HKS’ Hospitality Designer Leader Luis Zapiain Left his Comfort Zone and Found His Calling

The future looked promising from Luis Zapiain’s private office at a mid-rise in Colonia Nápoles, a sophisticated mid-century enclave in Mexico City. Zapiain had followed in his father’s footsteps and graduated with an architecture degree in 1995 from one of Mexico’s most prestigious universities. He knew there would be a place for him at the design firm founded by his father, Luis Zapiain Lechuga, a renowned architect specializing in health care design.

The younger Zapiain believed he was doing good work, designing hospitals and clinics alongside other architects who treated the 25-year-old deferentially because he was the boss’ son. A year and a half after Zapiain joined the firm, his father walked into his office with an announcement.

“I’m going to do you a favor,” he said. “I’m going to fire you.”

The elder Zapiain feared his son was strolling down an easy path in life, to the detriment of his character. He told the young man that he needed to go work for somebody else.

The confounded son collected his things and didn’t speak to his father for a couple of weeks. When they finally reconnected, Zapiain Lechuga gave his son the name of a friend at HKS in Dallas and suggested he inquire about a job there.

“I can tell you, nearly 25 years later, that it was the right choice,” Zapiain said about being fired from his father’s firm. “Thinking back, I was a young, immature person. I was not able to separate my dad being my boss from my dad being my dad.”

Luis Zapiain and his architect father, also named Luis Zapiain, pose for a photo in 1988, when the younger Zapiain was getting ready to start architecture school.

After leaving his father’s firm, Zapiain maneuvered for a job at HKS, rising up the ranks from a rookie production designer to one of the firm’s hospitality directors. Since joining HKS in 1997, Zapiain has designed stunning resorts in his native Mexico, moved across the Atlantic to start a hospitality design practice during an economic recession and crisscrossed the globe to craft memorable destinations for travelers.

But before all that, Zapiain was a newcomer stepping outside his father’s shadow for the first time. He recalled how his life and career changed in that first week at HKS and the moment he realized he had to follow orders and not resist them like he sometimes did with his father.

“I remember the moment someone said, ‘Hey, you’re doing this, this and that.’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir,’” said Zapiain, who lives in Dallas.

A Heart for Architecture

Raised by an architect father and an interior decorator mother in cosmopolitan Mexico City, Zapiain naturally gravitated toward design and the arts. His mother, María de la Luz, would pick him up from school and let him tag along to houses she was decorating. His family often dined in Mexico City’s posh La Condesa neighborhood and visited the museums lining Paseo de la Reforma, the wide, tree-lined avenue that runs through downtown Mexico City. On Saturdays, Zapiain’s mother took him to classical music concerts at the imposing National Auditorium, which also sat along the avenue.

When Zapiain expressed interest in becoming an architect, his father asked him to take an aptitude test to confirm his interest was genuine and not a choice of convenience. His results pointed to a career in the arts, and the younger Zapiain took that as another sign that architecture was the right decision for him. Once enrolled at Universidad Iberoamericana, Zapiain discovered that being his father’s son was “a double-edged sword”: the architecture professors who liked his father treated him all right, while those who disliked the elder Zapiain took it out on the son.

After his father fired him, Zapiain flew to Dallas to interview for a job at HKS headquarters, then located at the Plaza of the Americas office building.  When he arrived at the reception desk for his appointment, he asked for his father’s contact at the firm.  A receptionist told him that the man he had made plans to see was traveling.

“I went down to the building lobby, totally distraught, and I didn’t know what to do,” Zapiain said.

He looked up and noticed the HKS sign, which listed the firm’s principals. Zapiain spotted a name he recognized: Ralph Hawkins, then the director of the firm’s health care group and a future HKS CEO who was one of his father’s friends.

“Hey, what about Ralph Hawkins?” Zapiain recalled asking the receptionist.

Incredulous, the woman replied: “Who are you?”

Zapiain handed his business card to the assistant, who went to find Hawkins. Less than five minutes later, Hawkins emerged.

“Luis, what are you doing here?” he said.

Zapiain explained that he was looking for a job and was ushered to Hawkins’ office. HKS offered him an entry-level position in the production department, working on construction documents. Though the firm agreed to sponsor Zapiain’s work visa, HKS’ human resources department was so small at the time that Zapiain had to manage the paperwork himself.

After his visit with Hawkins, Zapiain flew back to Mexico City and got ready for the move with another young architect, Ricardon Rondón, who would later become a design director in the HKS Mexico office. The friends loaded up Zapiain’s Opel Corsa mini-car and set off toward Dallas.

Fresh Start in Dallas

Zapiain’s first project was the Dr Pepper headquarters in Plano.

“I had a great project manager who put up with my very little technical English,” said Zapiain, who is a registered architect in Mexico and whose work is reviewed by architects licensed in the U.S. “I knew how to speak English, but conversationally, not technically.”

Supervisors noticed his initiative and began giving Zapiain occasional design opportunities. Zapiain landed with the firm’s emerging hospitality design group, which he helped found alongside Nunzio DeSantis, Jeff Jensen, Mike Menefee, Eddie Abeyta and Daron Andrus. Zapiain started working closely with Jensen, who is now an HKS principal and a senior designer in the hospitality sector.

“I remember being under some pretty intense deadlines in those days, and Luis and Ricardo would stay up in the office on weekends and put in a lot of overtime in order to meet the deadlines,” Jensen said.

Zapiain had been accustomed to a different scene in Mexico City, where his then-colleagues — his father’s employees — would encourage him to go home after closing while they stayed behind to finish a project.

