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Viva Las Vegas: Paul Heretakis of Westar Architects Defies the Depression

February 18, 2010
Viva Las Vegas: Paul Heretakis of Westar Architects Defies the Depression

Straddling both coasts (and several oceans) in design work and office space, Paul Heretakis, principal of hospitality design for Las Vegas-based Westar Architects, has managed to settle into a powerful gaming niche yet remain highly versatile. It’s a nimble-footed existence that perhaps only the acrobats of Cirque de Soleil (performing in six Las Vegas venues) could truly appreciate. Heretakis has overseen many decadent designs, specializing in casino lounges and restaurants ─ spaces that need to induce a quickening of the breath and the sweet slap of greenbacks as a night of gambling commences.

Speaking of gambles, one would think that with a price tag of $8.5 billion, the highly-contested new CityCenter would have chosen Westar for some of its casino design; it’s a firm that knows the definitive lay of the land. The planners however chose to employ architects and designers outside of Las Vegas in an attempt to bring a fresh vision to the glinting streets. Heretakis remains nonplussed, with Westar touting a lengthy history of recognition that has insulated it from economic distress. The firm was named 27th on Interior Design Magazine’s list of Hospitality Giants in 2008 and Heretakis was chosen as one of 25 “People to Watch” for 2009 in Global Gaming Business Magazine. Heretakis discusses how Westar Architects has defied the economic odds and continues to take on a little bit of everything from a new office in Macau to a conversion project in Batumi, Georgia.

What is your background and history in hospitality design?

I attended Pratt Institute, receiving a Bachelor of Architecture in 1991. Studying in New York was a great experience. Each project we had utilized a different site in the city. To be young, innocent and poor in the city and working toward your dream was as romantic and pure as you can get. Graduating and having no job in the city is not so much fun. All I wanted to do was design so I made a change I never thought I would do. I moved to the mecca of hospitality known as Las Vegas and started on my career path. It was during the last great recession in the early 90s; it was one of the few places in the country that was not affected by the downturn. I had found a safe haven for the next 25 years.

Westar was based in Las Vegas when I joined on as a partner. Patrick Klenk was doing commercial architecture only, so I brought the hospitality experience. Although we did different types of design we had many commonalities with service and the progression of design. It’s also led to work in other states as the expansion of gaming exploded across the country. The greatest effect on us as designers was the fact that you always had to push yourself to the next level of creativity. Each month another project would open up with ideas that had not been seen before. It was up to us to outdo the others with each new project. It was the epicenter of over-indulgence. I hope we can someday see those kind of projects again.

Why did you choose to open an office in Asia?

We opened an office in Macau to expand to Asia with our American clients and also because we felt the slowdown coming in the states. That being said we felt a slowdown not a complete stoppage. We have done well and we appreciate the government’s role in creating economic growth as well as job creation. It is a great environment to start a business [there]. Our leaders should see that manufacturing has left this country and so has most of the recent investment dollars. “Follow the money,” and the smart companies have. We all must change how we do business in the future, what we did in the past is obsolete. We must think outside of the box as business people as much as we do as designers.

One of the areas suffering the most in the hospitality industry has been Las Vegas. What kind of year are you anticipating for 2010?

Las Vegas is heating up again contrary to published reports. Economics and project budgets might have changed but the deals and work are still being done. All projects are about the balance of budget, schedule and design. The best projects are not always the most expensive; you must find the sweet spot and design toward that goal. The other areas in the States are still struggling but more opportunities seem to be coming in more in the past month. The clients are gearing up for the new year; hopefully the project will actually get built. Even though our government seems to be against small businesses we all know the only way we will survive is by adjusting our offerings to meet the desires of the customers. Escapism, which is at the core of hospitality, still exists and we need to meet that need. It might have economically changed in terms of interests but the desire is still there. We need it now more than ever.

How have you remained buoyant and continually busy with work?

We have always had a nice boutique-sized company that is very proud of our accomplishments in the field. That being said, if you are not shooting for the top than you shouldn’t be in the game. We never competed for projects that were beneath us; we always competed above our level. In the beginning, we got beat a lot. In the end, we beat many of the top firms in the industry for some great projects. We have always been a service-oriented business. We modeled ourselves after the hotel business – we were the concierge that never said no and could get you anything you needed. This made us preferred among our clients.

This level of service grouped with our expanded service such as branding, restaurant development, (through our Happy Hour Studio) operation and service branding concepts, our innovation studio and our ROI generation studio ─ we really get involved with our clients’ business and all facets of its operations. Every successful hospitality project must be an equal marriage of design, operations, service, marketing and branding. We take pride in successful projects that are cohesive in their delivery of their message – their business. When we are asked what our favorite project is, the prospective client is really asking what our most financially successful project is. In today’s world and going into the future, nothing is more important. The economy will not support projects that don’t offer the best value for the consumer’s dollar. That is not to say cheap – perceived value is the key.

In terms of new projects, have certain individuals been eliminated from the design process in order to cut costs and improve “efficiency”?

Our clients have cut back on their staffs as much as we have in our field. So we have been able to offer them the services they no longer have in house. That is how our branding and marketing efforts have expanded. When we need help above our current staff’s talents it is easier for us to bring those consultants in, under one company with a singular thought process that is based upon the owners’ needs. You don’t have a mix of companies that work against each other for their own egos and not the overall success of the project.

What new projects are you currently working on?

We are working on a historical renovation that will create a hotel property that is hoping to be the Monte Carlo of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe ─ Batumi, Georgia. It’s a 100-room boutique property. The design of it is a mix of traditional elements based on history of the property; it’s a former government building. Much of the additions have a very striking modern edge to it. It’s set to open in 2011.

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