The Future of Travel: “Integrating Art As a Feature, Not An Accessory, of Hotel Design” With Vickie Alani

We are also committed to integrating art into all of our projects, not as an accessory at the end, but as a feature that is built into the very foundation of each design. We also think on a much larger scale with art. For instance, rather than installing a curated selection of artworks in a lobby that align with a theme, we may think of how to create a unique, visually captivating ceiling that defines the space in a completely new way. We want the art to be central to the design instead of a superficial add-on to completely transform the typical experience you might have, say, checking into a hotel.

As a part of my series on “The future of travel”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vickie Alani. Vickie is a Principal at Boston-based design firm CBT and has over 30 years of experience in architectural and interior design projects of all scales. As a leader of the firm’s Hospitality & Multifamily Residential Design practice, Vickie approaches her work with the fluidity and interconnectivity with which people live today, and is a frequent contributor to the larger discourse on changing residential trends and how to design for an evolving culture. A strong advocate for holistic design strategies, her leadership has led to the creation of engaging, dynamic projects all over the world, and has helped pave the way for the future of interior and architectural design.

Thank you so much for joining us Vickie! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you for having me! Let’s just say that my career path has not been linear. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design to study painting and, as my art evolved, my paintings kept growing in scale and form. I realized that I wanted to leverage the colors and textures in my art to create and shape space, which inspired my transition into interior design and architecture. After I received my B.F.A. in Painting and Architecture, I entered the design field, and I am now a Principal at CBT specializing in Hospitality and Multifamily Residential projects.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There have been so many that it’s hard to pick just one. My journey to CBT was interesting in that it was similar to how I found myself studying architecture — everything really fell into place all at once. I had been leading the Multifamily Design practice at another firm for many years and was interested in a change. Just as I recognized that, I received a call from CBT offering a leadership position with their Hospitality and Multifamily Residential practices.

In hindsight, it seems like it was written in the stars for me to join CBT, but in that moment it felt like it came from out of nowhere. I’m lucky enough to have been able to do what I truly love for years now and I feel like I am right where I’m supposed to be, which I suppose is a testament to being open to opportunities and following your gut.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career I was participating in a walkthrough at a construction site, which finished up a little earlier than scheduled. I had some spare time, so I took it upon myself to do a little exploring. Little did I know, the crew had just poured carpet adhesive in one of the main rooms. As soon as my foot hit the floor, I went down into as deep of a split as I could manage. I learned a few things that day: carpet adhesive is incredibly slippery; it is impossible to remove; and if you walk into a room of construction workers after sliding around in it, everyone will know what just happened.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The most remarkable thing about CBT is how collaborative the environment is. I work in a space where a colleague of mine two desks to my left may be creating a master plan for an island in Abu Dhabi, while another right behind me may be creating an interior design scheme for a local hotel renovation. This may take place all while a unit designer ten feet away is brainstorming ways to improve numerous living environments for a large-scale residential campus. There is no such thing as siloing practice areas in our office. We’re always pushing to make our projects as innovative and interactive as possible, and we use each other to reach new conclusions and experience new breakthroughs every day.

There’s also a diversity of ages on each floor, with younger associates advocating for the newest design tools that can help take projects to the next level. I can’t think of a single time where anything has been rejected: everyone embraces each project’s unique challenges and dives into the possibilities that our teamwork produces. We’re always asking ourselves, “How can we be better?”

For example, we were invited to participate in an Urban Design competition to redesign an entire island in the Middle East. Though I’m not technically a part of the Urban Design team, I was engaged to offer a new perspective for the design. Stepping away from the tactical aspects of its scheme, I was charged with making sure the design would curate a new lifestyle for the city through ensuring that the housing, hotels, retail and office elements encouraged health and activity. It wasn’t just about how to program the island, but how to create a unique environment where people will want to work, live and play. The strategic interplay between our practice areas led to an amazing design, and we were ultimately selected to lead this amazing project.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?

The travel and hospitality industry is all about experiences. So, the biggest tip I can offer is to keep having experiences: stay curious, continue to explore, constantly look around and always ask questions. Engage the world with a sense of wonder, because you never know when inspiration will strike.

Along those lines, I make a point to retreat from the built environment every now and then to reset my brain. Every year, I take a trip to Acadia National Park to hike and enjoy the beach. Soaking up the natural beauty of the world around you not only provides a chance to unwind and cleanse your mind, but may also spark inspiration for an element of your next project that could take it over the edge.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I feel like such a cliché, but my parents have always been and will always be my biggest support system. As immigrants, they traveled from Iraq to three different countries before settling here, learning different languages, adapting to different cultures and working harder than anyone else I’ve ever met to achieve success. They always encouraged me and my siblings, believing in our potential and instilling us with such tremendous faith. My father once seriously asked me if I wanted to be President! Nothing was beyond the bounds of their hope and confidence in my future, and I have carried that with me throughout my career.

Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

Our team is doing a few things that are set to redefine the hospitality industry as we know it. As designers, we are always exploring and forecasting trends, pulling from what we’re hearing and seeing in each of our practice areas, and infusing it into the hospitality sector. Digging deep into trends allows us to identify the underlying design qualities that are attractive to users, which our team can then creatively integrate into our designs to make them timeless. We never want to react to the “of-the-moment” color or texture, but rather proactively use the psychology behind each theme and element to make our projects long-lasting.

