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Our experts, all with experience of doing global business, had plenty to say on the subject, and weren’t going to let a bit of volcano ash get in the way...
You probably don’t need a panel of experts to tell you that there are some pretty major differences between the so-called West (Europe and the USA) and the Middle East. But is was fascinating to find out just how different an experience it can be designing and specifying in that region, as well as supplying manufactured goods.
From addressing, understanding and managing the major cultural differences, to controlling the quality of finished projects, via a procurement and specifying environment quite unlike anything we are used to in Europe, our expert panel laid bare the workings of a system that demands a high level of local knowledge.
In two days of seminars our invited designers, architects and manufacturers examined the key overarching themes and delved into the minutiae of the design process, backed up by decades of first-hand experience in the area. And when we say first-hand, that’s exactly what we mean, because if there’s one thing that came through loud and strong, it was that you have to be there to do business. Visiting just isn’t an option; relationships have to be built, ditto confidence in high levels of service generated, and then you might be looking at securing projects. And once you’re in, that’s just the start of a process that has myriad pitfalls for the uninitiated.
We’ve cut up the two days of detailed and animated conversations into bite-size chunks to make the wealth of information more digestible for you. We hope you enjoy it. And we’d just like to take this opportunity to say a very big thank you to all who took part in this marathon!
Viva La Difference
The Middle East may only be a few hours away on a plane, but it is a whole world away culturally. Yet the region has looked to the West for many decades for architecture and design expertise. It is part of the culture to bring in those who are perceived as the best. And we, for our part, have been fighting to get a piece of what, until very recently, has been something of a golden goose. Some say the Western influence may have gone a little too far in places – Dubai as a city, is often derided by the design cognoscenti for its Disneyesque qualities, but any designer that looks to ride roughshod over local sensibilities is in for a big shock. Getting inside the cultural headspace can be a long, slow and painful process.
‘We in the West perhaps assume that eventually everybody is going to be like us at some point in time, but maybe that’s wrong,’ said Scott Brownrigg’s interior design director, Ken Giannini. ‘Their culture is older. That’s their core, that’s what they are really about. I think you never really lose your roots and I hope the people in the Middle East never really lose their beliefs and values. I’ve met some incredible people – I think we have to be very careful about this whole topic.
‘We are working on a university. It has a wall down the middle where half is male and half is female. It is completely alien to me, I have to say. But they have built into the future planning of the building that potentially it could actually become mixed someday.’
Sexual equality only received a few mentions, but questions of cultural taste came up time and time again: Western internationalism/minimalism versus bling, at its simplest, and the importance of trying to see through the divide.
Gensler’s Tony Wilks, who is in charge of graphics & branding, recalled one of their projects for ‘a home-furnishing store in Kuwait opposite an IKEA. We thought we had no chance, opposite the blue box with the big yellow sign. We thought, “We are designers, not miracle workers!” We created this really lovely store – it was going to be Heal’s versus “crate and barrel”. The marketing guys came in and we thought they ruined it all by sticking posters everywhere and buying big, chunky, heavy bits of furniture and massive wardrobes and beds – but the sales went through the roof, because locals are after that sort of stuff.’
Getting to know exactly what the client wants is key. But there again lie a few problems, not least of which is that you often have to deal with an intermediary – more on that in Who is the client? Another problem is that there’s an ‘I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it’ attitude.
InterfaceFlor’s global accounts director, Karen Burt, added: ‘It can be very difficult to find out exactly what the client’s criteria are. They expect you to show them a lot.’
KI’s managing director, Jonathan Hindle agreed: ‘Reading your customers is a tricky thing. You have to take each scenario on its merits – just when you think you’ve got them taped you get it wrong. Taste is so very variable and individual. The more traditional bastions of where the oil and infrastructure money is coming from tend to be more conservative and almost in a timewarp, in terms of their likes and dislikes, in direct contrast to Dubai and in parts to Dohar, where they are probably more at the vanguard of adopting European/Western tastes. Or you get this funny eclectic mix of the two. I think a lot of the younger people have thrown off the mantle and are embracing Western culture. It’s a generational thing.’
That said, there is also a certain level of client ‘schizophrenia’, it seems. Many, particularly of the younger generation, have spent considerable periods of time in the West and absorbed some of its aesthetic. But it seems that they often like to keep the West in the West and become more traditional when immersed back in their own culture.
Martin Hawthornthwaite, CEO of Reed Hawthornthwaite said: ‘When they are in Paris, New York or London they want modern minimalism, the latest fashions and styles. If you do something for them in their own country they don’t want the super contemporary. They want to introduce just one of two elements that are modern because they are entertaining their parents or friends. You will find the same client choosing a different product depending on which location they are in.’
