Graham O’Donnell and Ann-Marie O’Neill, creative directors of O Donnell O Neill Design, were awarded the prestigious Fit Out Leader Award, at the Fit Out Awards 2021. Here, Graham O’Donnell and Ann-Marie O’Neill talk to Hospitality Ireland about current projects, winning the award, and how Covid is likely to influence hospitality interiors.
How has the last year been for your business?
The last 20 months have been really challenging for everyone – and, in particular, for those in the hospitality sector – and this includes us, as designers. In the early months of the 2020 lockdown, we had to make some difficult decisions to protect the business, and design by remote working has been challenging for us. That said, we have a strong client base, who have kept us busy. As we approach the end of 2021, we are more encouraged that we will be heading into a vibrant and busy period, and we have invested in new staff members, systems and structures, to hit 2022 running.
What does it mean to you to win this [Fit Out Leader] award?
We see ourselves as quite humble designers, and we are not very good at submitting for awards or singing our own praises. This award means a lot because, unlike other award categories, it was made at the discretion of the judges for recipients that have made a leading contribution to the sector. It’s sometimes nice to get awards that are not for a specific project, and are more a reflection of all our designers’ hard work over the years.
What projects are you currently working on?
We are currently on site with a number of projects. The Dean Galway is due to partially open this December, as is the Circle Club in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, and also Mama Yo, a dynamic Asian restaurant on Camden Street. We are working on a boutique hotel on Mount Street – on the site of the former Howl at the Moon – opening in the spring of 2022, and next year we have the Hotel Westport and a newbuild five-star hotel in County Meath, both starting on site in January. We are also looking forward to getting on site with a rooftop restaurant on the Clerys building, scheduled to open in late 2022, which is really exciting.
What ways will Covid influence design within the hospitality sector?
It’s really difficult to know how it will influence design, but we do have to design responsibly, to consider our clients’ patrons’ safety and their comfort. Certainly, short-term, flexible table plans – to allow space between groups in the event of legislated social distancing – will be a factor, creating snugs/booths and great outdoor spaces – and very much part of our design vocabulary, anyway – and air filtration systems and ventilation will become more of a factor. The hospitality sector has proved itself to be really adaptable in terms of table service, but for publicans, seating and ordering at bar counters is the still the biggest issue we see.
What is the most challenging aspect of your business at the moment?
Brexit has proved a major challenge in the design and construction sector, and we are finding serious issues with procurement and logistics as a result. We have found remote working somewhat challenging, as interior design is very much a hands-on, collaborative process with our designers. Like every business, operational costs are continually rising, and managing this and making our project work profitable can be quite challenging.
What is the most rewarding aspect?
We have an amazing team of creative talent at O Donnell O Neill, and we are so lucky with the internal dynamic of our practice, and, for us, this is most rewarding. We are very passionate about hospitality design and see ourselves as very fortunate to be working in this exciting sector, where we can not only see our finished work enjoyed by others, but we also go out and socialise in most of our work ourselves!
What do you think is the state of the hospitality industry in Ireland at this time?
We have very close relationships with many of our clients in the hospitality industry. Notwithstanding the Covid restrictions, it’s a very challenging time for them, particularly with regard to rising operational costs, unsustainable rents, high VAT rates, spurious insurance claims, and the insufficient pool of quality staff in the sector. The sector is resilient, but there is no doubt it will be survival of the fittest, and there will be casualties before it all gets exponentially better.
Are you noticing anything unusual, i.e. different kinds of projects, investments, etc.?
There are a lot of offshore investment/capital funds coming into the sector – acquiring hotels and bars, particularly – and this is bringing both new opportunities and challenges. Whilst we do not specialise in residential or office work, we are involved in some high-end co-work and RESI projects that have innovative social/common areas, where the brief is for hospitality-style solutions for their end users, and includes restaurants, cafes, roof terraces, socialising/communal spaces, gyms, etc.
What kinds of trends are you seeing within the industry?
Hopefully, we are trendsetters, and not trend followers, but we are definitely influenced by what we see globally, and what styles, offers and concepts are out there. We are lucky to have a number of clients and projects in the USA, and travelling when we can definitely allows us to experience new trends first-hand. Despite fashionable trends, design for hospitality, at its core, needs to be considered, desirable, atmospheric, and tailored for the type of building, its context, and the demographic that it has been designed for.
What kinds of changes do you expect within the next year or two?
As we exit this Covid era, we will hopefully see the return of a vibrant and revitalised hospitality sector. I do believe we will have become more cautious, and our choices for going out will be more planned and our decisions less impromptu, and premises will have to cater even more towards a bookable, forward-planning experience. We will see more of our indigenous multiple operators increasing their stable of premises and offers, and there will definitely be more of the established multinational hotel/restaurant brands entering the Irish market. Good Irish operators are, for the most part, very adaptable and open to making changes when needed, to maximise the potential of their business.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in December of 2021.