17 Jul 2019 World leisure: news, training & property
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Spa Business
2012 issue 2

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Leisure Management - Jean-Michel Gathy


Jean-Michel Gathy

Architect and designer Jean-Michel Gathy of Denniston International talks about the part he plays in creating some of the most high-end hotels and spas worldwide

Jennifer Harbottle
One of Gathy’s favourite projects was the St Regis Lhasa in the Himalayan mountains
Jean-Michel Gathy
Denniston’s client list is impressive and includes the Fuchun Resort in China
Aman Sveti Stefan in Montenegro is a Denniston project
Gathy is proud of his hotel and spa design at Chedi Muscat because of its drama
Point Yamu, COMO Hotels & Resorts’ latest high-end development is due to open in Phuket this December
Gathy loves the mix of location and architecture at One&Only Reethi Rah in the Maldives
Location is key to Gathy’s work, as shown by the Malikha Lodge, Myanmar
Top hotels, like Viceroy Snowmass, US, are now being compared by their spas as well as their bedrooms and restaurants

Interviewing Jean-Michel Gathy, the owner of leading hospitality and spa design company Denniston International, gives you the same feeling as being hit by a huge surfing wave: exhilarated but totally overpowered.

Working for top international clients such as St Regis, Banyan Tree and One&Only, he spends an average of three weeks overseas travelling each month, so tying him down for an hour–long chat is almost impossible. But that’s just the start. Questions planned and asked get thrown out the window and any semblance of control is lost as Gathy takes you on a whirlwind tour of his life, coloured with stories, anecdotes and observations of such minute detail that it’s hard to fathom how he remembers it all.

This is just the way Gathy likes it. A design legend in the leisure industry, Gathy is one of those blessed individuals whose work is so revered he can call the shots and only takes on a project if he likes the people, the concept and the location. “I have to like the destination [first] for me to take a project on,” he says “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, it’s just that we get approached to do so many that I can afford to turn some down.”

If this makes Gathy, a Malaysian resident originally from Belgium, sound conceited, let me set the record straight. By the end of our conversation, I’m almost ringing the bank to lend me money to build a spa so I can spend more time with him. Charming, funny and as passionate about spas as anyone I’ve met, he could (probably) get away with just about anything. “I’m a terrible administrator and manager – I’m a pure creative,“ he says. “I love art, travel, hotels and design; but most of all I love creativity.”

A winning culture
Since a young age, Gathy had always wanted to explore the world and he figured “being a hotel designer would mean I would travel often”. After his studies in Belgium, he got a job at the University of Liege working as a collaboration of architects and was sent to Indonesia on a project. While there, he fell in love with Asia and in 1983 moved to Hong Kong where he set up his own architectural firm – Denniston Architects.

By 1989, Denniston had offices in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. But despite loving Hong Kong, Gathy left there to enjoy the less expensive lifestyle and the increasing number of opportunities in Malaysia, where his headquarters are still based.

Today, Denniston employs 155 full-time architects and designers, made up of 23 different nationalities. According to Gathy, this makes for an interesting debate in the office. He says: “When you have people of different nationalities, ages, sexes and religions working together, it becomes a very engaging and exciting workplace.”

It is Gathy, however, who is the public face of the firm and in April 2006, he was inducted into the Platinum Circle of Hospitality Design which honours individuals who have contributed significantly to the world of hotel design. His company’s client list reads like a who’s who in the world of high-end hospitality development, and includes revered brands such as Amanresorts (sb10/2 p24), GHM, Park Hyatt, St Regis, Shangri-La, Banyan Tree and One&Only.

Gathy regularly works with the top names in the industry. In 2010 he worked alongside renown French designer Philippe Starck to create a series of luxury villas in Phuket for developer Campbell Kane. Currently, he’s working with Italian interior designer Paola Navone on Point Yamu – a COMO Hotels & Resorts high-end development, also in Phuket, that’s due to open in December.

His introduction to spas came in 1993, when he was asked to design the first ever Mandara Spa at Chedi Toraja in Indonesia. “At the time, I had very little knowledge of the spa industry – few did. I had no personal experience of going to a spa and certainly no commercial idea because there was no pampering spa business model to follow in the hotel industry. My first reaction was curiosity, followed by instant attraction.”

Gathy credits the Mandara project as the start of his love affair with the spa industry. Now he’s addicted. “From a purely creative perspective, spas are very aesthetic. I love them because they give me the chance to exercise my creative side.

“Projects where the outside of a building influences the feeling inside – as with a spa – are very interesting to design. It’s so much better if you open the door or windows of treatment rooms and see a beautiful landscape. The topography and how the building sits on its site all play a part in how the inside of the spa is going to look and feel.”