And it’s not just the aesthetics of a project that are different – the whole way the project is conducted is very different too. In an extreme case, as Portland’s director of environments, Lewis Allen, pointed out, you ever really relax until the thing is built: ‘They can just walk into the room and say, “Let’s start again”. It sometimes happens. You can think it’s all done and dusted, and then the man at the top says, “I don’t like it” and you are back to square one, or even off the project! It can be very far down the road, and then they will pull the plug – they have no qualms about doing that. In the UK or Europe the cost of doing that would be seen as a failure but in that market it happens.’
But despite the cultural differences you certainly get the feeling from everyone that they love the challenge of working in such a culturally alien environment.
‘The point is, when we are going over there and providing services to the local client base, we are all tailoring those services to fit in with what is required,’ said Ricardo Ares, of landscape architect, Whitelaw Turkington. ‘We are working within the framework of the Middle East. They tend to always add their bit to it; their spin and their meaning.
‘Abu Dhabi is a perfect example. It’s a totally modern city built on a grid mode. I’s all about the car. But you’re in Abu Dhabi and you don’t feel like you’re in LA. What we have to understand is that they are catching up to a certain degree with a great deal of new thinking and new technology, and, although their culture is ancient, they are bringing new cultures into the Middle East. There is always going to be that struggle as to how we can best serve them, achieve something that is best for them.’
And as Giannini pointed out, we’d better hurry: ‘Once they build up their own expertise in their own architectural practices, locally, they won’t need us. There is a window of opportunity for us now, but that will eventually shut.’
Put simply, don’t expect to do any work in the Middle East unless you have an office there as a designer or architect, or a solid agent and/or distributor for a manufacturer. You almost have to become part of the furniture if you want to specify or supply the furniture!
‘It’s about the relationship and the trust,’ said Swanke Hayden Connell director, Justin Seward. ‘It’s on the bond and the word, on how they feel about you. I respect that. You have to make that investment to do business there.’ Martin Hawthornthwaite added: ‘They say that it takes 12 months. I know a company that made a commitment and said, “We will open an office and it is going to be 12 months of just going to parties and cocktail events. We will have an office and a presence for that 12 months and will make no money – we have to turn up at all these events before we get any contracts.’ It worked, apparently, and they began picking up contracts after putting in the hand and leg work, but then the economic crash caught up with them since the work was in Dubai.
Ian Stanton, sales director, at iGuzzini said having a presence in the Middle East is essential to maintaining quality throughout the supply chain, from initial specification, through to making sure that spec stays in place during the installation to the all important after-sales service. It is a very service-driven culture and the clients want to see a presence to assure them that any problems will be dealt with quickly and efficiently. He said: ‘We have an office there and that is very important so that we can hold the specification. It is all very well working on the specification here [UK], but if you haven’t a presence there it gets changed. You can’t guarantee what is specified will be delivered if you are not there.’
Ergonom’s Jonathan Reed-Lethbridge, who is in charge of design liaison, expanded on the issue: ‘If you have an established agent or dealer who knows how to behave, or look after the way certain business has to be tackled, some of those quality issues can be put to one side, because it then becomes about relationship – and the relationship drives that process forward.’
The manufacturers were unanimous that having good distributors was essential in this region. They tend to be large companies, which look after the interests of a variety of manufacturers and sectors, from flooring to lighting. The key is building strong relationships with distributor and agents so that you can really trust your local partners.
Martin Hawthornthwaite summed it up: ‘With everything in the Middle East, you have to have a partner and your work really depends on how good that partner is.’
As we’ve said, being there is everything, and some see one way of starting a presence as taking space at one of the exhibitions in the region.
Two of the largest are Dubai’s Index and Cityscape. Whether these shows actually deliver or not is up for discussion, but in general they are, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, about meeting people, forming relationships, looking for dealers and agents, creating a profile and looking for potential work.
The perceived benefits of visiting and exhibiting at the shows varied among the panels, but most agreed that this was only an adjunct or a stepping stone to establishing a real presence in the Middle East.
It can act as a way of announcing yourself, as with landscape architecture practice Whitelaw Turkington: ‘We started off by visiting and found that was completely useless, as we were essentially a very small fish in a large pond,’ said Ricardo Ares.
‘We started speaking at the Gulf Landscaping show in Abu Dhabi and we are trying to position ourselves as bringing new forms of thinking to that market. The next step is to exhibit, but we haven’t yet because we don’t have an established local presence.
