When I started my career in 1980 right after graduating from the University of Georgia, I moved to Toronto to accept a position as a junior interior designer with a hospitality interior design firm. My then husband and I were just starting out and didn’t own a house, but our friends were suffering with 18+% interest rates on their mortgages. Some thought they couldn’t make ends meet but scrambled to stay afloat and keep their houses until interest rates dropped again. The partners in the firm Wood Wilkings, Simon Wood and Michael Wilkings, did everything to keep the company going including downgrading their precious status cars such as Porsche's to simple and humble Volkswagen Jetta’s, which visually demonstrated to us commitment and tenacity and we got through it.
Coming from an entrepreneurial background through my grandparents, I ventured out in 1984 to start my own firm. In my twenties, full of ambition and know-it-all attitude I thought it would be easy. If my former employers could do it, so could I.
It was tough at first to make money as I had to learn to find and keep clients, sell potential clients that I knew what I was doing with only 3 ½ years of experience and that I could wisely spend their money. How does a trained designer, with little experience, become a salesperson overnight? That start up period taught me dedication, focus, how to diversify and to be tenacious. There is no rule book or education that one can study to learn how to go through starting and continuing a business without any financing. I figured if I could make it through such a lean period and huge learning curve on my own without any coaching or borrowing of funds, well then I could do anything. This would come in handy later on.
When the financial crisis hit the world in 2008 we were lucky to not only live in Canada with a strong financial system, but also to have longer term hotel contracts in place that carried us through 2 lean years with not many new projects. We had to make concessions, employees went on part time for a few months, but we rallied and I kept upgrading our clients and focusing only on our ideal clients and strengthening those relationships. As I matured, I learned that it’s our clients that we support, nurture and befriend that help us through the tough times. As we care about their well being and have their backs during good times, they care about us in low times and help us out.
These recessions have taught me to diversify the company and focus not only on hotels but also other areas of design that are related. For us this is Restaurants, and for other firms its Multi-family. I started the company with an emphasis on Fast Food and Retail since this was an easier sell for me starting out. Clients weren’t comfortable giving a 27 year old their multi million dollar budget for their hotel renovation so I learned how to design small and tight spaces effectively to start. In the last 12 years we put more emphasis on hotels in our marketing. It is good to diversify as typically other areas of design have a different economic cycle. For instance, if the economy and spending is down, so is travel and therefore hotel stays, which means less hotel design work for us. Therefore it is prudent to find an area of business that has a different cycle than your main focus.
Each recession or economic hardship is different than the last and not predictable on its direction or toll. Sure, we try to think ahead and protect ourselves, yet in this pandemic, all of the hospitality industry has been affected across the board. Who will recover fastest is anyone’s guess, but my gamble is on the people that come up with new ideas or the clients that have tucked away the money for situations like this and become opportunistic buyers. As unfortunate as it may be for the little guy losing his store or hotel, the new vacancies make great opportunities for well backed franchises or developers that are looking for great sites or investments. Staying close to those type of businesses will result in keeping your business alive as long as there are great relationships already established.
As I’ve learned through these recessions, the motto ‘This too shall pass’ holds true now. Humans are tenacious, focused and dedicated and we will make it through the other side, intentionally stronger, flexible and even more resilient.
Doris Hager is the founder of Hager Design International Inc. an international interior design firm with hospitality projects throughout North America. Doris can be reached at www.hagerinc.com