Insider view

Updated: 2012-04-13 07:43

By Rebecca Lo (China Daily)

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Insider view

Top: Chinese landscaped carp pool garden in the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou. Above: The lobby of Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. Photos provided to China Daily

US design pioneer reveals groundbreaking work on hotels in China

More than two decades ago, before international hotel operators headed to the growing Chinese market like bees to honey, there was an establishment in Guangzhou that many considered to be the epitome of luxury accommodation in the country.

The fame of the White Swan Hotel, built on Shamian Island in the capital of Guangdong province, was partly thanks to the interior designer Robert Bilkey.

"The hotel was put together by these pre-revolutionary guys working as architects," recalls Bilkey, at the time with HBA, the Los Angeles-headquartered hotel design firm Hirsch Bedner Associates. "They had never dealt with a Western international hotel before. Instead of using carpet stretchers, I'd see guys on the floor pulling on broadloom by hand. That was the way the mainland was in the 1980s."

Born in St Louis and educated in Colorado, Bilkey arrived in China by way of Las Vegas when the Strip was non-existent. He worked for Howard Hughes on legendary hotels such as the original Sands, Desert Inn and Frontier. Then Hughes died and Bilkey found his work pipeline drying up. A supplier suggested that he talk to HBA.

Insider view

"I spoke with (the late) Howard Hirsch and started in 1978," he says. "Less then two months later, I flew to Hong Kong with the mission of closing down its office there."

Hirsch loved Hong Kong, and it was the first HBA branch office opened outside the United States. It did not work out as he had hoped, though, and Bilkey was given the unpleasant task of chalking up the venture as a failure. Instead, he went immediately to a cocktail party upon landing at Kai Tak international airport and chatted with a few owners and developers. Within a week, he had two Macao hotel design contracts secured.

"I had to explain to Howard Hirsch that the office needed to keep running," Bilkey says with a wry grin. "I became the managing director of it with five people on board. White Swan Hotel was one of our first projects. Its original design was like a cave: all stalactites and stalagmites. We re-did the whole thing, with a lagoon in the middle and a waterfall. We took Chinese elements and blended them into a contemporary design scheme. It was the first time screens were used as room dividers, not up against a wall. We established international design standards from scratch. Its grand opening was attended by Beijing dignitaries; it was the first real international hotel in (the mainland of) China."

Bilkey was neighbors with a charismatic Colombian, Oscar Llinas, when they both lived in Los Angeles and the latter was completing his master's degree in French literature. While working on renovating for the Shah of Iran the house in Acupulco that had belonged to the actress Merle Oberon, he asked Llinas to help translate the project details from English into Spanish. Bilkey then asked Llinas to help with selecting materials, colors and finishes.

"Oscar was really good," recalls Bilkey. "He has an innate ability for design. He joined HBA's L.A. office and worked on FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment). When I moved out to Hong Kong, Oscar had to join me."

It was initially Llinas' idea to call Hyatt grand. In the 1980s, Hong Kong was fast-tracked into becoming "Asia's world city" and a mixed-use complex anchored by a state-of-the-art convention center was planned for Wanchai, to be designed by Ng Chun-man. New World Hotels was the owner and developer of the two sites' two hotels, and wanted to get Hyatt on board as an operator. At the time, Hyatt only had Regencies - which was fine for most cities in the United States but not up to snuff for New World's aspirations.

"Oscar said that the hotel for Hong Kong's new convention center couldn't be just another Hyatt," recalls Bilkey. "It should be styled after the grand dames of Europe: a grand Hyatt. So we designed it that way. And standards were set for all the Grand Hyatts to follow."

Grand Hyatt Hong Kong opened in 1989 and immediately became the city's calling card for international visitors flying in for conferences and exhibitions. It remains one of the most popular hotels for locals and tourists today. The same year, 1989, Bilkey, Llinas and Mauricio Salcedo opened shop as Bilkey Llinas.

From the beginning, the firm operated an office in Florida's Palm Beach, its official corporate headquarters. However, its Hong Kong office has about the same number of staff, with Bilkey and Llinas flying back and forth between the two cities overseeing projects and a total staff of 150 people. Palm Beach handles work for South America's mushrooming hotels while Hong Kong is taking on increasingly more projects in China's tertiary cities, with more than half of its contracts on the Chinese mainland.

"I've seen China grow from nothing to a world power in the past 20 years," Bilkey says. "Of course, it needed to have a lot of hotels and expertise had to be brought in from afar to make them. People had to have a place to stay and something on the menu other than chicken feet. It needed international hotels. China has a tremendous workforce and an amazing push to build throughout the entire country. We started working in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou; as time went on, development spread to secondary and tertiary cities."

Most recently, Bilkey Llinas completed the interior design for Four Seasons in Hangzhou based on Song Dynasty-inspired architecture and Yan Club at Kunlun Hotel in Beijing that is imbued with a fantasy garden ambience. With four decades in the business under his belt, Bilkey still loves what he does and still clocks in long hours to ensure it is done properly.

"Perhaps we are not the smartest business people in the world - but we are the happiest. We all work together like a big family. I'm already doing what I want to do when I retire."

China Daily