WORDS Sam Baker | PHOTOGRAPHY Tim Sugden / Provenance Hotel
Bashar Wali has spent his life creating an ever-evolving masterpiece, crafted from the dual perspective of the perpetual traveler and as a hotelier with an unmatched passion for designing the perfect guest experience. He came to the US in 1988 to study hotel management, and somewhere within the four years spent at Johnson and Wales University he fell in love with “the American Dream.” His journey to Portland came by way of business in 2003, and at some point upon that trip he decided to stay.
“Portland is home,” says Wali. “It has felt that way since day one.”
PI: As someone who has helped shape the landscape of the City of Roses, we’re going to talk design, but first we want to know; what’s a day in the life like?
BW: I wake up at 6 a.m. and have lots of caffeine. It’s not atypical to hit three cities and four airports in a day. Breakfast in Portland. Lunch in Chicago. Dinner in Miami.
PI: We’ve heard a rumor that you seldom stay in the same place twice when travelling.
BW: If I go to NYC for three nights, I move hotels three times. When I go to cities that have my hotels, I do the same thing. I want to keep my finger on the pulse of industry trends, so we can continue to innovate.
PI: What’s your favorite part of the day?
BW: Home. I wouldn’t be me without it. My wife, Eileen, my daughter Hana, and son Noah continue to inspire, surprise, and amaze me in so many ways.
PI: What is it about what you do that you love so much?
BW: creating transcendent experiences for people. This is greatly attributed to the fact that I come from a culture of service. Imagine the old movies where you are in the desert, and you come across a tent. You’re invited in for water to quench your thirst, meaningful conversation over tea, and all the while you’re sitting on comfortable pillows. You could never go to someone’s house where I grew up and not eat. It would be sacrilege. Even if you’ve just come in from dinner, you’re having a second dinner.
Making sure people are taken care of is a business that moves 24/7, 365. When people are having fun, we are working. New Year’s Eve, weddings, Christmas – we are working. The hustle, the bustle, the personalities, and the drama that comes from it all – I love everything about, it as counterintuitive as that may sound. It’s based on mutual respect. The Sentinel has “do unto others as you would have done unto you” chiseled in stone across the front of the building, and this is part of my personal and professional mantra.
PI: What inspires your personal and professional style of design?
BW: Open-minded travel is the source for both. There are so many talented people on Earth, practicing their arts on so many mediums. I don’t ever want to do things citing a reason such as “that’s how we’ve always done it,” so we celebrate innovation. I stay at anywhere from hostels to five-star hotels and everything in-between. You can be design savvy and have a sense of style regardless of what you spend. Style is who you are, and how you act. Fashion is trendy, style is timeless.
PI: What’s your approach to design?
BW: What has happened with design lately is like what has happened with some food. It’s become about shock-and-awe. A chef takes chocolate ice cream and adds buffalo heart and quail egg, because it’s shocking. It doesn’t taste good. Nobody cares.
Our approach is thoughtful and timeless. An example of thoughtful design could be as simple as the coffee maker in the room. If I buy a beautiful $2,000 faucet that is a piece of art for the hotel bathroom, and the coffeemaker doesn’t fit underneath it, we’ve failed. When it comes to design, we focus on humans, not awards. And as far as the timeless approach, we try to avoid trends. Our approach is thoughtful and timeless. One should be able to walk in to a hotel and have it feel it could be 1920 or 2020.
PI: What are your favorite elements to design from the traveler’s perspective?
BW: Comfort. Inspire me but don’t inconvenience me. I shouldn’t be forced to do human origami to get into bed. And of course, designing the service experience. It’s what really matters at the end of the day. I don’t take that beautiful midcentury chest home with me. What I do take is the memory of my experience and that comes from human interactions.
PI: What are your favorite elements of the building to design?
BW: Guest rooms are fun, and as a traveler I like to make them exceedingly comfortable, highly functional, and aesthetically pleasing. But our focus is on the social spaces where people interact and gather. I personally don’t want my guests to feel that they have to sit alone in their room while they work. I don’t want to imagine them having to eat a burger at their desk, feeling lonely. That’s why we design spaces that foster conversation. They may sit next to someone with whom they may or may not strike up a conversation, and meeting new people is part of the magic of travel.
PI: What is the most important element of a hotel?
BW: The soul. It’s not a something you can create. It comes through the culmination of hundreds of things, but ultimately it’s the people that are there. I’ve been in extravagant places that are beautiful, but felt soulless. It’s the intangible attraction. You feel good. You want to be there. We strive to create it, and it begins with happy employees. You should feel it when you’re blindfolded. It’s not about what you see. We want you to feel warm. Cocooned. Zen. My people should genuinely care about how your trip was as opposed to reading from some credo card. And they have to be emotionally intelligent.
PI: Is this part of being a “boutique” hotel?
BW: Well, first off, would you mind terribly if I took a moment to educate you on the nomenclature?
PI: No, no, no! Please, go right ahead!
BW: Well, the word boutique has become a useless, meaningless word, along with the likes of atelier, artisanal, curated, and intensely local. They have quite literally been overused by brands that are not these things to a point that they have lost their original meaning. The Indigo hotel by Intercontinental calls themselves boutique, and so do the Aloft hotels by Starwood. The word boutique started with department stores, where there is everything for everyone. Someone said, “I’m going to sell dresses only…maybe gowns for evening events,” and that boutique became an attraction for someone who sought it out.
What we like to say at Provenance is that we are independent. Many claim it, but few can actually live by it. Each hotel we have is different. Each one is its own. Each one has its own set of standards and rules. The best analogy is that our hotels are like siblings. They are all our children, and like children they have their own personalities. They are each brought up well in our family and like a family, the last name connects them.
PI: During the recession, Portland had amongst the highest unemployment rates of a major city in the country. How has tourism helped shape and build the city over the past decade?
BW: The anti-establishment and anti-corporate attitude of Portland has created unique experiences for people visiting the cities. We saw it blossom in the food and beverage industry, and thank God hotels have followed suit. People are seeking the rebellious attitude that allows Portland to proliferate innovation and design, and it gives them an experience that you can’t get in many places. Going through and past the recession Portland became a great place to be. You almost feel the city envy from other citizens when you say you’re from here.
PI: With more tourism, more hotels being built, and more people moving here, how do you feel about the overall growth of the city?
BW: I’m excited for Portland to become a primary city. Along with growth there are growing pains, so we have to be smart. Newcomers excite me because they bring diversity in many ways, but mostly of ideas and thought. I want to share this beautiful place with people who bring different experiences and perspectives.