“In terms of exhibitions and the value of them, I think that unless you are seen exhibiting as a local presence there is very little you can do there. We are up against firms that have been there for 20 years and are considered local consultants.’ Ares added that he didn’t believe the case for exhibiting was yet proven.
If, however, you are thinking of exhibiting, you can get a contribution of £1,400 towards your cost from the Government, according to Sue Graves from the UK Trade & Industry and the British Contract Furniture Association: ‘In fairness, it’s not awful lot of money compared with what you will have to spend. About 10 years ago it used to be £2,800 and you would get help with travel expenses as well. We are also up against the likes of the Italians and Germans, who have huge subsidies to help them.’
A number of manufacturers taking part in the Design Seminar had chosen not to exhibit at the Middle East shows, prompting discussion as to whether this could lead to people thinking the company was no longer a major player, or had indeed ‘gone under’. But most agreed that this attitude didn’t hold much water these days, especially when marketing budgets were under such pressure and needed to be highly targeted.
Jonathan Hindle, of KI, which has now pulled out of Index, went so far as to add: ‘There is the idea that people ‘will talk’ if you are not at an exhibition, but I think we’ve moved on from that now. It used to be great leverage for the exhibition organisers to suggest that, but people are taking a much more pragmatic view these days, and if they [the shows] are not delivering, firms will just walk away from them. I’m damned if I will allow an exhibition to hold the industry over a barrel.’
Karen Burt, from InterfaceFlor, pointed out that her company used to exhibit in the Middle East, but now it prefers conferences, which are smaller and more targeted. She added that InterfaceFlor found that with the larger trade fairs the quality had not been good, and that the promised foot traffic had never been delivered. InterfaceFlor also now has offices in the Middle East.
Ian Stanton, of iGuzzini, also favoured a more targeted approach, which in his company’s instance means sticking with the Light + Build show in Frankfurt: ‘The main object of the Light + Build show is for agents and distributors to come along and say, “I want to represent your company in X,Y, Z country. So you will get people from the Middle East saying, “I don’t believe you’re represented in this zone or that country, or I don’t think you’re very represented very well by your current distributor.”’
Meanwhile Ergonom’s Reed-Lethbridge stated his belief that the role of the Middle East shows is these days pretty much the same as elsewhere, ‘about the dealers and the agents, and a way of connecting with others and finding out how to do business in those markets.’
This is the Middle East’s largest interior design show, held in Dubai.
‘It’s quite a general show which is what they like – you name it, you can find it. It has been going 20 years now and has cleaned up its act recently, because it had become a bit like a bazaar.
“It has now gone back to what it calls design and high end. You get all the top Italians – they take two or three halls – and the French take two halls.’
Sue Graves, UK T&I and BCFA.
The Real Estate and development show, held in Dubai.
‘Cityscape is largely developers and consultants. The stands and spending at Cityscape are bigger than anything I’ve seen elsewhere. They must spend a fortune. So for a consultant to actually go out there and put on a good show is one hell of a tall order. I think the attendance has fallen away quite substantially now.’
Doug Smith, TP Bennett.
‘We were actually at Cityscape and we designed our stand to quite a tight budget. We find we do get quite a few leads, though they don’t tend to be direct business. It is more like a cultural event than an exhibition, like MiPIM. We have an office in Dubai and a presence in Abu Dhabi, so we are able to say at Cityscape, “We have a local presence and the people here to deliver your project.” Again, it is about building the idea of trust.’
Tony Wilks, Gensler
‘Two years ago you had the developers there and the occupiers going to meet the developers. They were all courting each other and it was very easy to get carried along. One year a stand collapsed under the weight of people trying to buy property. The next year it was empty. This year, as I understand it from my colleagues out there, it is very quiet, almost non-existent. There is no need to be seen to be the first to be interested in the next development, which was the reason they [big companies, such as banks, law firms, pharamaceuticals] were there before. And I think it’s fair to say that Doug [Smith, TP Bennett ] and I would be there because we wanted to hang on to the shirt tails of the person who was doing the next big project.’
Andrew Black, The Interiors Group.
Getting the job done
So you’ve set up an office, been schmoozing the market for at least a year, have a wealth of strong relationships and now you are picking up work. Your problems are only just beginning! Everyone will tell you that designing a great scheme for the Middle East is the easy part. Making sure it gets built like you meticulously planned is quite another.
From procurement, through the specifying, to ensuring that remains unchanged during the build, to major changes being made – on what to Western eyes seems like a whim – it is a fraught process. Being there is one essential part of trying to control the whole procurement process and handling the project all the way along the line.
