Delve into Liz Lambert's transformative career as a hotelier, designer, and innovator, where she discusses crafting exceptional guest experiences and the future of the industry.
In today’s travel landscape, travelers are seeking more than just a place to rest their heads; they are craving experiences that leave a lasting impression, with wellness and sustainability at the forefront of their minds.
For episode two of the Skift Ideas Podcast, Colin Nagy sits down with renowned hotelier Liz Lambert for a candid conversation around creating unparalleled guest experiences.
With an illustrious career as a hotelier, designer, and innovator, Liz has left an indelible mark on the hospitality landscape whilst creating some of the most intriguing lifestyle hotels in the United States.
Join us as we explore Liz’s philosophies around creating a sense of place, the importance of community in hospitality, the innovations transforming the construction landscape, and what we can expect for the future of hospitality.
Colin Nagy: Hi everyone, welcome back to the Skift Ideas podcast. Thanks for tuning in. I’m Colin Nagy, and today I’m joined by a hospitality legend, Liz Lambert. She’s a partner at Lambert Maguire Design, a partner at MML Hospitality and was the founder of Bunkhouse Group. She is a visionary hotelier, a designer and innovator who has created some of the country’s best and most interesting lifestyle hotels.
Many of them are favorites of mine, and they’re known for their very distinctive design, uses of space and integration with the community. So I’m super, super happy to have Liz with us today.
Liz, thank you for joining.
Liz Lambert: Hi, Colin. So happy to be here.
Nagy: Cool. So I just wanted to tee off and kind of understand what you’re working on lately. You have your hand in many things, but just kind of set up the audience with what you are working on.
Lambert: Oh my god, so many things. It does seem like these days I’ve been really busy lately with doing all kinds of different things. You know, when I joined MML here a couple of years ago, we did our first hotel together, the Hotel St Vincent in New Orleans, and I’m continuing to work on that. We have a new general manager there and it’s been, it’s been really, really exciting to be in New Orleans and be doing a hotel that has so much such a big food and beverage component.
And it’s one of those hotels I feel like just gets better and better, the more layers we put on it.
Nagy: It’s one of your more ambitious projects in terms of scale, right? I mean, it’s a large, large undertaking. I mean, I remember I saw it in its earliest phases and I was kind of like stunned by how ambitious this was. And so it has to be some learning experiences and what you’ve been doing there.
Lambert: I mean, I think so. I think one of the things that’s different for me is , I have joined a company that was a food and beverage company to begin with. And I brought the hotel division here to the company. But they’re I mean, there’s so much talent here in food and beverage. And so we have, you know, three, three different food concepts there.
We’ve got I think, three different bars with a pool bar in the Chapel Club and Paradise Lounge. And so we do a lot of music programing and a lot of programing in general with the community. And so it’s in that that’s a little bit of a departure for me just to be so food and beverage heavy and such well done concepts.
And so yeah, that’s, it’s super exciting and you know, it is as, as all hotels are, it is a work in progress always. I’m also working these days on El Cosmico which I’m sure we’ll delve into a lot. We also have a couple of other hotels in development, the Mountain Chalet and Aspen, and we’re working in a hotel as part of a bigger development here in Austin on West Sixth Street and Blanco, it’s yet to have a name. It gets closer and closer, but the hotel is part of a development that will also include residential, retail and a lot of restaurants. And it’s, I think, 60 rooms, right around 60 rooms.
Nagy: You’ve always told me that you wanted to do a ski hotel or a mountain hotel. So it’s exciting to hear that that’s happening, right? Like, what’s that going to feel like? I mean, there’s so much opportunity space for what you do in an alpine environment, right? Because either you have the glitz and glamor of a St Regis or you have the sort of cheap and cheerful ski hotels.
But it seems like there’s room for a little bit more sensibility with that. Walk us through what the vision is there.
Lambert: Well, it’s an existing hotel that’s a fantastic place called the Mountain Chalet in Aspen. It’s right across from the rugby field there. The rooms are a bit small, and so that as a luxury hotel could be challenging, I suppose. But I think luxury these days has, you know, has an ever growing definition. And luxury doesn’t just mean what I think we used to think it meant in hotels.
I think now luxury can be personalized service, it can be adventure based. We’ll have a bathhouse spa there. In a ski town like Aspen and a mountain town like Aspen, where the summer is so beautiful and the winter is so beautiful, there’s almost endless opportunity to be a great concierge for the area.
Nagy: It is one of those rare mountain towns that people want to go to year round. And I would also imagine, given the FMB tie in that you guys are going to try to push the envelope a little bit. Now there’s Clarks which exists in Aspen, and then, you know, how are you guys thinking about this hotel in terms of F&B and it’s fine if it’s early, you know, no worries if the concept is not nailed down yet.
Lambert: Oh, no. But you know how hotels develop. If we didn’t have the concept nailed down by now, we’d be in serious trouble, right? We’re planning on having a Jefferies there at the hotel. We’ll also do a small sushi bar, and we’re going to have a restaurant that is an alpine restaurant, basically sort of modern Swiss. Our take on modern Swiss or on just Alpine Swiss.
So those are the three main restaurant concepts. We’ll also have a club up top called Ralph’s that I’m really excited about.
