René Gross Kærskov has an adventurous spirit. The Danish co-CEO of global hospitality design firm HBA has finished a marathon on all seven continents and the North Pole, where he battled below-zero temperatures while running a grueling circuit through small pressure ridges and ice hillocks. And when Virgin Galactic announced its commercial space flight program, he was one of the first people to sign up. When he’s not traveling to far-flung cities, Kærskov can be found behind a desk in HBA’s Los Angeles office. At any given time, the firm is working on more than 200 hotel projects around the world. From the recently opened 318-room Fairmont Baku, Azerbaijan, with giant flame-shaped towers to a tasting room at a family vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif., projects large and small keep HBA busy year-round.
LODGING: When did you start working for HBA, and how has the company grown since then?
Kærskov: I walked into HBA London in 1991 as an accounting assistant, and I was just a young kid at the time needing money for food and the pub. Now we have 16 offices in 13 countries, and a lot of that growth came in the last three years. We’ve grown from $55 million in 2010 to hopefully more than $100 million this year, and we’ve gone from 400-something employees in 2010 to more than 1,200 this year.
LODGING: In 2012, HBA worked in 51 countries. What markets are strong right now?
Kærskov: We see China as solid and strong. People have been talking about bubbles, but somehow China is resilient and has overcome these bubbles. We are bullish on the United States, the Middle East, and even Europe to a certain extent. The fact that we are a global company helps us, because we’re not affected by one market. We’re always affected somehow because we’re everywhere, but I do think it’s a strength rather than a weakness to spread your wings around.
LODGING: After success in India and China, HBA recently launched its Studio division in the United States for budget-conscious owners and developers. How has that been received so far?
Kærskov: We see a bigger market in the United States with Studio than we do for the high-end market. Renovations seem to be coming on very strong. We just finished the Radisson Rancho Bernardo here in L.A., and we’re doing Courtyards. Globally, Studio is going to be an $11 million business for us this year.
LODGING: How would you describe the design focus in the United States right now?
Kærskov: In the U.S. it’s more focused on, how do I run this as a sensible business that gives a good return? How do I up my rates? That’s where renovations come in.
LODGING: What makes hospitality design challenging, and how do you push those boundaries?
Kærskov: Starting in any design environment with a blank sheet of paper is challenging, and with hospitality you have an owner, an owner’s rep, the hotel operator, and ultimately the guest. You have a lot of so-called clients, and I think that’s the challenge. Designers also sometimes believe—and we preach not to do this—that the projects are for them to fulfill their personal dreams. We like to add the artistic part to it, but ultimately we’re there for the end user.
LODGING: Where do your designers get their inspiration, and how do they create a unique sense of place in each location?
Kærskov: We try to teach everybody that when you go somewhere, look around, watch the people, and taste what’s there. Look at the mountains or natural monuments, and figure out what’s the story, what’s the history of the place. Those things I think are very important to understand, and the clients love it when you understand it.