We are also committed to integrating art into all of our projects, not as an accessory at the end, but as a feature that is built into the very foundation of each design. We also think on a much larger scale with art. For instance, rather than installing a curated selection of artworks in a lobby that align with a theme, we may think of how to create a unique, visually captivating ceiling that defines the space in a completely new way. We want the art to be central to the design instead of a superficial add-on to completely transform the typical experience you might have, say, checking into a hotel.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?

There is so much design turnover in hospitality. By conducting trend forecasting exercises we are able to generate timeless, innovative designs that are thoughtful and intentional. Furniture and carpeting may need the occasional refreshing, but our designs are orchestrated to ensure that every space never feels outdated and always provides an exceptional travel experience.

Building off that, we are big believers in defining space through differentiators. When you go on vacation you want to be immersed in a completely new environment with rare experiences you can’t get at home. If you walk into a lobby or stay in a hotel room that has an aesthetic that is exclusive to that location, your experience is going to be completely defined by that respect of distinction. We’re creating designs that make it easier for travelers to enjoy, remember, and appreciate their trips.

How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

I see the disruption occurring in three different ways. First, I hope that this will make all our projects greener. My firm’s true belief is that the most eco-friendly strategy is good design. The process of demolishing and reconstructing buildings can be wasteful and harmful to the environment, so investing in quality designs that withstand the test of time and preserving existing structures when possible are the best ways to have a positive impact.

Additionally, our spaces are all about space-making rather than functionality, which is where many of the hospitality projects I see fall flat. They’re set up in terms of logistics — where to put the front desk, the concierge, the elevator — rather than creating an amazing and exciting environment. The functional aspects come naturally. It’s the extra step of asking how we can make people say ‘wow’ when they walk in that matters.

This third disruption is the most dramatic, and something that my colleagues and I have been working toward for years now. Hotels as a concept offer the perfect environment for most activities, such as experiencing food and drink, learning, relaxing and gathering. Hotels therefore can serve as a “city square,” or a meeting space for entire communities. We work diligently to open our hospitality projects up to the surrounding neighborhoods and make them inviting to the public. Think about it: an empty lobby is a huge missed opportunity. Adding a lounge or coffee bar makes the lobby attractive to businesspeople, vacationers and pedestrians in the area, thereby generating revenue for the hotel and adding a local flavor to the space that visitors can enjoy. It adds an extra placemaking element that drives both financial and experiential success.

Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?

  1. Hotel design will be much more experiential. Aside from a unique and comfortable place to sleep, they will offer bespoke experiences that take their guests’ stays to the next level. For example, hotels in Arizona will provide custom programming like guided hiking tours that bring you through the desert to see special floral cacti. These types of exclusive experiences will make every guest feel like they had the best hotel stay ever.
  2. Hotels will embrace their locations more. Long gone are the days of corporate standards applied to a 700-hotel portfolio. Each edition will have a design flavor and feel that you can’t find anywhere else.
  3. Hotels will be more active. People want to be active, and they want to stay in places that support an active lifestyle with fully-functional gyms and sports centers.
  4. Merchandising will continue to grow. Hospitality companies will partner with brands to create unique products for guests to purchase as mementos for their time at that hotel. Let’s use the cacti tour as an example: perhaps there’s a certain hat, sock or shoe offered as part of the experience. Beyond the comfy slippers and robes, these products will serve as reminders not only of the stay, but of the innovative experiences each guest enjoyed on their trip.
  5. Food will become a focal point. Evolving from the days of one master chef in a single hotel restaurant, hotels will now offer hundreds of options that reflect alternative dietary needs, local specialties, street food, comfort classics and more. We’d love to see an open lobby concept with several food boutiques so that guests can try something new every day and forge new memories by experiencing different cuisines.

You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

I am a very intentional traveler and will do a ton of research before a trip so I can scope out the best art, food, and entertainment in each city.

If I’ve heard of a unique exhibit or section of street art, I’ll make a point to visit it so that I can experience it for myself or, if I get restaurant recommendations, I’ll always seek them out to try something different. I also make sure to check out recently-completed buildings or developments: they always show me something new and different that piques my interest and keeps me learning.

Aside from active exploration, it’s always important for me to find some time to relax, hear the things a new city offers, leisurely enjoy local flavors and just breathe a little bit differently.

Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As the recipient of so much goodness it’s always been important to me to give back. I mentor a lot of women in the industry both inside and outside of my firm — not only is it personally fulfilling, but I’ve found that individuals discovering what they love and what makes them happy removes a lot of negativity from the world.

I’d also say that the work I do brings goodness into the world, specifically through the incorporation of art into public spaces and the creation of spaces for communities to exist and thrive. I think a lot about how buildings sit within their communities, and how my team and I can implement a strategy that encourages different types of casual social collisions that could result in the formation of a new friendship or the adoption of a new perspective. Intentionally designing to bring people together in different pockets throughout a city adds a layer of community togetherness that has a palpable impact on the way a city lives.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Given where my parents and I are from, harmony and peace for the world are always on my mind. People can so easily take their personal tranquility for granted, so I’d love to start a movement to spread and promote peace across the world in any way they can. For me, that would mean designing buildings that spill out into community spaces so that everyone can see and interact with each other and realize how alike they are. It also means adding as much art as possible into accessible spaces to bring individuals together in mutual appreciation and understanding. My movement would help bring out the humanity in all of us, stripping away the differences and helping us all appreciate each other a little bit more. That’s how peace happens.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on Instagram at @raghadvalani, and keep up with all of the amazing work being done by my firm at @cbtarchitects. I’m also on LinkedIn, and you can follow CBT there as well.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

The Future of Travel: “Integrating Art As a Feature, Not An Accessory, of Hotel Design” With… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.