Featured Member - Doug Kulig, AIA
Not many architects become CEOs in charge of worldwide resort development, but Doug Kulig was never one to turn down an opportunity or a challenge.
Doug Kulig, AIA, is part of a rare breed: an architect who became a CEO. After years in the resort and hospitality space in Florida, he rose to head the Destination Creation Studio for OBMI, a worldwide leader in design for over 80 years. He oversees the development process for projects around the globe, but navigating the world of international negotiations and senior-level bankers proved to be a challenge that wasn't covered in architecture school. "Handling the business end," he says, "is really a trial by fire."
After graduating from the University of Miami in 1980, I ended up at William Cox Architect. He was an unbelievable designer with a great feel for resorts and hospitality work, and I stayed there for almost 15 years while basically running the office for the last several years. We did some amazing things: a ski resort in Vermont, the Rock Resort in St. Croix, historic restorations at the Vinoy in St. Petersburg, and the City Hall in Boca Raton.
Eventually, my associate was hired to run OBMI's office in Miami. It was originally meant to be a PR office but he said, "This should be a real office, and the first hire is a guy you haven’t met yet." Without interviewing, I came onboard; I was introduced at the first board meeting as "The New Guy."
I was tasked with getting the office up and running; my skillset lies more in organizing and figuring out how things work. At first, we were receiving a lot of condo opportunities, which wasn't where we wanted to be. We started pursuing international work and caught a break: a big project in Oman, The Wave. It was a partnership between a Dubai developer and the government of Oman, which came about through a conference in the Netherlands.
That turned into a bunch more opportunities around the world: Beirut, Libya, and eventually the Royal Mansour Hotel, a hotel for the King of Morocco. He wanted the best hotel in the world; I don't know if we reached those heights, but it received a ton of recognition and has helped us garner additional work to this day.
"No one is a competitor overseas; there is room for everyone, and it's all about understanding the culture, the contracts, and the environment as best you can."
The level of collaboration in the hospitality and resort space is remarkable. It doesn't just require an architect or an interior designer; it takes storytellers, people with vision, and the need to always ask, "What's next?" Because by the time one of our projects is built, three years or more have gone by; we have to constantly push the envelope and figure out where our industry is going before it gets there.
A decade or so ago, we were preaching “authenticity.” Now that idea is mainstream, so we have to ask, "What happens after you're authentic and real?" The place you create is a destination but also a stage, so you have to consider how the operator will provide experiences: guided tours, cooking or special types of food, religious elements or interactions with wildlife. The building itself can't change, but those elements can change. So there has to be collaboration, and an emphasis on multi-function, reusable, re-imaginable spaces within the context of the destination. We believe the next trend upon us is "transformation."
When it comes to working internationally, I try to offer as much advice as possible to my peers. No one is a competitor overseas; there is room for everyone, and it's all about understanding the culture, the contracts, and the environment as best you can. Here in the United States, a contract is written so it can be pulled out and examined when there's a problem. In many other countries, they read the contracts every day and administrate by them to the letter. So we learned to be very specific when necessary, and how to manage money and fees. Some clients won't provide that last payment. The learning curve is steep, and sometimes you learn by taking it on the chin.
After 18 years, I feel comfortable with the choices we're making. When we were younger and hungrier, sometimes we jumped into situations that didn't work out the way we hoped. But now, if a partner or a project isn't to our liking, we'll walk away. And when we do take something, we always find a local partner who tells us what we need to know: the best local building systems, their favorite way of putting things together. Collaboration on the international stage, and having someone local that you can trust, is absolutely paramount to being successful. Parachute in without that local support and it’s not going to work out the way you want.—As told to Steve Cimino