"I had to shift from being across every detail to empowering our senior designers to think the way I think."
TDC: Thanks for joining us today Sam. We know you’ve got a very full schedule, as the co-director of a design practice of 25 team members, with offices based in Melbourne, Brisbane and Dubai. You’ve also got other business ventures, are close to finishing your own home renovation, and are a Mum to 3 and a half-year-old Henry. Firstly, how do you fit it all in?
SE: I don't sleep! No, just kidding... It's all about an amazing supportive husband (he’s incredible) and having a great support team around you. We've got some great care for Henry as well, so he feels loved and supported when we are busy working and traveling.
And then on the work front, I've got a fantastic business partner. Also, our executive team for Mitchell and Eades is outstanding. They're incredible. The way that they take ownership of the business and they really treat it like their own is great. I also have an incredible business coach that helps me finesse my time design for my life.
TDC: In 2020 you joined forces with Hayley Mitchell, and since then the business has grown significantly. Your portfolio includes prominent hospitality venues and 6-star hotels all around the world. Your role in the business has obviously changed as the business has grown. Can you tell us a bit about that transition?
SE: It took a little while to transition from a small team to a large team, as we, both Hayley and I, have very different working styles. So we split the business; where she is more a project director and I'm more creative director.
I think I've always been a very good delegator because I'm a natural leader, so I have no problems in delegating tasks. But I had to take it to another level with a team of 25. I had to expand as an empowering leader and really allow the senior designers to take the lead on projects, where I would normally do that in a small team. Now I have six key reports, who then manage their own teams.
I was so used to being across every detail, and I was working until midnight most nights. Then I thought, “I just can't fit everything in, so what am I doing wrong? I can't keep going like this. This is not sustainable.”
I had to shift from being across every detail to empowering our senior designers to think the way I think, then they can get across the detail that's really important to us as a business.
TDC: Recent projects Grill Americano, Beverley and Hinchcliff House are hugely successful and have been getting critical acclaim. Can you tell us how you came to focus on the hospitality industry, and why you love it so much?
SE: That's an easy answer because my favourite things in the whole world, aside from family, are food, design, and travel. And I thought, “What better way to express that in my life than to design beautiful restaurants all around the world?” So that's where I started my journey in hospitality. And I think my love for New York City and the hospitality scene there really got under my skin.
From a design perspective, I feel that hospitality design is probably one of the most challenging because it needs to be a multisensory experience. It has to look right, it's got to smell great, the music's got to be right, the service has to be spot on and the lighting has to be perfect. It's like all the sensory touchpoints have to be met for it to be right. So, for me, it's like the show is on! And I think that expressed in design is really, really interesting and multi-layered. You're operating in the conscious and also in the subconscious, and from the aesthetic to a very highly detailed and technical operational flow.
It feels innate in me, actually, because I love creating. For me, as a person at a soul level, it brings me the greatest joy to create memorable experiences for people. And so, hospitality does that over and over again. When I see people happy, breaking bread together in a venue I've designed, nothing gives me more pleasure in my job.
TDC: What’s your favourite part of the design process for hospitality projects, and why?
SE: Firstly, it's the strategic thinking behind the concept. What is the concept? Who’s the target market? What are we trying to achieve here? Understand it from a business perspective.
I think I'm a serial entrepreneur. So I actually love getting into the business side of it first and understanding what they are trying to achieve. Is it a standalone? Is it a rollout? Is it a special occasion? Fine dining? Is it a cafe for all people, of all kinds? I really love the strategic thinking.
I think I'm a serial entrepreneur. So I actually love getting into the business side of it first and understanding what they are trying to achieve. Is it a standalone? Is it a rollout? Is it a special occasion? Fine dining? Is it a cafe for all people of all kinds? So I think I really love the strategy.
I also actually really enjoy the technical and operational flow because, to me, it makes a lot of sense. It's almost mathematical to me. So I love that side of it as well as colour and lighting. Bringing it all together that way is everything.
TDC: We’re incredibly excited to welcome you as a guest speaker at our NZ Retreat in October to deliver workshops titled “Leader With Empathy and Intuition”. What do you think are the most important skills and traits for a leader to possess? Have these come naturally for you, or have they needed to be cultivated?
SE: Yes, it came naturally for me. I've probably had to really work hard at systems and processes, which comes less naturally to me, but I also really enjoy it. Ultimately, it really is all about intuition.
Definitely deep levels of empathy, strong sense of empowerment, and the ability to empower others are the most important skills and traits as a leader. Humility balanced with confidence. The ability to delegate ties back to empowerment and to be supported by strong systems and processes.
It’s also crucial to have strong Time Design. That’s where you're able to design your schedule efficiently. It makes you so efficient with your time and achieve things in less time and still remain balanced in life.
There's no way I could have multiple businesses, a family and a team of 25 people, and be level-headed without strong Time Design.
