Q&A: Galen Vassar Talks Hospitality Design

by Lawrence Group

Galen Vassar took an interest in hospitality design at a young age. She was the kid who rearranged her bedroom on a regular basis, and pleaded for new bedding and accessories at least once, sometimes twice, a year.

“I realized very early on that creating an interesting, inviting and comfortable space to spend time with friends was very important to me,” said Galen. “They wanted to be in that space and hang out all the time! And as an only child, time with friends was everything.”

Growing up in the 80s, Galen and her friends incorporated the seating of all seating – the papassan chair (with ottoman!) and plenty of inviting areas to play Nintendo. The boombox properly positioned, window treatments with blackout capabilities and seating with the perfect television viewing distance.

While the spaces Galen designs today are infinitely more sophisticated, the philosophies remain the same.

“My passion for creating beautiful, inclusive and exciting spaces has grown into a career,” said Galen. “I am incredibly fortunate to get to do what I love every day. Hospitality design involves making your guests comfortable and feeling welcome – no one should ever feel like a guest. This philosophy started at a very early age for me.”

Today, as an associate principal and leader of Lawrence Group’s hospitality practice, Galen designs hospitality environments for clients across the country. In the following Q&A, Galen discusses her passion for creating unique hospitality experiences, the benefits it brings to other markets and the future of hospitality design.

What do you like most about designing hospitality projects? 

In addition to there never, ever being a dull moment in the hospitality world, two things I value the most about working with hospitality clients are that, in general, we are working together to create spaces for people and for their enjoyment versus functional spaces designed with operational priorities. The majority of clients we work with are truly vested in the success of their projects not only from a financial standpoint, but also from a guest enjoyment standpoint.

A good hospitality space will always prioritize staff needs and operational realities so the business can operate well. Great hospitality spaces will exceed staff expectations and operate in innovative ways. The best projects are collaborative, they involve identifying those operational needs early on, and position the design team to focus on the guests’ experience.

In hospitality design, we are very fortunate to be designing for a good time! Whether it’s a hotel lobby, high-end restaurant, beer garden, concert venue or event space, the trajectory is usually enjoyment. It’s just fun, plain and simple.

What is your personal design philosophy? How do you approach each new project?

My personal design philosophy is to create spaces that engage guests and make them feel like the space was created solely for their delight. While you can’t be all things to all people, we do have an opportunity to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Recognizing and holding in the highest of esteem, that we are all individuals with unique tastes, helps create spaces that promote unique experiences.

As we head into 2022, what are some of the design trends you expect to see in the hospitality industry?

I expect to see a renewed focus on safety, wellness and more personalization. It’s imperative that each person that chooses to patronize a space feels safe in that space. Many of us have suffered unthinkable and incredibly dire consequences of others choosing self-fulfillment over the safety of others. And we’ve grown – we may choose to only be in spaces that can provide that safety and sense of community. After two years at home, we’ve been able to prioritize our individual wellness through midday walks, morning meditation, evening yoga, etc. Not to mention the advancements in air purification, cleanable surfaces, focus on daylighting and our connection to nature. Hospitality spaces will continue to see an emphasis on making sure spaces for wellness are ever accessible.

We’ve also been ordering takeout and delivery for nearly two years now. We’ve come to learn the fries are almost soggy by the time they arrive and that a bottled cocktail is a far cry from feeling your elbows hit cold marble or a wood bar top. And we’ve had a chance to experience outdoor dining and even modified events, like concerts with pod seating.

While some of these experiences leave a lot to be desired, and really change how we think about what makes an experience, the one common thread has been personalization. When you place your delivery order, you are often given the option to refine your selection according to your preferences; your meal arrives when you are ready for it, timing at your discretion. And rather than waiting in a line three shoulders deep at a bar for a drink during a concert, the server prepares the order you’ve placed from your phone and brings it to you.

It’s common to see hospitality design concepts cross over into other markets, such as healthcare and senior living. Why is this important? What benefits does hospitality design bring to these markets? 

Incorporating hospitality perspective into other markets is such an exciting endeavor. We’ve been thrilled to move past incorporating hospitality finishes, to incorporating hospitality thinking into the design process in other markets. To me, hearing “we’d like to incorporate hospitality finishes” is a red flag. Axminster carpet, for example, is not necessarily a good choice for a skilled nursing environment. The errant application of inappropriate materials really doesn’t suit the designer, contractor, operator, owner or user.

What does deserve consideration during the design process is putting yourself in the user’s shoes and having a mission. We have so many critical and productive conversations in the office lately about just this – Why do we design uncomfortable, pretentious waiting spaces in healthcare environments when in the hospitality world we recognize making a guest wait for anything is undesirable? How can we create patient rooms that are personalized, interesting to the patient and just more comfortable in general?

One of our latest discussions is about hotel rooms and patient rooms. A hotel room doesn’t have an environmental services zone, the room is the guest’s room upon check-in, sometimes even before if they are checking in on a mobile app! How do we give spaces, like hospital patient rooms, back to the user? And how do we create spaces that act as a partner in their experiences, no matter the market or project type? It’s not solely about picture perfect moments; it’s about the culmination of respect, the human experience and good design.

Favorite design quote or personal motto?

One of my favorite quotes is by Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

While there are many applications for this concept, I value design-thinking with this in mind. When beginning a new project we often refer to benchmark projects and spaces that are already created, designed and built with a specific use and target consumer defined. While learning from the successes and failures of those benchmarks is critical, designing truly creative, innovative and progressive spaces involves asking why and why not, questioning norms, and not only comparing your ideas to what’s been done before, but also to what hasn’t been done before.

My most treasured moments during the design process are when the client and team take the time to step back from the prescribed solution and think about the why. Client goals, guest expectations and personal context are ever evolving. Staying in front of that to create environments that are successful for the client, provide personalized experiences for the guest, and create joy are the most exciting prospects with any project.