WATG’s (Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo) report card reflects a healthy performance in the world of luxury hospitality. The company has an impressive track record, having successfully designed over a dozen Ritz Carlton properties across the globe. Furthermore, WATG has fostered strong partnerships with renowned names in the industry, including the Hilton Group, IHG and various developers. 

The company’s portfolio, however, extends beyond traditional hospitality, encompassing a diverse array of projects such as luxury trains, clubs, branded residences, gaming establishments, later living facilities, offices and mixed-use developments. With 78 years of dedicated expertise in integrated luxury hospitality design, WATG has firmly established itself as a leader in the field, guided by meticulous strategy and unparalleled industry knowledge. 

Vicky Wang, managing director of APAC, talks about exploring cutting-edge design technologies, including the integration of AI, to enhance design processes and create innovative solutions for clients.

In a nutshell, what is WATG?

Since our founding in 1945 in Honolulu, WATG has been pioneering hospitality, tourism and destination design for nearly 80 years. Our Hotel Bora Bora project in 1961 was the first to introduce guest villas built over the water, showcasing our spirit of innovation. Closer to home, the Shangri-La Garden Wing in Singapore, which opened in 1978, pioneered the concept of the garden hotel and is a lush tropical paradise that exemplifies our biophilic design thinking.

Our creative instinct to honour the intrinsic beauty of each destination enables us to create moments of luxury. Remaining independent to this day, we continue to be the pre-eminent leader in integrated luxury hospitality design, offering a suite of services from advisory, master planning, architecture, landscape to interior design. We are a collective of innovators, thinkers, dreamers and artists who deliver dynamic designs and brilliant solutions for our world-class clients. With seven offices across three continents, we continue to push the boundaries of possibility across the globe.

How do you approach designing for a luxury hospitality property to ensure it embodies elegance and opulence? Also, your projects encompass other things such as trains, retirement communities,  and more. What approach do you have for each?

Our design approach is grounded in our nearly 80 years of expertise in creating luxury experiences in over 50 countries worldwide. With our service offerings spanning advisory, master planning, architecture, landscape and interior design, we consistently provide an integrated design approach to our clients, offering key advantages in terms of efficiency, seamlessness and cohesiveness.

For each project, our solution is always tailored to the client. We firmly believe that every space has a unique story to tell. When we receive a client brief, we conduct workshops to delve deeper into their needs, meticulously explore every corner of the site, research the spirit of the location and the client’s legacy, and immerse ourselves in the culture. This approach allows us to conceive elegant solutions that are highly contextualised and deeply connected to the place.

Having worked across various project types, we have realised that the core desires of inhabitants remain constant, embodying hospitality’s fundamental principles of warmth, welcome, memorability and rejuvenation. Throughout our process, our design approach remains steadfast in its commitment to authenticity with regard to culture and place, always with a focus on benefitting society, the economy and the environment. We strive to apply our luxury hospitality experience to other project types, even incorporating six-star amenities into later living communities.

Furthermore, our well-established understanding of the hospitality industry enables us to instinctively execute operational fundamentals, ensuring flawless back-of-house coordination and functionality, all customised for each specific project. It is through this level of tailoring and the harmonious blend of aesthetics and functionality that we consistently achieve enduring success for our clients.

Can you share examples of how you have successfully integrated sustainability and aesthetics into the design of luxury spaces?

For instance, Yanbai Villa, honoured as the Best Hotel in the Asia-Pacific region at The International Hotel & Property Awards 2023 and a proud member of the Small Luxury Hotels collection, is a celebration of Chinese culture, heritage, sustainability and modern luxury. Yanbai Villa invites guests on a journey that evokes contemplation, reflection, and a sense of surprise and delight. The design captures the essence of the building, creating scene-stealing moments at every turn. By reimagining traditions for the modern world, we have created a destination that honours the past while embracing the future.

Another notable example is Hotel Del Coronado, affectionately known as “The Del”, which is the iconic grande dame of San Diego. Built in 1888 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977, the Hotel Del Coronado has been a living legend in American luxury hospitality, boasting Gilded Age historical architecture, extraordinary sea views, and a history of hosting royalty, heads of state, war heroes, celebrities, and even ghosts.

The overall design for the Victorian building intentionally celebrates the history and legacy of this legendary seaside resort. Delivering a fresh and luxurious interpretation of the design legacy, Wimberly Interiors led an integrated team that included WATG’s California architecture studio, serving as the Architect of Record. The vision ensured that public areas retained their truly Victorian character, with original finishes remaining intact, and focused the design on enhancing and refreshing what already exists in the hotel.

Light, both natural and new, was strategically integrated throughout the space using architectural and decorative fixtures to illuminate the Victorian heritage. Employing a layered design approach inspired by classical elements but expressed in a modern way, the colour palettes are lighter and brighter, while accents remain anchored in proper Victorian hues. The new spaces feel fresh and relevant, yet remain rooted in the rich history that honours The Del.

