17 Jul 2019 World leisure: news, training & property
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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

Jean-Michel Gathy
Gathy is proud of his practice’s hotel and spa design
One of Gathy’s favourite projects was the St Regis Lhasa in the Himalayas
Denniston’s client list is impressive and includes the Fuchun Resort in China

Interviewing Jean-Michel Gathy, the owner of 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 that 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 who was originally from Belgium – sound conceited, let me set the record straight. By the end of our conversation, I’m almost considering ringing the bank to lend me the 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.”

Since a young age, Gathy had 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 in collaboration with 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 to enjoy the less expensive lifestyle and increasing number of opportunities in Malaysia, where his office is 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’s 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 client list reads like a who’s who in the world of high-end hospitality development, including Amanresorts, GHM, Park Hyatt, St Regis, Shangri-La, Banyan Tree and One&Only.

Gathy regularly collaborates with top names in the industry. In 2010 he worked alongside Philippe Starck to create luxury villas in Phuket for developer Campbell Kane. He also worked with Italian designer Paola Navone on Point Yamu for COMO Hotels & Resorts development.

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 to the industry.”

Gathy credits the Mandara project as being 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 within its site all play a part in how the inside of the spa is going to look and feel.”

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 (Spa Business 1/2011 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 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 brands such as Mandarin Oriental and ESPA, his 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 of LVMH and each property will feature LVMH fashion-branded spas such as Givenchy and Guerlain.

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’m 58 years old and because I’ve done so many projects clients trust my opinion. They know I’m not a creative pushover.”

Despite this, Gathy admits he’s hasn’t 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.”

With his hectic travel schedule, 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.”

His close circle of friends includes 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 with me 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 the spa branding market is progressively creeping in line with the hotel branding strategy.”

Favourite colour: Blue

Hobbies: Collecting art

Preferred material to work with: Timber and stone

Most loved spa:
Amankora Gangtey, 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.

- 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

From Spa Business Issue 2 2012, p64

Originally published in Leisure Handbook 2014 edition

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