people to sign a petition and stood at City Hall for a few days and got that construction trailer moved because he didn’t want it there.

But in China, it’s a country of group entitlement. Rather than thinking about what’s the best thing for the individual, they think about what’s the best thing for the group. And when you start thinking about that basic difference between our cultures, it truly affects everything that they do. So the spirit of cooperation, and for the first three months, I kept hearing this word, cooperation, cooperation, cooperation, I didn’t feel like get it until the lightbulb went off and I realize it’s all about group entitlement. We adjusted what we were doing in order to accommodate that whole spirit of cooperation. It became so easy to negotiate a contract, it became so easy to get the information that we needed, it became so easy to understand why we were presenting who we were presenting to. It helped us understand why at the conclusion of a meeting decisions were never made. And within days we’d get meeting minutes that would tell us what actually happened in the meeting, even though we were there and we perhaps witnessed something else.

But chairman’s were always very generous in my point of view to go around the room and get the opinion of everyone sitting in the room because everyone’s opinion mattered. Now when the decision came back, sometimes it was quite shocking to hear that everyone in the room had the same opinion except whoever made the decision, but that’s just part of the process. So that made a huge difference in how we were doing business there and how we were successful and why we were more successful.

SSR: And how long did you stay in Shanghai?

JM: So I was there until 2014.

SSR: And then you moved to Hong Kong as well?

JM: That was after we sold our company to HOK. And the set up at HOK was that Hong Kong was the regional head for that area. We have three offices, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, and they wanted me to be in the regional leadership office, which is cool.

SSR: So talk about the sale of BBG to HOK. How did that come about and did you want it to come about hopefully?

JM: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, I think it was unanimous. So for us, there was the draw of having all of these global resources. For HOK, they had a smattering of hospitality projects, but it hadn’t really been a mainstay of their marketing strategy and that kind of thing. And they were looking for ways to expand. So already having an established fantastic reputation in sports, transportation, healthcare’s a big market sector for HOK, workplace. They do amazing things in workplace. There are nine categories total, but hospitality wasn’t one of them, so we represented a whole new market sector that would allow them to expand.

But then there were all of the other sub-surface things, having all those other market sectors and having hospitality would be able to kind of help put the hospitality sense into the design of their healthcare projects, into the design of their justice projects, the airport projects. So the synergies one you started going down to that next level were amazing. So for me, that’s where I saw the opportunities. We had a much stronger global reach and we had a cross market reach that we didn’t have before. So it was a way to grow.

SSR: And so are you set up as almost like a separate entity within HOK or have you merged more together?

JM: Oh, no, it’s very, very integral. So it was the New York office and the Shanghai office of BBG, BBGM that joined HOK. So are centers of excellence for hospitality are New York, Toronto, and Hong Kong. But it’s not like BBG-BBGM at HOK because we’re really part of the team that’s there.

SSR: It’s almost perfect timing, and I’m curious of your opinion, but I feel like for this time hospitality is very exciting because we are influencing so many other areas. It kind of makes perfect sense that you would be giving hospitality expertise to healthcare, giving a hospitality expertise to workplace. I don’t know if you agree here?

JM: Oh, absolutely. But it’s also the reverse as well. The underlying purpose of each one of the other market sectors, they’re all different. Airports are all about wayfinding. It’s all about a directionality, where you’re going. And then the amenities are happening on the sides while you’re on your way there. But it’s very purposeful to start at the store and get to that door. Healthcare has a completely different thing. So, if we can take those basic underlying purposes from a different market and then overlay that into hospitality, we can start to look at hospitality design in a completely new dimension, which is cool.

SSR: So you must have learned a lot in your last couple of years there?

JM: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.

SSR: Are you working on anything in healthcare that might be interesting for hospitality or vice versa?

JM: We’re actually working on Kai Tak hospital in Hong Kong right now. It’s 2,600 beds. It will be tied for the six largest hospital in the world, which is like amazing. And so we are doing all of public space lobby areas from a hospitality team for that facility, which is really neat. I mean we’re not going to profess to be medical planners or anything that technical or that requires that much expertise, but we’re working on all of the public spaces, which is cool.