Our vision was to strike a delicate balance in the design, avoiding the traditional idea of merely mixing “old and new”. Instead, we sought to restore original items to their natural state of beauty and introduce new layered elements that enhance the heritage in a modern way. Restoration means a smaller footprint and less impact, allowing us to honour the hotel’s heritage while preserving its legacy.

What is your approach to creating a cohesive design narrative that flows throughout different areas of the property, such as rooms, common spaces and restaurants?

In the Nobu Hotel Los Cabo project, we employ contemporary clean lines, water features and unique landscaping to create a narrative that seamlessly flows through both indoor and outdoor spaces. As the first Nobu Hotel in Latin America, our overarching goal was to blend the relaxed, casual lifestyle of Cabo San Lucas with the core values of the Nobu brand, characterised by modern luxury, Japanese minimalism, cutting-edge design and exquisite cuisine. It is essential to uphold the Japanese principles that define the Nobu brand while incorporating elements from Mexico to establish a strong sense of place.

Fountains and endless pools evoke a sense of laidback luxury and natural tranquillity, an experience further heightened by the presence of native plants and the rustic coastline of Los Cabos. This ambience is further enriched by local elements such as native Cabo stone, agave plants and Cardon cactus. Guests are instantly transported through a subtle yet deliberate series of narratives and symbols that inspire restorative vacations, retreats and intimate private experiences.

In luxury hospitality, attention to detail is crucial. How do you incorporate intricate and bespoke elements into your designs to enhance the overall guest experience?

We craft a unique design narrative inspired by the culture and heritage of the place. The detailing and bespoke elements we introduce are cohesive to that story to ensure an immersive and memorable experience for guests. 

For example, in JW Marriott Jeju, with a clifftop site overlooking the Pacific Ocean’s East China Sea, it was envisioned from the start as a luxury retreat intertwined with Jeju Island’s abundant nature, culture and history. Our Honolulu architecture studio was entrusted to design a destination that would draw in a diverse mix of guests seeking rejuvenation and connection to nature, while also honouring Jeju’s unique spirit of the place. The outcome is a resort that seamlessly merges a rich natural legacy with a modern, sustainable lifestyle, aligning perfectly with the region’s burgeoning wellness tourism market.

Our design follows a principle of living with the land and designing with the land. An abstraction of Korea’s indigenous Choga architecture and Jeju Island’s unique landscape, the centrepiece of the design is a remarkable yet unobtrusive cantilever roof. The site slopes from the main access road down to the sea, and strict height limits are set by the government to preserve the otherwise unobstructed natural views. So the roof became an opportunity not only to optimise views of Jeju Island’s picturesque coastline, but also to honour the ancient Choga style with a modern and sustainable interpretation. Traditionally, the roof would feature a convex curve covered in thatch that is tied down with a grid of patterned rope. Here, the curve has been flipped and the patterned lattice is expressed on the underside of the structure. 

Porosity is another traditional Jeju architectural element, allowing the island’s notoriously high winds to pass through built structures and leading to patterns of solids and voids. In the roof, skylights are punched through the structural grid, subtly referencing this porosity while allowing ever-changing sunlight patterns to move through the building’s interior spaces at different times of the day. 

This dynamic pattern of solid and void is also represented in the resort’s vertical elements. Echoing the island’s traditional volcanic stone and slate architecture, as well as the popular “dol hareubangs” or large rock statues, locally sourced lava rocks are stacked to create highly textural walls that breathe and filter light through the stone. A gabion screen panel system was designed to hold the rocks in place without mortar and to highlight their natural texture. The panels were then randomised along the façade, creating patterns of dark-light and solid-void while delivering a dynamic lighting experience in the corridors.

The guestroom façade continues this appearance as the grid of guestroom modules mimics Jeju’s traditional stacked aesthetic. Presented as simultaneously horizontal and vertical, the buildings are inspired by the small “wishing towers” of stacked rocks that are often built along walking paths by Jeju natives to honour the spirits and ask for good fortune. The guestroom grid also features façade extensions on specific units to break up the repetition of rooms and create a more complex, randomised visual effect. 

WATG’s design approach was fuelled by a motivation to create a modern, luxury destination without imposing something new and unfamiliar on Jeju. Sustainable design is a priority in order to protect the intricate and delicate balance between nature and architecture. From the start, the resort was master-planned to protect and honour its connections to the adjacent national park and historic trail, as well as a natural stream flowing through the site.

The buildings are placed apart in order to allow green space in between — minimising heat-absorbing hardscapes —and are oriented so that guestrooms face south, not only to optimise ocean views but also to draw in abundant natural light. The façade’s solid-void, “porous” pattern of the extended guest-room frames plays a dual role too, serving as shades during the hot summer months and drawing in sunlight in the winter to minimise energy costs and optimise comfort all year long, aligned with Jeju’s year-round tourism appeal.

With locally-sourced stone walls and greenery on the roofs to control elements and reduce environmental impact, the JW Marriott Jeju embodies the essence of Jeju Island, echoing its rugged coastline, lava rocks, grasses and sands. These textures, applied at various scales, create a luxurious, nature-inspired experience. By harmonising architecture with the land, WATG offers guests a constant connection to the site and a harmonious blend of escape and familiarity. 

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