David Kepron is the founder of NXTLVL Experience Design, Retail (r)Evolution, LLC and a former VP of Global Design Strategies at Marriott International. In his role as a strategy and experience design consultant, Kepron brings years of retail and hospitality expertise to the making of meaningful customer connections at brand-experience places around the globe. David is also an international speaker at corporate events and international conferences focusing on CX, digital transformation, retail, hospitality, and emerging technology. Kepron is also part of the LIV Hospitality Design Awards jury panel.
Do you mind sharing your professional story? How did you start working in Design and brand experience?
I guess the best way to describe my professional trajectory would be to draw an analogy between the main character in “The Alchemist”, by Paulo Coelho, in that I followed omens put on my path. I’ve always believed that putting yourself in the way of serendipity and being open to the possibility that, should she smile upon you leading you to different worlds of opportunity, you should simply say ‘yes’ and follow a new route to a place of wonder.
From an early age, I’ve always been energized by creativity and making things. I never actually planned to end up in the world of architecture and so it was a bit of a circuitous route. Prior to architecture, I studied psychology and biology mainly because my grades weren’t strong enough to get me into architecture school. I nevertheless persisted and took electives in architecture and when, upon leaving home to register for my last year of psychology, the architecture school at McGill University called saying there was a ‘no show’ at registration and wanted to know if I would be interested in changing majors I naturally said… yes.
Throughout architecture school, my main love was design, drawing and painting. While doing my courses, I continued to work as a freelance illustrator and teacher at local colleges in Montreal. Later on, while running the interior design program at College in INTERDEC at LaSalle College in Montreal, I had a fateful lunch with a friend who was offered an opportunity to go to Singapore to run the visual merchandising program at LaSalle International Fashion School. She had turned it down. I immediately said that I would love to go and two weeks later I was on a plane flying halfway around the world to a place that I had never been, to run a program that I actually had very little background knowledge or experience in, but I had the teaching experience and design knowledge and I was enthusiastic about the adventure.
A year later I returned to New York and gave myself two weeks to find a job in a design firm that focused on retail. Everything I loved doing came together in the world of retail design: Architecture, design, lighting, theatre, advertising, marketing, industrial design, fashion, etc. I was hooked. I immersed myself in the retail design world for the better part of 20 years creating store concepts for international brands around the world, teaching visual merchandising and store design at various universities in New York and Philadelphia, publishing a book called “Retail (R)Evolution: Why Creating Right-Brain Stores Will Shape The Future of Shopping in a Digitally Driven World” in late 1994 and finding myself on various industry boards to learn from others who I admired and to continue to instigate dialogue about the world of design and customer experience.
While on a speaking tour from my book in 2016, I was invited to give a keynote presentation at a conference that was held at a Marriott hotel in Washington DC. After giving my presentation I listened to another given by the former SVP of Global Design Strategies at Marriott, Karim Khalifa, that captured my imagination about the possibilities of taking my architecture and retail design experience and crossing a boundary into the hospitality industry.
Another serendipitous moment while passing the business development director of the Global Design group at Marriott in the elevator lobby after my speech, led to a discussion and me stepping aside from the retail path into the world of hotel design. Similar to my experience with ending up in Singapore, I was now leaping into an area of the unknown that presented fabulous challenges and an opportunity to continue to apply my passions, experience and skillsets to a different industry.
It was a very exciting time at Marriott International because shortly after my arrival, we acquired Starwood and 11 new brands. While I started working in the lifestyle select-service brands, I shifted to “Premium Distinctive” lifestyle brands including Westin, Renaissance, Le Meridien, Autograph Collection, Tribute Portfolio, Design Hotels and Gaylord hotels. There was considerable work to do to more clearly defined these brands that up until that point had been competing against each other but now we’re within the same family. We did a lot of work on recrafting design strategies and working with our international teams as well as rethinking the Westin guest room experience and a completely new approach to two hospitality public spaces. I decided in 2020 to step away from my role at Marriott to pursue other interests and then the pandemic befell all of us.
Another moment of serendipity, within the context of upheaval, left me deeply thinking through my career trajectory, where my passions really had the opportunity to thrive and what new path potentially lay ahead. I have focused the past 18 months on developing a consulting business that crosses between retail, hospitality and brand experience-making in general, creating a new podcast called the next NXTLVL Experience Design, writing book #2, and developing a commission-based art business, while at the same time continuing to consider opportunities that might best align with where my new thinking about what I really wanted to do could be fully leveraged.
