Early in his career, Michael Paneri was the architect of record on the Venetian Las Vegas hotel. He and his team at WATG were tasked with developing an experience for visitors that would approximate some of the opulent architecture, design, and feeling of the legendarily beautiful Italian city. Though he was honored to be part of the experience, there was something about building a canal through a hotel and approximating traditional Italian architecture in the middle of a desert that didn’t sit quite right. “I was troubled by the un-authenticity,” he says. “We called it fake-itecture.” However, he understood the impact it would have and knew he would need to take the mission extraordinarily seriously. He and his team took two research trips to Venice to photograph, measure, and study what they could replicate for the Venetian. And while the impressive results have amazed millions of visitors since the hotel’s opening, Paneri has since wanted to work on hospitality projects that will still thrill visitors with innovative experiences while also honoring their surroundings.
Paneri found that perfect match when he joined Viceroy Hotel Group in 2005. The hotel and resort leader encompasses more than 20 active and in-development locations spread around the world, ranging from a gorgeous ski resort in Snowmass Village, Colorado, to the distinguished luxury of Yas Island in Abu Dhabi to the sunny seaside beauty of Riviera Maya in Mexico. When Paneri was offered the opportunity to join the company as its senior vice president of hotel development, it was a perfect merger of his exposure to design, construction, budgets, and scheduling as an architect and his experience in the hospitality sector, which he first built up in a position with Rosewood Hotels and Resorts.
One important lesson he learned early on with hospitality projects, he says, was to always look at things from the guest’s point of view. Architects and designers may dream up innovative designs, but owners may opt to find the most cost-effective solutions; Paneri, meanwhile, finds a way to take the best of both to serve the customer. “You have to embrace compromise and find a solution that meets all of the stakeholders’ needs,” he says. “I frequently say to my design teams, ‘I appreciate and respect you, I want you to go crazy, I want you to create the best possible solution for us that you can, but in the end, you are not going to get everything that you want.’” Instead, he helps them pick the most important elements of the design and then helps convince owners of their essential benefit.
Whether designing the entryway for a hotel or placing electrical outlets in a room, Paneri ensures that every decision is made with the customer in mind. In the past, AAA and Mobile ratings would hold sway, but now the Viceroy team is able to hear from the customers themselves. “In the past, if you had four or five stars on your hotel, you were the king,” Paneri says. “We still pride ourselves on that, but TripAdvisor has become the benchmark by which we live. We take that very seriously, and I would say that it informs and guides us.”
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the feedback of late has been related to technology. Paneri understands the importance of speedy Wi-Fi and copious electrical outlets for business travelers and vacationing families alike—and in fact, he recently published an article on the evolution of the luxury guest room. While it takes three to five years from start to finish to open a hotel, technology moves much more quickly. “We try to future-proof our product as much as we can,” Paneri explains. Because of this, his team focuses on the backbone of the hotel and then supports it with decisions on innovations such as communication, access and entertainment systems, and network connectivity closer to the hotel’s opening.
Paneri makes sure that new products and projects always fit the Viceroy brand while also appealing to the majority of customers, balancing innovative thinking with simplicity and comfort. For example, while he’s seen that they will make a big impact on the future of the industry, Paneri is not in a rush to install app-driven management systems or augmented reality—though he’s not ignoring their potential, either. Instead, Viceroy finds the common denominator that appeals to everybody. “We’re dealing with some people that are tech savvy and some people that aren’t,” Paneri says. “Some people want a simple light switch and not an iPad to control things. We try to keep it simple and give people the option of always going back to the old-fashioned way, while at the same time looking for exciting, new innovations.” That said, Viceroy understands its customers’ appetite for easy, on-demand services, and now customers in some hotels can order in-room dining through the TV system or even preorder it from an app before getting to the room.
And while technology is important, Viceroy knows that the human touch is just as crucial to the customer experience. “In the end, it all comes down to guest service, and that starts for us at the door,” Paneri says. “When you enter our hotel, we want there to be a handle for a doorman to grab and open for you, not an electric door. They’ll greet you by name and wish you a great day. Our guest-services colleagues at reception are still very engaging. That connection is important.”
That connection extends to keeping an eye on each hotel’s unique location. Developing a hotel in Serbia, Paneri explains, necessarily involves different decisions than developing one in San Francisco. “Being very flexible and willing to let each product and project take on its own personality and aesthetic is essential to our brand,” he says. That said, Viceroy is an international company attracting guests traveling around the world—which is another reason why Paneri makes sure that there’s a state-of-the-art infrastructural backbone that unifies every Viceroy site. Remaining authentic to the location and culture is a big part of the Viceroy vision as well. “We give a lot of leash to our design teams to be as creative as they can, but they must use the local culture, the environment, and the location as the inspiration,” Paneri says.
He and his “lean and mean” team of four cover the world, handling everything from assessment of potential new sites to meetings with design teams. There’s a lot on their plates, seeing as their “clients” include Viceroy’s internal corporate team, design teams, and project owners, and Paneri regularly flies around the world to ensure that Viceroy can continue to deliver top-tier quality and find new opportunities to thrill customers. “My day is filled from beginning to end with really different tasks, including design, programming, and branding police work,” he says. “But we rely heavily on the design teams to create the beautiful places that we have. In our new Viceroy Chicago, our designer researched a local Native American tribe and incorporated symbology into pillow designs. In Viceroy Bocas [del Toro], in Panama, while much of the project has a modern design, we intentionally took the approach with the spa to have a light footprint on what is a very special jungle environment and are designing some of our treatment rooms as treehouses.” That ability to blend styles and create unique experiences has led Paneri toward making Viceroy a leader in its industry.
Considering Michael Paneri’s work takes him all around the world, he gets a lot of questions about favorite places. “I’ve been to over fifty countries now in my career, just all over the place,” Paneri says. While he works to make sure that all of the Viceroy Hotel Group’s properties have a certain level of consistency, they each must have their own unique qualities influenced by their surroundings. As such, his favorite seems to be whatever exciting property is coming next. The recently completed Viceroy Chicago received a lot of Paneri’s passion, but he quickly turned his eye to the next set of properties opening in the next couple of years: Ombria, in Portugal, and Bocas del Toro, in Panama. “These are going to be our latest and greatest representations of the brand,” he says. After that, his next favorite will be a location opening in Buenos Aires, a beautiful city in need of a new top-tier hotel. “I don’t have one place that I would say is my absolute all-time favorite,” Paneri says. “What makes my job interesting is that it’s always changing.”
Portrait: Jennifer Chong
Experience has made McGuire Builders the industry leader in hotel renovation and construction since 1985. The cornerstone of its success has been the longevity of its client relationships due to its innate understanding of the special needs and expectations of hotel developers, owners, and operators. Recently completed high-profile projects include the Viceroy L’Ermitage Beverly Hills, the Westin Snowmass Colorado, the Sheraton Los Angeles, and the St. Regis Aspen Resort. McGuire Builders offers sophisticated building solutions and an unwavering commitment to quality, schedule, and client satisfaction.