They say that home is where the heart is, and that was certainly the case for architect Jeff Lam, who was in the midst of a highly successful career with international firm Tony Chi & Associates (TCA), when he made the decision to leave in order to spend more time at home with his family.
“I had two kids, and a month and a half after my second child’s birth, I was in Geneva and I realized I’d only seen him seven days out of those first 45,” Lam says. “The travel was really, really hectic. I realized I had enough. I needed to kind of shift gears a little bit and resigned without having a position in my hand. I was a stay-at-home dad for about three months.”
Getting the Hospitality Bug
After graduating college with a bachelor of arts degree in architecture from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Lam worked for two architecture firms outside of the hospitality industry that included projects designing correctional and transportation facilities in New York.
During his tenure at another firm, he met an interior designer who connected him with TCA, where his interest in the hospitality industry developed.
“This was way back in 1997, and it was a firm of five or six people,” he says. “TCA was awarded a large project for a Hyatt Hotel in Osaka, Japan, and he grabbed me and one of my other colleagues to help them produce a working set of documents on CAD, because at the time [those] were still drawn by hand, and they needed CAD production. I moonlighted with them for several years doing some really, really interesting international projects.”
Lam eventually went to work for TCA full time and traveled the world. The projects his office had done afforded him numerous opportunities to see things that he would have never otherwise seen, and offered him the ability to work with a great group of people internationally.
Eventually, however, his desire to be with his family became too strong to resist. He put together his résumé and Loews came calling, offering him a position as a project manager. That was 12 years ago.
“The hospitality bug really got to me when I was working with Tony because the projects that we built were just amazing,” Lam says. “We were so tight with tolerances and everything had to be meticulously documented and executed. Then you add on the passion that TCA had for what he did, and that really kind of bled into what our staff did and what we did.”
Working first with Loews as a designer, before advancing to become a project manager, then a senior project manger, then a director of capital, and now vice president of facilities, Lam has seen from multiple levels how the brand has evolved over time.
Today, he is responsible for managing capital plan expenditures, and working with designers and architects on the development, planning, and execution of each of Loews’ properties. He and his team liaise and drive the design throughout design teams.
“I manage the capital spending on an annual basis for our chain, so we currently have 23 properties; half of them are fully owned, a good chunk of it [is a] joint venture, and two [are] managed properties,” he says. “The execution of a CAP X plan takes up three quarters of our time because it’s designing and developing the individual projects that we do. They range between front-of-house guest-room renovations, lobby renovations, ballroom spaces, meeting spaces, restaurants, pool areas, and public areas.”
An Evolving Company
Back in 2005, Loews made a conscious decision that, because of the number of properties it had, it couldn’t design in-house anymore. So it began sourcing designs to a rotating group of designers.
“Between setting the design direction, making sure our owners, our design teams, and operating teams are all on the same page, and then getting to contractors, I think our team, myself included . . . want to make sure everyone goes in the same direction,” Lam says. “Otherwise, the likelihood of it going off track is huge. That pretty much encompasses three quarters of my day.”
The remaining quarter of his day is spent managing at a higher level with the entire team. This involves numerous discussions with the operating team on minimizing revenue loss due to renovation, or figuring out creative ways on how to execute projects and not flood the hotel with noise.
“It’s always a challenge,” he says. “There’s never one solution to it, but there are ways around it. It just means that there’s a lot of teamwork involved between the operating side, the contractor side, and the managing side.”
Loews has since made a conscious effort to grow the brand, and Loews Minneapolis was one of the company’s first targets.
“We were trying to get into markets that we were not in at the time, and this opportunity came up,” Lam says. “It was a 10-year-old property that was not a big hotel but the bones were really good, and we knew we needed to ‘Loews-ify’ it. We always create a storyline for every hotel, because without the storyline, there’s no heart to the property because it can be anywhere.”
The first step involved guest-room renovations through updates to all the soft goods and case goods in the hotel for the guest-room pieces—including corridors.
“We changed it from a very heavy wood feel to a very light and airy feel,” Lam says. “Part of the concept was—you know Minneapolis—it’s so cold half the time, everyone’s trapped indoors so much of the winter, so why wouldn’t we give that a really airy, brighter feel? That was part of the briefing to our design team. Then we allow our designers to kind of take that and interpret it a bit, and then go through the design process.”
This was followed by a reconfiguration of the lobby area, a renovation of the bar area to energize the space, and an update to the meeting spaces.
For any new project, Lam helps determine the scope, budget, and schedule—usually the hardest part for hotels because they don’t typically shut down.
“The challenge here is having good communication and rapport with the operating team,” he says. “The operators just want as minimal displacement or minimal noise to their guests as they can, but at the same time they want a new product. That communication up front is incredibly key, and for the most part, I think our teams work really well with our operators.”
Another big project for the company is the 1,000-room hotel at Royal Pacific in Orlando, where a new ballroom was added, while room renovations and bathrooms renovations will feature new furniture, new floors, wall finishes, and new fixtures.
“It’s a complete change,” Lam says. “That project will really push and elevate the Royal Pacific property to a whole other level. The scope was just incredible. The change from what it was before to what it is now once we renovate it is night and day. It still has that Pacific feel, but with a modern twist.”
Cost: $10 million
Size: 22 stories
Timeline: 6 months
Unique aspect: The addition of the Apothecary Bar, complete with a library area for people to sit, plug in, and connect while enjoying waiter service from the bar. The design inspirations were two key aspects of Minneapolis’ identity: the flour mills and water power.
Loews Chicago, Streeterville
Cost: $185 million
Size: 15 floors of hotel (34 floors of residential units above that are not part of the hotel)
Timeline: 2.5 years
Unique aspect: One of the largest design components was to not build the podium where a ballroom area was. “We had a height limit so that you can still see a view corridor down to the river,” Lam says. “It came out fantastic.”
Royal Pacific Resort, Orlando
Cost: $32 million
Size: 1,000 rooms
Timeline: Approximately 14 months worth of phases
Unique aspect: A ballroom expansion that offers a connecting bridge to a new facility being constructed called Sapphire Falls.