SSR: What are some of the other exciting projects that you’re working on right now?

JM: Right now we’re working on the St. Regis in Belgrade, which is a signature SOM building from the outside and HOK interiors from the inside. And it’s been very great. The thing I like about working on all these different places—we’re working in Miramar with Peninsula right now on some residential units that will be part of a mixed-use complex that they’re going into. Then, we have several projects that we’re working on in China, but it’s very interesting, to go to these places and get on the ground and really understand what these cities are all about, what makes them special, what we can take from the city to influence the design work that we’re doing, how we define the place of the project within the time of that city. Does that make sense? Like Belgrade has been a city that’s pretty much been at war for over a century, and now it’s finally re-emerging in this time of peace with leadership that wants to take it from being just this kind of warring country. His big dream is to get them into the European Union. So he wants to globalize an entire economy within a generation, which is quite a huge goal.

So the project that we’re working on there is part of a hallmark of the time in which this is happening, which is pretty cool. And China in the last 40 years has done what it took the Western civilization 200 years to do, because they went from absolutely nothing, particularly when it comes to travel and tourism market. Forty years ago, anybody in China to leave their city had to get a visa. The Chinese government knew where everybody in China was all the time. They didn’t have hotels, they had government guesthouses. And you obviously had to be a guest of the government in order to go and stay someplace that wasn’t your home. So in the last 40 years they’ve gone from that much restriction to moving around to building one of the best high-speed train networks in the world. The transportation systems have expanded. I’d love to get the statistic for you. I don’t know it off the top of my head, but the number of airports that have been built, the number of train stations that have been built, high-speed rails that have been built over the past 15-20 years in China has just been absolutely remarkable since they opened up their doors.

They’ve gone from a culture where everybody took the same vacation week because they would have Golden Week and Spring Festival week. They pretty much closed down businesses so people could all go home and visit their family. Then everybody would come back and they would just start working again and that was the only time that they would take a vacation. But because they weren’t going to a hotel, it didn’t really matter. It didn’t kill the transportation system, but it didn’t require that they have a hospitality system.

Now they are leveraging time out so that Chinese people can have vacations throughout the year, similar to what we’re doing. But that’s a huge cultural change. And that particular change has been happening in the time since I’ve been there. So that’s been over the past like eight or nine years that they’re finally developing China to a point where having a hospitality industry really makes sense.

SSR: How has that changed your outlook and just even how you go to a project in Belgrade and really think about what it means to build a hotel in Belgrade, especially how you had to learn about different cultural-isms that you need to pay attention to?

JM: I think having had such a deep immersion in China just opened up my thinking. You watch for clues that you didn’t know were clues before. Like you see something and you go, ‘Oh, I bet that means this instead of just what it appears to be on the surface.’ So you kind of look for different levels of things. I did have to learn Mandarin when I was in China. And that was interesting too because what I learned about the Chinese people through learning the language was also pretty amazing. And that was a lot of other level of lessons, that again even though I can’t speak Serbian or something like that, you’re kind of on the lookout for signs of things that you wouldn’t have noticed before.

SSR: So can you speak fluent Mandarin now?

JM: Like a 10 year old.

SSR: That’s still pretty impressive.

JM: I worked really hard. I think it’s very impressive, but it’s harder to learn a language when you get older.

SSR: And now that you’re with HOK, has there been any different challenges about managing in a larger firm? Is there anything you kind of had to adapt to?

JM: HOK is much more structured than BBG ever was. We kind of always thought of ourselves as a big mom and pop firm but not a corporation. So, I’ve been amazed at just the structure that’s in place to support projects, and it was difficult when we first got there for me to understand what it was. But my God, it’s such a huge advantage because it takes all of the business responsibility of the project off of the shoulders of the design team and puts it on the shoulders of people who really love managing projects. So we don’t have design leaders that have to manage and lead the project. They can really focus on what the design is all about. So invoicing all of that, the project manager takes care of that, worried about balancing hours and doing all those kinds of things. Project manager takes care of that. Primary client liaison, project manager takes care of all that so that the designers can really spend their time doing what they love doing best and what they’re really good at.