For over 4 years, you have been the Vice-President, Global Design Strategies at Marriott International; what were your responsibilities?
As a VP-Global Design Strategies at Marriott International, my main responsibility was the creation of the strategic design direction for the brands in Marriott’s Distinctive Premium segment including Westin, Le Meridien, Renaissance, Autograph Collection, Tribute Portfolio, Design Hotels and Gaylord Hotels.
In that capacity, I and my team would provide a future vision for brand development in customer experience through architecture, interior design and brand activations on properties. In addition, I would coordinate with interior design teams and owners and design consultants to bring the design vision to life. This would include all aspects of design strategy with the intention of aligning with the established brand ideology, bringing to life key brand principles in properties globally.
A key component of this was to create Design Foundation documents and coordinate their understanding with all Global Design Continent groups as well as external design teams, owners and developers to ensure appropriate design solutions to new builds, renovations and hotel conversions.
You have now founded the company called “NXTLVL Experience Design”, can you please share with us the core activities and services provided by your firm?
My new consultancy brings together more than 25 years in traditional architecture, interior design, retail design and hospitality design to work with companies creating relevant, empathically focused, brand experience places that foster community and lasting relationships between brands and customers.
NXTLVL takes its decidedly future-forward view integrating a deep understanding of emerging technologies, the neuroscience of guest experience and a fascination with social anthropology into the design of purpose-driven and meaningful places.
(Design with purpose and meaning will be table stakes for an emerging travelling cohort. They will want the residual emotion of an experience to have supported a regenerative mindset and the knowing that they have done good, for themselves as well as the ecology.
All design is about change. Innovative design is about transformation. It reimagines not just how something looks but how it works, and how it changes the process of doing something. In the best case, it results in better human outcomes. It deepens connections making lives better. At its core, great design is in the service of empathic extension. It’s a ‘what’s in it for the other guy’ mentality.)
What are you working on at the moment, and do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations that you’re able to tell us about?
Projects at the moment are quite varied. They include working with a mattress manufacturer to bring a new product to the hospitality market, working with a conglomerate of international architecture design firms, digital media companies and data visualization artists to rethink urban public places, a number of art commissions, the writing of my second book and my podcast NXTLVL Experience Design that focuses on “dialogues on DATA: Design, Architecture, Technology and the Arts.”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, public speaking engagements are beginning to come back and I will be venturing out a number of times over the next few months to do keynote speeches at conferences. Along this particular vector, I am collaborating on the development and implementation of a series of workshops and seminars with various industries that focus on “The Upside of Upheaval: Navigating Indefinite Uncertainty, Harnessing Impossibility, Calculating Unpredictability and Reorienting Resilience.” This is deeply needed now as we all recalibrate in the context of a continuing pandemic.
What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities in your career/industry now?
OK…Here’s the ‘manifesto’… Change is inevitable. Transformation is not.
This past year has been one of profound transformation; if you accepted the challenge to look into what we’re really the motivational underpinnings of your life and career trajectories. I have come to understand that a change to a growth/flexibility mindset and developing a compulsive curiosity are required to transform. To face the fear and do it anyway or, ‘to see with new eyes’ as Marcel Proust had said.
Embodied communities collapsed and re-emerged in virtual space. Brand engagement paradigms shifted and the exponential pace of change seemed to accelerate. Behaviours that had cycled in the eddies of our swiftly rushing lives moved directly into the mainstream.
The COVID pandemic has offered up opportunities amidst the isolation to embrace change, evaluate what matters most and make the courageous leap to transforming.
This is not about shape-shifting to accommodate new circumstances but a deeper, realignment of core meaning and sense of purpose. A re-evaluation of self, our context as a larger whole and how this moment provides a window into ‘what’s next’, a new view through Alice’s looking glass.
The community took on new meaning when we could no longer feel safe to act upon our biological imperative of being connected in social groups. Virtual space has only been a proxy for what we truly live for – physically-mediated empathic relationships and group belonging that provide purpose, meaning and context to our lives. In the absence of these embodied interactions, a longing has grown to get back to being in places where ‘our people’ collaborate in the sharing of experiences and ideas.
