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My Million Dollar Fee

Collaboration Can Make Dreams Possible

Last week I submitted a proposal with a design fee over a million dollars.


I mean, wow!


The project is a medium-sized hotel in the UAE, with 140 guest rooms, public areas, a fitness centre, rooftop pool and a couple of food and beverage outlets. The client found me through a number of different searches, and reached out via email. After conducting an introductory zoom meeting, I was forwarded a full project scope with schematic plans, elevations and external 3D renders.


It’s worth noting that this project has been on my vision board since I started my business 24 years ago. It seems that 24 years’ worth of manifesting is finally paying off!


It's also worth noting that just the thought of taking on a project of this scale is pushing me WAY out of my comfort zone. Which is perfect, since that feeds beautifully into my intention for 2024: "Leaning into discomfort".


Even though I might have been subconsciously willing such a project into existence, with quite realistic visions of how it might look having crossed my mind many times, the reality of receiving this enquiry evoked all sorts of challenging emotions.


Whilst I have quite a bit of experience designing commercial venues, with some successful hospitality and office projects under my belt, I’ve never before been asked to tender for a project of this scale. To be honest, the logistics of designing a medium-sized hotel felt beyond my capabilities, and I knew it would be pushing me way outside my comfort zone.


Since the launch of my business in 2000, I’ve always been open to trying new things that push the boundaries of what I believe to be within my capabilities. Right from the very beginning of my design practice, I said “Yes, I’d love to!” to new, scary opportunities, even when the rational part of my mind was saying “Are you crazy?”.


In 2002 I was asked to design a small modern Asian restaurant called Eat Drink Bento in Hardware Lane with about 50 seats, which I took on without any prior restaurant design experience. A year later, I designed my first bar, a small upscale cocktail bar in St Kilda called Lionel Bar. The first pub I designed was The Railway Hotel in 2005. This venue had a large public bar, two outdoor beer gardens, an event space and a private cocktail bar.


All of these projects took a certain leap of faith on my behalf (and the clients!), trusting that I could design such complex venues to meet their various briefs. I’m very pleased to say that all design outcomes exceeded the clients’ expectations and the venues went on to be highly successful business ventures.


But a 140-room hotel? That’s a different story!


Upon receiving the enquiry, my first reaction was to run! Not literally (obviously) but metaphorically. I conjured up all sorts of ways to deflect the opportunity, thinking of methods to politely decline the offer to submit my proposal for the project.


These are the projects that can make or break a practice. Not only was there the daunting idea of creating a scope and fee proposal, but there was also the looming reality of actually delivering results by way of documentation, specifications (to meet international codes) and facilitation. Designers work their way up through established design practices specialising in hotel design to become skilled and proficient in these processes.


After a bit of meditation (to settle my nerves) and some self-coaching, I managed to talk myself around to a much more appealing solution than running away. In a sudden moment of clarity, I realised that instead of taking on this mammoth project all by myself, and I could collaborate.


This is where my skills as a connector and master networker came to the fore. I’ve spent years developing strong relationships in the Australian design community and know more than a few practices that specialise in hotel design.


It was then immediately obvious that I should reach out to my wonderful friends at Mitchell & Eades. Directors Samantha Eades and Hayley Mitchell (no relation!) have created a renowned multi-disciplinary practice with a focus on hotel and hospitality design. They’ve worked in 13 countries around the world, with a stellar line-up of clients including Six Senses, Hyatt and Hilton. Better still, they’ve worked extensively in the UAE, being familiar with the protocols and policies required to effectively pitch for projects in the region.


After a couple of meetings with Sam and Katie Slater (Partner and Head of Operations and Development), an easy decision was made to join forces to put forward a pitch together.


Suddenly my feelings shifted from trepidation and overwhelm to empowerment and capability. I had one of the most prominent design firms in the country as my partner to move forward and give this opportunity a red-hot crack! The long-held notion of working on a hotel was moving from a dream to a reality.


Despite my lack of experience working on a project of this scale, I’m confident in the value I’ll bring, from spearheading the communications with the client, fine-tuning the scope and proposal document, to contributing to the overall design direction and helping to manage the Mitchell & Eades team through the process.


I’m also aware that, after submitting our first draft proposal, we’re a long way from securing the project. Katie has advised that there are often several iterations required for a hotel proposal, and we will undoubtedly be competing with any number of practices around the world. A positive sign is that the client has arranged a visit to Australia in June/July, and Katie and I have already scheduled a meeting with him in Sydney to further develop the relationship.


This whole experience has reminded me once again that there is huge power in collaboration. Without the alliance with Mitchell & Eades I wouldn’t have had the confidence to either pitch for the job or (fingers crossed) deliver the outcomes should the pitch be successful.


It also offered the opportunity to reflect on my early years in business where I felt like I had to do everything myself. This was due to a mix of not knowing any better and a fear that if I asked for help, I’d look like I didn’t know what I was doing! 


How many of you can relate to that feeling?


It took a good 10 – 15 years for me to learn to drop my guard, acknowledge my limitations openly, and ask for help. Whether that help came in the form of learning from the extensive knowledge of suppliers, trades and manufacturers, or reaching out to mentors and coaches to upskill my own knowledge.


Who knows where this project will go, but I feel that I've already had a huge win by having the opportunity cross my path. It's certainly reignited the fire in my belly to complete a hotel project (either this one or another) some time in my career, and made it feel less of a dream and more of a reality.


As always, I love hearing your own stories!


  • What ways has collaboration opened doors for you and your business?

  • What are you taking from my sharing that has inspired you to reach out to someone to collaborate?

  • And most importantly, what dreams have you put on the back burner that collaboration might help turn into a reality?


Until next week.


Stay well, and always be kind.


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