Brand strategy by design

Milan-bred, New York City resident Michele Caniato brings his decades of making connections among design industry leaders to his role at sbe

Michele Caniato of powerhouse hospitality company sbe wears many hats while he works with leading professionals in a staggering array of creative fields. In his role as sbe’s Chief Brand Officer, he is responsible for establishing a cohesive identity for each of the brands in sbe’s impressive portfolio, which continues to grow as sbe has acquired other hotel properties. The Mondrian and Delano, for instance, were added with sbe’s purchase of Morgans Hotel Group in 2016 that more than doubled the number of the company’s hotel property holdings. And more are still to come in the near future. Here the Milan native, who is based in New York City (sbe’s headquarters are in Los Angeles, where founder Sam Nazarian resides), explains how to balance the global with the local, how he forges partnerships and collaborations with some of the biggest names and brands in culture, design, food, and travel, and why that all adds up to memorable experiences for sbe’s guests.

Please share a bit about your background.
While I’ve only worked at sbe for 18 months, I’ve worked closely with sbe and its Founder & CEO Sam Nazarian for the last 15 years. I’ve been in the design and hospitality world my entire career in different forms and am proud to now be working directly with sbe as Chief Brand Officer to create incredible 360-degree experiences for guests through sbe’s 40 brands across hotels, nightlife, and restaurantsPrior to joining sbe, I was the President and Co-Founder of Culture+Commerce, the country’s leading design management agency and strategic design consultancy. There, I finalized strategic licensing and design collaborations between Kravitz Design and CB2, Starck and Target, Dror Benshetrit and TUMI, Paola Navone and Crate & Barrel, and was instrumental in the licensing expansion of Fred Segal. I was also President and co–founder of Material ConneXion, where I grew the company to be one of the design industry’s key resources in the world of materials and technologies. During my time there we expanded from our original office in New York to having a global presence in more than 29 international locations.

How has your experience in the hospitality industry been different than in other sectors?
The hospitality industry is constantly moving and growing, so the speed in which projects and decisions are made is much faster. It’s very satisfying to see the results of your decisions and efforts so quickly. My current position also allows me to work in many different areas across the business, including communications, events, branding, and partnerships.

Mondrian Park Avenue NYC
Mondrian Doha

How do you balance global consistency and identity across the various sbe hotel brands, while developing some degree of local feel when marketing each property?
sbe has created brand and service standards across our hotels, restaurants, and nightlife to ensure consistency around the world. In addition, each brand has its own unique identity that sets it apart from the rest. SLS offers a 21st Century playful reinterpretation of the classic grand hotel experience, offering an irresistible combination of style, luxury, service, creativity and community, while Mondrian oozes ground-breaking design, and takes inspiration from each city it resides.
Having distinct brands allows us to bring the right brand to the right project and market every time.

What are some of the biggest challenges in hospitality branding?
Hospitality is a global market that operates across disparate cultures with different customs and tastes. In this environment it is crucial for brands to maintain their identity so they are recognised across markets, while making sure they appeal to local audiences. This is where design becomes key – the creative vision of a designer can tap into the nuances of a destination’s culture. Our Mondrian Doha hotel, for example, was designed by Marcel Wanders who drew inspiration from Arabic history to create patterns and calligraphy motifs throughout every inch of the hotel. We have 25 hotels in our pipeline and it is my team’s job to ensure that our iconic brands like SLS, Mondrian and Delano maintain their own unique identity that engages with local tastes and cultures, while retaining the 360-degree experience that defines all sbe properties. Every guest touch point is critical to their overall experience, so we have even gone as far as to create signature scents for our brands as well as curated luxury bath amenity lines called Ciel and Ciel Reserve which we are now introducing at each of our properties.

How does collaborating with architects and designers such as Marcel Wanders and David Rockwell inform the process and your work?
Design is an important part of our DNA and a critical part of the overall experience we provide for our guests. From the beginning, we’ve collaborated with visionary partners such as Philippe Starck, who has designed 12 of our current hotel portfolio and all Katsuya restaurants around the world, as well as Marcel Wanders, Yabu Pushelberg, Piero Lissoni, Lenny Kravitz’s Kravitz Design, DesignAgency, and David Rockwell. Together, we’re creating worlds and enhancing the overall guest experience.

Which recent projects have been particularly exciting for you?
sbe’s philosophy is all about creating a destination. Look at the recently opened SLS Baha Mar – it is a truly spectacular destination that embodies our 360-degree ethos and we are thrilled to be partnering with Graeme Davis, President of Baha Mar, and his team to bring something new and innovative to the Bahamas. SLS Baha Mar is a hotel with incredible design, award-winning culinary concepts such as Cleo, Katsuya, and Fi’lia, and unmatched nightlife and entertainment options including Bond, Privilege, and Skybar, the first-ever rooftop bar in Nassau. Baha Mar’s shared world-class amenities complete the luxury experience with guest access to the beach and pools, the Caribbean’s largest casino, 18-hole Jack Nicklaus signature designed golf course, and a flagship ESPA spa.

What cities interest you most lately?
European cities like Milan will always interest me, and not just because I’m from there. Milan, for example, is an important target for us because it’s the capital of fashion and design – same goes for New York. Additionally, Mexico City is increasingly becoming a very interesting city for us. We currently have over 15 projects in the pipeline and are excited to play a key role in the vibrant city.

Katsuya Baha Mar
Katsuya Baha Mar

Photo credits: courtesy of sbe