‘It applies in other regions of the world, but getting the brief really buttoned down is one hell of a challenge in the Middle East,’ said Doug Smith, of achitecture design practice TP Bennett. ‘You will never be sure, but it’s worth spending more time up front trying to get that exactly right.’
But the biggest headache in the process, all agree, is specification. The choice can be limited by all sorts of factors, from prohibitive import taxes on foreign goods, through cultural differences requiring you to offer up a choice rather than a specific, to the major issue of re-specification by contractors looking to save money. And then there’s the huge tendency to get it done locally and cheaply.
‘One of the major problems we find is that we do all of our specifying from here [UK/Europe], but out there, you have huge import duties,’ explained Martin Hawthornthwaite. ‘If you specify a carpet from someone like Brintons or Ulster, they won’t even quote, because they will never get the job. It’s very unfair. You can specify what you want, but the client will say “I’m not paying that” and it will get done locally.”
Karen Burt from manufacturer InterfaceFlor explained the duty system in more detail, as well as looking at ways around the situation: ‘It varies from country to country. So there is 10 per cent added impoting into Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but it’s higher, something like 30 per cent in Saudi Arabia. If you supply it’s more than 100 per cent duty from Europe, but they have a zero per cent trade agreement with the USA, so we use our American plant to supply our projects. It’s very complicated. That’s why we are there with an office to help the client navigate and see where they need to purchase from.’
Others agreed that in ‘certain circumstances’ the payment of these taxes seems to disappear as an issue. It’s clearly not a level playing field and relationships can play their part. Martin Hawthornthwaite also outlined a specific instance where taxes can be waived: ‘Sometimes you can have a one-off tax-free project, if say it’s a country that wants to develop a five-star hotel, because it does not have one and wants to get that kind of inward investment. What will happen then is that the client will buy double everything and put half into storage for when replacements are needed, because they get one chance at this tax-free opportunity.’
And that’s just the tax side of things. There’s much more, as Lewis Allen takes up the story: ‘Once you hand over specification drawings, then you are into no-man’s-land. If our partner supplier does not have a relationship with the client. it’s almost 100 per cent fail, because we are effectively selling them and the client is going to say, “We’ll sort something locally. We are sure we can get that here.” It is a negotiation culture and a value culture, and it is almost as if they are saying, “Don’t force my hand by specifying only one thing, having only one source for this.” It is kind of an unwritten rule.’ He added that Portland tends to specify at least three different products, but when it believes only one will do the job, ‘We are effectively in a position of risk because when we say there is no choice there is very heavy scrutiny for that product to perform. It puts us under the spotlight. It is very important for us to be able to say, for example, “not only is this is a great light, but this is really good person for you to work with as a partner as they are here in the market and they can service you and maintain you.” It’s a very service-driven culture.’
And contractors and project managers are very thorough when it comes to checking the specification – to some extent finding savings at this level is part of their remit to the client.
As Ken Giannini pointed out in relationship to one scheme Scott Brownrigg is working on, ‘The contractor says, “Show them the pretty pictures of what you think the product should look like, but don’t worry about the actual brand or products – at the end of the day, we will go out and source something that looks like that.” So we don’t actually have a real choice.
‘I think part of the problem is that many of the projects are design-and-build. I believe this is across a lot of sectors. So for contractor-led projects, once they get past winning the actual contract, and have their design people on board, they are then into effectively maximising their margins.’ Items which tend to come in for particular scrutiny are the non-technological – the manufacturing capability doesn’t exist for advanced technical items; heavy items, due to the cost of import; items that are specified in high numbers for large and roll-out projects, and of course, pretty much anything that can be made locally.
‘We worked for one very large hotel chain and everything was manufactured locally [for a five-star hotel].We went to a back street, to a place no larger than this room and they were manufacturing the bar we had specified,’ said Martin Hawthornthwaite. ‘ It was supposed to be backlit, illuminated etched glass, and laser cut, and there was a guy welding it together. It was bent and rusty and we asked him “Is this a prototype?”.' It turned out to be the finished article.’
‘For the same client,’ Hawthornthwaite continues, ‘we did his house and everything was imported! They recognize the quality, but when it comes to a commercial projects, something that has to make money, they do everything locally.’
Gensler’s Tony Wilks agreed, adding: ‘We work with a lot of major high-street brands and the finishes of the facias and graphics and that kind of thing is really bad. It would never pass over here – it would be thrown out at the first stage.’