Zapiain joined Jensen’s team working on Las Ventanas Al Paraíso, a luxury seaside resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The project was a success, serving as a launchpad for HKS’ hospitality practice. The firm steered clear from trendy glass boxes, preferring to root resort designs in the culture, topography and climate of each destination. Las Ventanas’ simple elegance and charm — its thatched roofs, white stucco walls and curving lines tracking the coast — became the hospitality group’s calling card.

“It was a contemporary project, but very Mexican at the same time,” Zapiain said.

For a couple of years after Las Ventanas opened in 1997, Zapiain spent most of his time at HKS working on resort projects in his homeland. In 2001, he was in Dallas when he met another Mexican architect, a recent college graduate from Monterrey named Sergio Saenz, who was interviewing for a job at HKS. Zapiain gave a Saenz a tour of the Dallas headquarters.

“Luis was extremely well put together,” Saenz recalled. “He was really well dressed, not a single wrinkle in his pressed shirt or tie. His hair was combed back.”

Saenz was impressed by Zapiain’s poise and welcoming presence and ended up accepting a job offer from HKS. Saenz and Zapiain sat next to each other at HKS’ Dallas headquarters and struck up a camaraderie. That relationship evolved into an abiding friendship and mentorship when Zapiain stepped in to help Saenz with a high-profile resort project for which Saenz was struggling to deliver a plan that the client would approve.

“It was incredible for me to see how gracious he was, and how forthcoming he was to share the information with me and not to try to take credit by any means,” Saenz said. “And that is the essence of who he is as a person and as an architect.”

“It was incredible for me to see how gracious he was, and how forthcoming he was to share the information with me and not to try to take credit by any means,” Saenz said. “And that is the essence of who he is as a person and as an architect.”

Off to London

By the mid-2000s, HKS’ flourishing hospitality practice was working on projects in North Africa and the Middle East. HKS transferred Zapiain to its London office so he could launch a hospitality studio there.

Zapiain arrived in London the summer of 2008. By the fall, many jobs at HKS and beyond had evaporated because of the economic recession.

“Nunzio called me and said, ‘Things are so difficult here; you are going to have to figure things out on your own there, my friend,’” Zapiain said.

Left to his own devices, Zapiain put a positive spin on the situation, telling himself that the only place to go now was up.

Zapiain began knocking on doors in Europe and discovered that HKS did not have the name recognition there that it did in the Americas. He said it took him years to wash away misconceptions about “North American” design not being as sophisticated as that of European destinations.

Once Zapiain began to win work for the firm, he and HKS went through growing pains as they learned to navigate cultural nuances in their dealings with clients from Morocco, Egypt, France, Italy and other countries. On one occasion, HKS’ quality control team asked him to deliver a thick set of architectural specifications for a project in Morocco, though Zapiain feared the document would be rejected because those details are usually incorporated into construction drawings in countries other than the United States. When Zapiain arrived at the Moroccan site with the specifications, a hulking French project manager grabbed the book and threw it at Zapiain’s feet, punctuating the gesture with a curse word.

Another time, Zapiain met with a client for another Moroccan project. The man walked in with specific demands, but Zapiain, accustomed to clients’ general willingness to entertain different ideas, suggested a different course of action. The man, indignant that he had been challenged, left the office in a huff. HKS eventually courted the client back, but for a while the man didn’t want to talk to Zapiain, the architect recalled.

“You have to learn those intricacies,” Zapiain said. “That’s the beauty of the job we do.”

Saenz and Jensen said Zapiain’s humility, authenticity and affable personality set him apart from many other architects whose job it is to woo clients. Hoteliers learn to trust Zapiain because he shows a genuine interest in building a personal relationship with clients rather than a transactional one, Saenz said.

“Relationships are not about a sale,” Saenz said. “Relationships are about sharing with one another and trusting one another and making sure we become our client’s partner as much as a partner to the rest of the design consultants.”

Traits of a Leader

In 2016, Zapiain moved back to Dallas to be closer to his stepchildren and their kids in North Texas and to his parents in Mexico City.

Zapiain said his father had thought that he would return home after a few years away and rejoin the firm in Mexico City. But, Zapiain said, life just didn’t work out that way.

“Things kept going well, and sometimes when the train is moving forward, it’s hard to stop and go back,” Zapiain said. “Sometimes I wonder what would have been, but it’s never good to dwell on that.”

Zapiain, a Principal and Global Practice Director, Hospitality, is part of a Hospitality practice leadership team that also includes three other principals: Saenz, who is based in Miami; Kevin Underwood, who is based in London; and Mary Alice Palmer, director of hospitality interiors, based in Dallas.

The practice continues to excel at resort design but has also expanded its upscale urban hotel portfolio with projects such as the Omni and Grand Hyatt hotels in Nashville; Loews hotels near ballparks in Arlington, Texas, and St. Louis, Missouri; and HALL Arts, a boutique hotel in downtown Dallas’ Arts District.

Saenz said he tries to model his own leadership after Zapiain’s style. He recalled asking Zapiain’s advice when Saenz was transferred to Miami to lead the hospitality studio there. Zapiain told his friend that his job was no longer to be the star designer of every project but to bring out the best in everyone working for him.

“When he and I went to architecture school, it was all about the individual; it’s your project, your design,” Saenz said. “You’re having to do everything for yourself. And you’re taught throughout your education that not only can you do it all, you should do it all. Only to come out into practice, into your professional career, to realize that nothing could be further from the truth. I have been truly fortunate to find a person who not only do I consider a friend but a true partner.”

Jensen, Zapiain’s mentor throughout his career at HKS, said he has long shown the traits of a good leader, such as empathy and fairness.

“Sometimes you get lucky in life, and I would say that having Luis stumble in from Mexico and somehow end up with me on my work was a fortuitous situation,” Jensen said. “If I had to do it again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. He’s one of a kind.”