Expectations about brand engagements have metamorphosed, not just because of an emerging guests immersion in a digitally mediated marketplace, but also because of a renewed need to connect, to find community again, to make, dance around the fire, share stories and find commonality despite the complexity of our global culture.
Travel and hospitality experiences have been given a new message about what drives engagement in a ‘post-pandemic’ marketplace. If we will travel at all, we will look for an enhanced purpose in design. This will not just be about efficiency and health safety but that the design of places provides an opportunity for deep engagement in the community, allows for meaning in the meetings, and supports a need to find purpose in the personal commitment to go out and go far.
Design with purpose and meaning will be table stakes for an emerging travelling cohort. They will want the residual emotion of an experience to have supported a regenerative mindset and the knowing that they have done good, for themselves as well as the ecology.
All design is about change. Innovative design is about transformation. It reimagines not just how something looks but how it works, and how it changes the process of doing something. In the best case, it results in better human outcomes. It deepens connections making lives better. At its core, great design is in the service of empathic extension. It’s a “what’s in it for the other guy” mentality.
In a post-pandemic world, experiences infused with art and culture will lead to a share of a wallet. In a post-pandemic world, we will have to understand the ‘art’ of gathering in a whole new way. Making is inherently who we are. It is what separates us from the other creatures on the planet.
The process of ‘ontological design’ is crucial to understand a post-pandemic travel economy. Collaborating in experience-making, where customers have a role in making meaningful engagements, necessarily embeds deeper memories and enhances the likelihood of long-term relationships. A sense of agency leads to a felt sense of customer empowerment. The extent to which we co-opt the experience with guests is connected to their sense of authentic relationship with the brand and their desire to keep coming back.
A relationship with a hotel brand is about more than a good ADR or a ‘heavenly bed.’ It’s more than a great dinner or a ‘selfie moment.’ Given that we have all been sequestered at home over the past year, the idea of ‘home’ will figure prominently in the making of hospitality places for a post-pandemic travelling public.
I suspect that companies like AirBnB, Sonder, Vrbo and HomeAway will only continue to grow in market share since they represent a sense of the familiarity of home while also being unique location-to-location. Brands like Design Hotels, Selina, Regenerative Travel and Six Senses will also see growth because they tap into the idea that proactively doing good for the planet, and finding unique locations to do it in, makes people feel good about their commitment to go there.
Can you share your experience as a Jury Member of the LIV Design Awards? Any designs, or properties that have caught your eye?
What was great about being a jury member for the LIV Design Awards was exposure to the enormous creativity brought to bear on design solutions for hospitality around the world.
It always fascinates me how, with the same problem, there are so many potential unique solutions. Each of them addresses programmatic requirements, operational constraints and embedded brand ideologies, yet somehow, under the skilful watch of creative designers, these things come to light in magical ways. It was very inspiring.
Do you mind sharing what are your passions outside of the design world?
At my core, I believe I’m an artist, a maker of places and things and someone who believes deeply in the necessity for meaningful empathic relationships. This has led me to be fascinated with interpersonal neurobiology – what on a brain level makes us tick within the context of relationships. I see virtually everything through this filter of relationships and context.
I am fascinated with subjects that have to do with social anthropology – how we got here. I have recently read books like “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari, “A Brief History of Creation” by Bill Mesler and James Cleaves II, “At the Edge of Uncertainty” by Michael Brooks.
I love following the trajectory of immersive digital experience and technology. This area is fundamental to our understanding of how an emerging cohort of experience seekers will come to expect how brand engagements unfold whether they are retail stores or hotels or anyplace else where brands and brains connect. Science and discovery are large aspects of my search for understanding myself and the world around me. Transformative tech also fascinates me and I have enjoyed reading of people like Ray Kurzweil and others who postulate the potential outcomes of a digitally-enabled world and artificial intelligence. This may be because of watching Star Trek with my father and brothers years ago.
I love art (and music) and follow a plethora of artists on Instagram who I tap into every day for creative inspiration.
I am a long-time competitive athlete who for years did triathlons, skiing, baseball, and football in college and now I love road riding through the rolling hills of Maryland.
And most importantly my family – my two sons and my wife of 37 years – who every day act as mirrors and mentors inviting me into deeper authentic relationships, challenging my preconceptions and supporting my decision to not just stand at the edge of uncertainly but to take the step forward into discovery.