Kevin Underwood has more than 35 years experience in the architectural planning and design of five-star hotels, resorts and upscale properties around the world. His work has taken him all over the globe, designing hotels for Four Seasons, Six Senses and private clients, such as David and Victoria Beckham and The Emir of Qatar – to name a few.
As principal of planning and design for HKS (where he has been for three years), he is a masterplanner and designer who focuses on how a structure will make people feel by using innovative methods and creative design to create one-of-a-kind buildings and measurable real-estate returns. An artist at heart (he draws and uses watercolor on canvases), Underwood works almost exclusively with five-star resorts, urban regeneration projects, commercial and retail spaces and golf and leisure. His impressive resume includes Four Seasons Hotel Bosphoros in Istanbul and Disneyland Paris, among others.
Underwood sat down with Elite Traveler to talk about what inspired him to enter this field, the importance of travel and the firm’s exciting projects on the horizon.
What initially inspired you to get into the design industry?
I want wanted to get involved in design because I’ve always been good at drawing and painting. I’m an artist as well, and it’s OK doing drawings and canvases, but if you want to influence the world and how people feel and affect people’s emotions, then you need to build buildings and you need to build resorts to make them excited. That’s really what intrigues me. Can you take the design and passion of an artist and actually transform it into a larger scale and affect people’s emotions?
You have an incredibly impressive portfolio. What does it take to reach this level of success?
There are two things: First of all, you have to have passion for design. As I say, we’re getting more involved in the science of people’s emotions. For years we talked about, “How do we make people happy? How do we make them jump with joy? How do we create a wow factor?” But really we haven’t looked at the science. So we’re doing a lot of research into that at the moment. Passion has to be supported by hard work, you really got to put the hours in.
We also talk about the phrases “intellectually curious” and “intellectually creative.” It can no longer be whimsical; you have to build an intellect into what you’re doing, and that takes hard work. High-net-worth-individuals are very sophisticated these days. They demand authenticity and things of interest to keep them excited and motivated, which makes our job harder. You’ve got to be really dedicated and create something very special, but it has to be backed up by good research and intellect, otherwise it’s just a very thematic, whimsical building.
With such a long lead time in terms of planning and developments, how do you stay on top of trends in the market and anticipate what people want before it opens?
There are a number of ways. First, we have our own research team that feed us information. Obviously now with the internet there are lots of research papers, but also we have our own economics team who do the financial feasibility of projects, and they go out and carry out on-the-ground market research. They interview operators, developers and end users to find out what is exactly required in that particular country, in that particular place.
How does HKS Architects set themselves apart from other firms in the market, and what do you admire most about the company?
Ben Martin, our head of economics, carries out that market research on the ground. He calls it, “Boots on the ground.” And how is he different from others? Often financial feasibility of hotel projects.
First of all, many of our clients don’t even do that research, and they’re going from their gut, which is wrong. But some of the feasibility guys, they say, “Well okay, you could have a hotel, and it would generate this amount of money return based on current marketplace.” And so it’s very, what we would call “rear-view mirrored.” It’s only looking in the mirror of what’s happened in the past. What Ben and his team do is, they take that research and then they predict into the future what the client should do. And that’s a big differentiator of us compared to other surveyors or other feasibility consultants.
How is luxury development changing around the world?
As I say, they’re becoming much more demanding in their requirements. Years ago, we could take photographs, but that’s no longer good enough, you have got to take home memories, and that’s a big difference. Photographs are now kind of loose change. We take thousands and thousands of photographs, and they sit on our phone but we don’t really look at them. The sophisticated traveler is demanding memories, whether that’s a city break, a hot resort or a cold climate resort; they want good memories that they can go back and tell their friends and family.
Secondly, they’re becoming much more demanding in terms of unique experiences. Some of these high-net-worth individuals are so busy and so in-demand from their business, they lose track with the simple things in life. Some have never lit a campfire with their children, and so they’re requiring that social connection with their family as well.
The other thing is wellness. We’re designing a number of integrative wellness and medical wellness resorts around the world. People are realizing, particularly the high-net-worth individuals are asking: “Can we do something to lengthen our lives? Can we do something to improve our lives?” The wellness industry is a trillion-dollar business, so we’re designing wellness resorts in India for Ananda; one for Four Seasons in Bodrum, Turkey; plus the largest wellness resort in the world for the Saudi government, on the Red Sea coast, so that’s a project called Amaala. That’s going to have a medical resort, integrative resort and a medical wellness research center.
Is sustainability important to you?
Sustainability is a totally overused phrase and not everyone is good at it, but to us it’s a given, and we say to every client, “You have no choice on this, you have to be sustainable.” And so with Amaala we have a very lofty aim, which is to be zero-carbon, which is not easy in the desert. We have to concentrate on water conservation and energy conservation. We’re going to be generating our own electricity, which we can then use in the dissemination station of seawater. All of the buildings are going to be very energy strong, they are going to have good installation to stop the solar gains on buildings.
What is your favorite part of the business, and what do you love about travel?
Passion; I just love getting up every morning and having the passion to do this. It’s incredible, it’s a balance. For me, it’s understanding different countries, cultures and heritage. I’ve now been to 82 countries, and every day I learn something about someone else’s culture, someone else’s social makeup, and that really drives the passion to do something special for other people.
Also, seeing clients excitement either in a presentation when we’ve presented something amazing and they’re so excited and jumping with joy, or seeing the customers in the hotels and resorts really enjoying themselves, that’s a huge buzz for a designer.
What advice do you have for young designers?
Travel is absolutely imperative. You cannot learn about a different country’s culture if you haven’t traveled. It’s essential to understand those idiosyncrasies of different cultures. Learn the heritage, learn history, and then put in the hours. You’ve got to work hard, but ultimately young executives should follow their dreams. I say to my son, “Follow your dreams and then you’ll have a special life.”