TDC: You’ve completed, and continue to do, a lot of work for the Lucas Restaurants (Go-Go Bar, Hawker Hall, Grill Americano and upcoming Batard). How has that relationship evolved and how big a role do relationships like this play in your business?
SE: Relationships are everything to us in our business, as we have a lot of repeat clients.
It's been a pleasure working with Lucas Restaurants over the past 10 years. It’s been a joy for us to be part of their evolution as a brand, from casual dining restaurants to more fine dining, elevated venues. I think their meticulous attention to detail in the operational flow has been a fantastic foundation for me to understand how a successful hospitality venue needs to work. Chris Lucas is deeply passionate about the hospitality industry, and to work alongside him is fantastic because he strives for excellence in every area of the business (unapologetically so).
Generally speaking, working with key stakeholders in the industry helps us to remain excellent in the delivery of outstanding design in hospitality. And it also helps us to continue to elevate and lead in hospitality design.
TDC: To continue to grow as a business owner, we need to lean into our entrepreneurial spirit, rather than just focus on the technical aspects of the job at hand. How do you continue to be influenced by the entrepreneur that lives in you?
SE: It's good fun. I think I see the whole world as an opportunity. I have to just focus! I think that it’s important to continue to travel and to build relationships with thought leaders in the hospitality industry. I continue to watch the global scene to understand where hospitality is heading and where we need to be and what we need to be doing to follow that.
TDC: It’s undeniable that we are in a period of economic uncertainty. There is currently a lot of fear and scarcity circulating throughout the design community. What advice do you give to business owners to look after themselves and their business during such times?
SE: Great question, because I've been through this a couple of times before, and fortunately survived.
I think that we need to potentially pivot in the type of projects that we're doing. I think we need to be flexible in our design scope and the fees associated. We’re seeing people choosing to refurb rather than do new builds, so they're spending less. Be flexible, open and helpful. When people feel uncertain, they’re looking to others for confidence and for the belief that it's going to be OK. Be helpful in any way you can, even if that extends beyond your design work to do something for them that they need.
How else can you be helpful? Listen carefully, and see what you can do. See if there's something that you can help them with that might fall out of your normal scope, but is something you can help them with.
We did the same during COVID, where outdoor eating became an accepted thing. So, we were designing for people left, right, and centre. We were offering it to people, we were offering it to businesses for free just to keep the doors open. So I think, be modest, be flexible and think outside the box. And watch your expenses.
During this period, we can all take some time to tighten up systems and processes, with the aim of becoming more efficient.
If there’s enough time, we might create a new business! We normally do that. We'd always think: “Oh well, now we've got time to do this, let's rebrand, or regroup, or start something new.” But I think it's a great time to audit your own business and look at the systems and processes, find where there's any money leaks in the business, and see how you can just tighten everything up.
TDC: Later this year TDC will be launching an Online Hospitality Masterclass featuring you! This has been a labour of love for you and the TDC team for 3 years. What advice do you have for designers looking to set out on a career in the hospitality industry?
SE: Well, the advice is to learn from your own observation. When you eat out and you have your own hospitality experience, how do you feel? Learn from that, and understand that there are always two audiences, or three in terms of it being a hotel.
In hospitality design, there's always two audiences. There's the operator (the client) and the guest. So you have to look at it from both perspectives. There's no point designing a great restaurant that looks fantastic, but the staff are falling over each other because there’s no operational flow. So get your head around the technical knowledge as much as the design knowledge. It's the tiniest details that make the difference.
For hospitality staff, have a great waiters station for them to be able to put things away and grab things easily and seamlessly. Or, from a guest’s perspective, it makes the world of difference to have the correct table heights in proportion to the chair. Two centimeters can make a difference so they feel comfortable. It's the tiniest of details. Focus on the details, learn from your own hospitality experiences, and observe and understand the operation side of things.
Each operator has their own way of doing things, so ask the right questions. Our wonderful client, House Made Hospitality, which is behind Hinchcliff House, is very different to the Lucas Restaurants. There are some similarities, but they're still quite different in the way that they like to flow. So understand the nuances of the client and ask the right questions. Don't be afraid of diving into tiny details with them. It makes a world of difference.
When a place just feels good, it’s because of all of the tiny nuances that have been taken care of. There's a fantastic book that I'm going to recommend every single person who is interested in hospitality design should read, or listen to via an Audio Book, because his voice is so passionate: Unreasonable Hospitality by Will Guidara, who is from 11 Madison Park in New York. I even get goosebumps talking about it. He talks about hospitality service at its finest and how he became the number one restaurant in the world.
For the technical knowledge, well, you'll have to do my Masterclass online at TDC!
We can't wait to welcome Sam to the Queenstown Retreat in October, and to watch all of the new and exciting projects from Mitchell & Eades unfold over the coming years.
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