Over the last seven years, I’ve been inspired and seen how others were. With so many stories circling in my head, I keep returning to my 1st time visiting Asia, where I travelled to four major cities in 7 days to see potential building locations and meet the local teams.
1st Stop — Hong Kong, China
Hong Kong was mind-bending. I was amazed by the tall, narrow buildings, pastel-painted facades and densely packed streets. All this was juxtaposed with a ‘rustic’ local feel at ground level and warm tropical weather. I can safely say that my first impressions of the city were inspirational. Weirdly, It all started with a familiar feeling. Generally, when I’m travelling alone and in transit predominantly by taxi, I observe my immediate surroundings and imagine what it would be like to drive around independently. How comfortable would it be? Could I navigate the signage? What is the horn etiquette, etc.? As I passed through security in the airport and jumped in a local taxi (btw, the passenger door opens automatically), I noticed the driver was on the right side! Yes, the ‘right’ side. To my relief, I was ready with the Google Translate app, which I didn’t need as the driver spoke decent English. Then, once we got through the airport exit congestion, I noticed something quite strange; all the road signage looked 95% like the signage in England with the addition of Chinese characters. I was aware of the history of HK as a British territory. However, seeing the infrastructure I was familiar with in such a faraway land made me even more excited to be there. When I arrived at the hotel, I discovered the power sockets were the same as in the UK. No pesky adapter is required!
Over the next year, I would visit many more times where we launched 2 locations (approx 100,000 sqft of prime real estate). I worked with a local design firm led by Nelson Chow for the first location in Causeway Bay. This collaboration was a vital part of the Asia Creative Direction strategy. To find talented designers and artists to give the spaces a local and authentic feel. The highlight for me was the incredible time learning about HK via artists and the community teams excited to bring WeWork to their city.
Next Stop — Shanghai, China
While Hong Kong Island felt familiar in many ways, mainland China was a different ball game altogether. In some ways, HK was like a movie set in the future. Shanghai, on the other hand, felt a lot more ‘local’. The first thing you notice when you arrive is the sheer number of people everywhere, traffic, grey skies due to the air pollution, loads of local street stalls, silent electric scooters and a lot of hustle & bustle. One thing that stood out to me initially was the amount of high-end retail. I’ve never seen so many Gucci & Prada stores in my life.
The purpose of this short trip was to visit an empty former Opium factory nestled among several residential properties and known by the street name Weihai Lu. This flagship project would be my primary focus for the remainder of 2016 whilst juggling projects in 3 other major cities. I was lucky to work alongside Linehouse, a Shanghai-based design firm that led the concept and detail design with me as the Creative Director.
We had several ups and many downs on this one. However, through perseverance, passion and commitment, we delivered a flexible workspace that inspired many investors, competitors and, more importantly, the local community. Check out some of the press reports here: [Forbes, Dezeen, Archdaily]
The highlight for me was watching the ‘Terrazzo master,’ who oversaw the installation of the inspiring flooring design, which nearly delayed the project opening as he and his team painstakingly worked to sand, seal, and polish the Terrazzo—complete commitment and skill.
Down Under for the First Time — Sydney, Australia
Having spent the previous few days in what felt like a new world. I arrived in Sydney, and my first thought was that this is like England with nicer weather. [I know this is probably an oversimplified generalisation]
We visited two sites: one in St Martins Place, the bustling central business district, and one in Pyrmont, a former industrial area. Two very contrasting buildings. SMP could only be described as a typical class A tower, and Pyrmont is a brick & timber frame marvel. We partnered with the accomplished local design studio Tom Mark & Henry. A young, ambitious team led by three inspiring Interior Designers who took pride in developing great details and trying new things. It made my job a lot easier for me to work alongside designers who were as passionate as me, if not more. I spent most of my time reviewing & approving highly considered design packages and working closely with our project managers to realise the designer’s vision. I was in my element! Encourage and inspire the design team to produce cool designs, try things, and then be the ‘conduit’ for realising these ideas. Navigating the ‘commercial’ responsibilities was crucial as we dealt with large budgets and large spaces requiring what I always labelled ‘creative pragmatism’. To be creatively free whilst firmly on the ground, acknowledging that we cannot get everything we want. So, we picked the right battles to fight and compromised when we had to ensure our project managers were happy.
Final Stop — Seoul, South Korea
I arrived quite late in Seoul, exhausted. I’m grateful I took a colleague’s advice to stay at The Shilla Hotel — wow. My first time experiencing Korean hospitality, and I must say 감사합니다 (thank you). Generally, when I arrive at a hotel, I pray for a smooth and quick check-in. It might sound wild, but for some reason, there is nothing worse than being shattered from a long flight, getting to the hotel desperate to crash on the bed and then spending what always seems to be an eternity checking in. Anyway, after a 12+ hour commute, I arrived to live music being played in the lobby, greeted by an immaculately dressed staff member in a traditional outfit. She asked my name, requested my passport and CC and then directed me to the elevators. Seamless. Straight to my room! Later that evening, the concierge staff returned my passport, CC and invoice receipt.
The next day, I visited the 2 locations: one in Gangnam and the other in Myeongdong. I wouldn’t call them unique buildings. The footprints were super small, straight forward and orthogonal. However, what was special about launching the first in this market was the special attention from the local teams keen to learn, build and share their culture. I enjoyed Korean BBQ for the first time in a dimly lit restaurant, where I removed my shoes & wore slippers for dinner.
The structure of the design team for these buildings was very different from the previous three cities. The design was completed ‘in-house’ as our schedule was incredibly aggressive, and when I took on the projects, we were already well behind. We were lucky that, based in our New York office, we had a Korean designer who developed the design work, and I (based in London) would work with the local design & build firm (in Seoul) to execute. Our local designer (Youjin) didn’t get the chance to travel during the development of this project. So, we collaborated virtually across three continents, which was pretty seamless. In my view, our collaborative success was because, on all sides, we had a team who respected each other. Youjin was supremely disciplined and hard-working. It must have been weird for her — Working on her first WeWork project from New York in her native Korea. Inspired by her calm and skill to create design proposals without seeing the site was refreshing.
I chose these stories to share how inspired I was to visit these cities, work with the local teams, embrace new cultures and ‘translate’ the brand identity. The mission was to respect & incorporate the location nuances whilst maintaining the core brand aesthetic, ultimately creating an aspirational environment for the members and surrounding communities. I’ll never forget the opening days when we greeted new members and watched them interact with the spaces for the first time. Another key objective for us travelling ‘ex-pats’ was to onboard the local teams, train them to communicate the brand values effectively and act as passionate custodians when we left. The above are just snippets of the time I experienced in Asia. My goal with these posts is to show that behind the hype, failed IPO and negativity, 'we' experienced things that I reflect on now (in planet lockdown) that I cherish and consider priceless.
Until next time. Thank you for reading