SSR: Everything that you’ve learned, you’re now are helping to bestow that on newbies coming into the industry or people just trying to get more knowledge. So can you talk a little bit about your class that you teach at Harvard?

JM: So every year for two days, it’s continuing education class that we teach at Harvard. Architects can get 14 hours of HSW CEUs in this class, if you want to tackle it. But we spend two days and we talk about hotel design and development. I co-teach with John Miller of White Walls. And I’ve been doing this now since, I don’t know, the mid-2000s. So the courses evolved over time. And where we are now is we talk about what makes hospitality different than other project types and what are the basic of the design of a hotel project. I think everybody knows that class participation is super important these days. So we’ve reorganized the entire class to feature two-part charette. We do part one on day one, we do part two on day two, and basically we give everyone the tools to define the hotel on the first day, and then we give them the basic tools to design the hotel on the second day.

It sounds like it’s a lot of work to do, but somehow the students get it all done every single time. And depending on the background of the students and where they’re coming from and if they have architecture background or are not, the solutions that have been created are just absolutely amazing, because you don’t need to be an architect to design a hotel for this class, and it makes it really cool.

SSR: So since you’ve been teaching this class for a few years, how have you changed the class to relate to how the hospitality industry has changed?

JM: I think the biggest change has been this whole idea of having class participation, which is not a hospitality-related change, but an educational-related change. Within the hospitality portion of the class, where we’ve taken the emphasis to talk about the key stakeholders in every project. So we really spend a lot of time talking about the owner who could also be the developer, the operator, the design team, and the builder. And the builder can represent procurement and all of the FF&E and OS&E purchasing installation as well. So we really talk about the vital roles that each one of them have to creating a successful project. And then we spend most of our time talking about how mutual respect between those four stakeholders will lead to a successful project. And then the charettes are all based on teams of those four stakeholders. Everybody taking on a role and going through their process of defining and designing a hotel.  So rather than just having two days of just blah, blah, blah, take some notes, and hope you retain something, we’ve really pushed so that people understand the importance of those relationships.

SSR: And looking back, how has the industry changed since you started out in 1982 in New York at least?

JM: Everything was so standard back then. Hotel companies would be really happy to take you to see their mockup room, and then they would say, ‘okay, this is the room and we’re going to just put this in the hotel many, many, many, many times.’ Or if you went to Ritz-Carlton in Hawaii and Ritz-Carlton in Washington, DC, the interiors were always the same between the two down to the carpet in the hallways and the guestroom hallways. So there was a real need to guarantee to the guests that the best surprise is no surprise at all. And now you look at what we’re doing, where everything has to be individualized and we’re getting down to so many different brands and so much about lifestyle and so much about the individualization of the designs that we do. So it’s been pretty sweeping to go from cookie-cutter, make them all look alike to how can we make it meaningful and individual?

SSR: So, how do you like living in Hong Kong?

JM: I like the continuing the adventure of my life, from Chicago to Indiana to Denmark to Washington, DC to New York again, and then Shanghai and Hong Kong. I think it’s been pretty cool to try these different cities out.

SSR: And you live in an interesting place in Hong Kong, don’t you?

JM: Yes, I do. My boyfriend and I live in a house boat on Aberdeen harbor on the south side of Hong Kong Island.

SSR: How did this come about?

JM: We were looking to buy an apartment, but what we could afford in Hong Kong–because it is the most expensive city in the world–was about 600 square feet. We were afraid that it was too small. Our apartment at the time was 500 square feet with three bedrooms. We struck on this idea of a house boat, and we started looking at them. They’re 2,500 square feet, so that’s what we ended up doing. We bought a house boat in the harbor.

SSR: And just to finish, this is a wonderful conversation, what would you have wished you had told yourself or could tell yourself back then starting out, or even more so, what would you tell somebody starting out now in the industry, like a young you, what would you tell them to either keep in mind or think about as they start their career?

JM: Find something that you’re passionate about. If you’re not passionate about it, you’re going to be giving too much time away. Find something you’re passionate about and really just enjoy living.

SSR: Well, thank you so much for being here. It’s been such a pleasure as always.

JM: It’s been a pleasure, Stacy. Thank you.