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Inside view: groundbreaking work on hotels in China

By Rebecca Lo (China Daily)

09:16, May 03, 2012

Top: Chinese landscaped carp pool garden in the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou. Above: The lobby of Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. Photos provided to China Daily

US design pioneer reveals groundbreaking work on hotels in China, reports Rebecca Lo

More than two decades ago, before international hotel operators headed to the growing Chinese market like bees to honey, there was an establishment in Guangzhou that many considered to be the epitome of luxury accommodation in the country.

The fame of the White Swan Hotel, built on Shamian Island in the capital of Guangdong province, was partly thanks to interior designer Robert Bilkey.

"The hotel was put together by these pre-revolutionary guys working as architects," recalls Bilkey, who at the time was with the Los Angeles-headquartered hotel design firm Hirsch Bedner Associates. "They had never dealt with a Western international hotel before. Instead of using carpet stretchers, I'd see guys on the floor pulling on broadloom by hand. That was the way the mainland was in the 1980s."

Born in St. Louis and educated in Colorado, Bilkey arrived in China by way of Las Vegas. He worked for Howard Hughes on legendary hotels such as the original Sands, Desert Inn and Frontier. Then Hughes died and Bilkey found his work pipeline drying up. A supplier suggested that he talk to HBA.

"I spoke with (the late) Howard Hirsch and started in 1978," he says. "Less than two months later, I flew to Hong Kong with the mission of closing down its office there."

The Hong Kong office was the first branch HBA opened outside the United States. It did not work out as intended, though, and Bilkey was given the unpleasant task of chalking up the venture as a failure. Instead, he went immediately to a cocktail party upon landing and chatted with a few owners and developers. Within a week, he had contracts for two Macao hotels secured.

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