While agreeing that this happens all the time, KI’s Jonathan Hindle pointed out that some clients are well aware of it and are trying to address the problem ,and that manufacturers, designers and architects have a role to play in helping them: ‘I think you have two distinct camps there. The more established, wealthier clientele in the Gulf are having problems with contractors dumbing down the whole process, so much so that many of the tenders that we are now receiving specifically stipulate that the product must come from Europe or the USA or “must not be Asian”, in a conscious effort to maintain quality. The clients are trying to take control.’
He added that projects he’d been involved with came down to issues of quality, and not price ‘at the last knockings’. ‘There is still a great emphasis on quality, but I don’t think they know how to control that,’ he said. ‘Often they lose control for the reasons that we have mentioned already. You have to be able to understand enough of the pitfalls to stay with the process, or it is down to a good architect to explain the need for them to hang on to that quality and ring-fence some of those items.’
Lewis Allen also pointed out that local sourcing had a positive side as well, adding: ‘As a specifier, you do have an empathy with sourcing locally. It’s a good principle from the environmental point of view and supporting the local economy.’
But he was well aware of its limitations as well, and overall the impression of the Middle East market is definitely that the final project often suffers because there is a pervasive feeling that things need to be bought economically and delivered very quickly, all of which mitigates against quality.
Who is the client?
Getting the right brief and knowing exactly what the client wants are, as any designer and architect will tell you, vital to delivering a successful project. The way things are set up in the Middle East this rarely happens, unfortunately. There is invariably an intermediate layer between client and designer that has to interpret what the client wants, and what the designer intends – inevitably things get lost in translation.
‘Very often, the person you are talking to is not the person paying the cheques,’ says Lewis Allen. ‘So you are dealing with a team that is managing you. Everything you do is being mediated and you are relying on their good judgement.’
Andrew Black, added: ‘You’re dealing with the client’s third-party representative and you know sometimes that they are not the right person. They will sign something off, and then what happens three months down the line is anybody’s guess!’ That could well be the point when the client walks in and, with a wave of the hand, says they’re not keen and everything has to start over again.
‘One of the biggest challenges we face is who is actually the client?’ said Doug Smith. ‘As designers we often have an interface not with the client per se, but with another group that sits below them.’
While much of the discussions centred around the Middle East, Africa, which was also on the agenda, didn’t take up a great deal of time. When it did get mentioned, Libya was singled out as the place where ‘the opportunities are immense’.
The consensus was that the continent is not yet developed enough to have true economic potential as far as the design industry is concerned. It is geographically huge, but financially poor. The issues surrounding corruption and nepotism in the awarding of contracts are also pretty much insurmountable at the moment in many African countries. That said, South Africa and a number of North African countries were singled out – Nigeria, Morocco, Angola – as having potential and indeed, some manufacturers are already establishing a presence there.
But, as mentioned, it was Libya that most were seriously considering working in and it’s a place where the Brits have an edge over the Americans because of past historical issues.
Getting a visa has become easier, though may require a little local knowledge and you have to be invited into the country. Doug Smith of TP Bennett recalled one project his company had been invited to tender for that simply ground to a halt because some of the others companies due to tender had not been able to get visas. He added: ‘The thing to remember about Libya is that it has not been able to spend money for a long time [because of trade embargoes], so the potential there is enormous. It is a scary place, but the opportunities are immense!’
• Lewis Allen-Director of environments, Portland
• Ricardo Ares - Director, Whitelaw Turkington
• Andrew Black - CEO, The Interiors Group
• Karen Burt - Global accounts director, InterfaceFlor
• Theresa Dowling - Chair of seminar, and editor of FX
• Ken Giannini - UK Trade & Industry/BCFA
• Sue Graves - Director, Whitelaw Turkington
• Martin Hawthornthwaite - CEO, Reed Hawthornthwaite
• Jonathan Hindle - Managing director, KI
• Peter Massey - Director of 100% Design
• Jonathan Reed-Lethbridge - Design liaison, Ergonom (Molteni Group)
• Cherrill Scheer - Director, CSA Associates
• Julian Seward - Director, Swanke Hayden Connell
• Doug Smith - Principal director, TP Bennett
• Ian Stanton - Sales director, iGuzzini
• Tony Wilks - Graphics & branding, Gensler
• Peter Vaughan - Director, Broadway Malyan
• This Design Seminar was held against a chaotic backdrop of the volcanic ash. Many guests who were expected to be back in London to participate were stranded abroad, and those that had sent their apologies expecting to be out of the country, were still here! Just to further compound things, KI, which had generously offered its showroom for the two days of discussion, had a major flood! Scott Brownrigg stepped up to the plate and offered to host the seminars at the last minute. Sincere thanks to both Scott Brownrigg and KI which provided the much-appreciated wine and refreshments.
This article was first published in FX Magazine.
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