Location, location, location
I ask Gathy whether this is why location plays such an important part in determining which projects he takes on. “With destination spas, it’s always the site that inspires and guides me. When I arrive in a destination, something will always trigger my senses. Every time, I start with a white piece of paper and ask myself, ‘OK, what’s special about this site, this idea, this company’s values?’”

As testament to this, Gathy explains that one of his favourite projects to work on in 2011, was the St Regis Lhasa Resort (sb11/1 p56) with its Iridium-branded spa because of its location in Tibet. Standing 12,000ft (3,658m) above sea level, the luxury 162-bedroom spa resort has awe-inspiring views of the Himalayan mountain range. And this year, Gathy is particularly excited about working with a Indian spa operator the Mayar Group with plans to open at least one high-end destination spa, because it gives him the opportunity to spend time in India where wellness is a way of life.

Talking to him, I suspect the cachet of working with certain companies also plays a part in which projects Gathy works on. As well as working for spa super brands such as Mandarin Oriental and ESPA, his future client list could be mistaken for Paris Fashion Week. His company is working on the first Armani Resort in Marrakech that’s due to open at the end of 2014 and on the first four Cheval Blanc hotels. Cheval Blanc is the hotel management arm launched by LVMH and each property will feature LVMH fashion-branded spas such as Givenchy and Guerlain. In all, Gathy is working on 30 spas right now.

Designing for business
Yet designing only for the world’s top hospitality firms must have its drawbacks – I ask Gathy what challenges he faces. “Design is not an ego trip – it’s still a business,” he says. “It’s important to come up with something new and attractive but we have certain obligations – we are creating someone’s business so although my ideas are inspired, they have to fit within the financial parameters.

“As an architect, sometimes you see a client taking the wrong approach to how they want their spa to look, so you also have to be a diplomat! I’m lucky because I have leverage – I’m 56 years old and because I’ve done so many projects most clients trust my opinion. They know I’m not a creative pushover.”

Despite this, Gathy admits he’s not always got it right in the past. “I’ve made millions of mistakes! I’ve made operational, financial, design and logistical mistakes – after all, we’re all human aren’t we?”

Often wrong steps are taken when the client’s expectations are unrealistic, he says. They frequently want too much for too little money and don’t realise the consequences of insisting on including certain options. “Other times, projects don’t get built simply because they’re too much of a physical challenge,” he says. “I was once asked to design a spa at the top of a mountain in Bali, but the mechanical and electrical obstacles of the site made it physically very trying.”

Thought leadership
With his hectic travel schedule and, spas have become a lifestyle for Gathy as well as a job. He and his wife (who frequently travels with him), have become discerning spa-goers and they “always stay in a hotel with a spa, whenever they travel.”

Meanwhile, his inner circle of friends include consultants, operators and suppliers from the spa industry. It is they, he says, who keep him up to date with the latest trends and inspire him with their thought leadership. “These are the people who so generously share their knowledge and information and help shape the future of spa design.”

Gathy is upbeat and excited about the future of the luxury spa industry. “Consumers are much more choosy now – they expect a hotel to have a spa and I mean a proper spa. This means that hotel brands are being compared by their spa as well as their rooms and their restaurants, which is forcing hotel operators to come up with new and different ideas. I think that the spa branding market is now progressively creeping in line with the hotel branding strategy.”

Personal file
Favourite colour: Blue

Hobbies: Collecting art

Preferred material to work with: Timber and stone

Spa you most love: Amankora Gangtey in Bhutan

Spa design you’re most proud of: One&Only Reethi Rah – because of the interaction between architecture and landscape; and the Chedi Muscat for its drama

What would be your dream project? A cozy mountain resort in the Himalayas; or a top-notch high-rise hotel in Shanghai

Best piece of advice: “Know your duty and not what is owed to you” by my late father

Future projects
- Aman Vinh Hy (resort and spa), Vietnam, opening 2013
- Ancient Residential (Banyan Tree resort and spa), Shanghai, China, opening 2013
- Chedi Andermatt (resort and spa), Switzerland, opening 2013
- Palazzo Papadopoli (resort and spa), Venice, Italy, opening 2013
- Park Hyatt Sanya (resort and spa), Hainan Island, China, opening 2013
- Boutique resort in Randheli (standalone spa), Maldives, opening 2013
- Al Soda (resort and spa), Oman, opening 2014
- Amanoca (resort and spa), Brazil, opening 2014
- Armani Marrakech (resort and spa), Morocco, opening 2014
- Grand Hyatt Lijiang (resort and spa), China, opening 2014
- Mayar Group’s Wellness Resort Gurgaon (standalone spa), India, opening 2014
- Herdade da Comporta development (resort and spa), Portugal, opening 2015

Originally published in Spa Business 2012 issue 2

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