Nagy: Cool. Well, one of the big things that I wanted to talk about today is how you’re evolving El Cosmico, and, you know, El Cosmico has been a very interesting space. You know, Marfa far West Texas. It kind of was one of the most early incarnations of what we now call glamping, even though I think that that’s a little bit of a, you know, uncouth word these days.
Lambert: Yeah what is glamorous about camping?
Nagy: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, so you’ve put together beautiful like Airstream trailers. You put together this very kind of convivial environment and now it’s being evolved. So I wanted to kind of talk a little bit about what’s happening with El Cosmico and your partnership with Bjarke Ingels.
Lambert: Great. I’m very excited to talk about that because I’m right in the middle of it on a daily basis. Where do I start? Let’s see. You know, I’ve always, for years and years and years, I have wanted to get a chance to expand El Cosmico as it is. And that’s a little unfair to say because El Cosmico has always been a work in progress.
I mean, it is a hotel that I’ve wholly owned from the beginning, and it was, I mean, a laboratory, an experiment, whatever you might want to call it, from the get go. Meaning we started with a pasture and a couple of trailers, and I’ve tried different things over the years, as we’ve grown with whatever money we’ve made, we’ve always put back into the property.
And I guess like when we finally got to the point of, you know, enough trailers and tents to actually call it a hotel or actually open the doors and start having people in to stay. From those early days on, I knew that we needed to have more rooms to really make the model work, and there was always more I wanted to do it El Cosmico, so I really wanted a big spectacular pool, one that was part of the part of the draw to come, you know, like camp out and have a bathhouse and an opportunity to swim and lay under the stars next to the water. We’ve always wanted a restaurant there. Marfa has been challenged over the years as it’s a hard place to do business for lots of reasons.
One is that it’s a small town in far west Texas, and so we always wanted a restaurant at the property, and maybe most importantly, we wanted a bigger opportunity to have workshops, whether they be ceramics or arts and crafts or welding or yoga. We’ve always wanted to do a bigger place that would feel a little bit more like an adult summer camp.
And so we were pretty challenged on the site we were on. So I’ve always, let’s see, we’ve wanted for years to do it and I’ve tried to explore different ways to do it. And I’ve kind of gotten to the point over the last couple of years that we knew we had to expand to make the business actually work in Marfa, and it was part of that exploration that led me to ICON and to Bjarke Ingels.
I didn’t go out and pursue BIG, Bjarke, or ICON for that matter, but when we sort of stumbled upon each other, it was a very, very happy meeting.
Nagy: So to add some context here, Bjarke Ingels is the Danish kind of super visionary architect and ICON, is the Austin based 3D printing company, and they’ve teamed up with you to create something particularly interesting, which is the natural, interesting evolution of El Cosmico which seems like it’s something out of 2070. A futuristic vision. And first of all, what I think is important for our listeners to understand is the emotional resonance that West Texas has for you.
So help us understand a little bit of that. And then also, you know, how that has informed, where you’re taking the new vision, because this isn’t some fly by night residential development. This is ambition that’s also born out of love and understanding of a space. So I think that’s what I want you to kind of explain to us a little bit more.
Lambert: Well, West Texas is where I’m from. You know, my family has ranched out there for generations. And I grew up spending my summers at a town close to Marfa, about 20 miles away from Marfa, called Fort Davis. And I moved to New York for a few years after I got out of law school and worked there as a lawyer.
And when I came back from New York, the first place I went was to far West Texas. I re-did an old ranch house we had out there, probably in the late nineties, early 2000’s, late nineties. And so I’ve been spending time in Marfa particularly for a good part of my life. The first hotel I did was a hotel on South Congress called the San José and the second hotel I did was a hotel in Marfa called the Thunderbird.
My relationship with the Thunderbird didn’t last for too long, but it was an experiment in what it meant to try to do a hotel out there. That led me in the year or two after that to buy the land that El Cosmico is on now, and that was probably around 2004 or so. And so I’ve been experimenting with what it means to make a hotel in West Texas since then.
Nagy: And so much of El Cosmico is, in its current form, is really focused on, you know, the stars. It’s focused on opportunities of space. There’s something very vast and open and creative. I think people feel different when they’re there.
Lambert: I think that’s West Texas in general. I mean, I think that that journey, you know, I think that’s for a lot of reasons. One, I mean, we have the myth of the American West, right? And so much of our imagination that is captured by that is something that you can see through the movies. You know, Giant was filmed out there, No Country for Old Men was filmed out there.
There’s something that is in our American consciousness and actually European too, that is fascinated with that part of the country and I think the really vast skies, the lack of people, the really dramatic geological formations and I think it taps into this thing within all of us that is probably most about self-reliance.
You know, I think of all those Westerns that I think of, you know, all of those ideas that have the mythmaking around all of those things. But I also think for me, one of the things that I first started looking to when I was thinking about all El Cosmico was the Whole Earth Catalog. And their tagline, Stewart Brand created the Whole Earth Catalog, I think in the mid-seventies.
I could be wrong there, late mid seventies, early seventies, late sixties and sort of an early internet. It was a big, big format catalog that pointed you to resources to show you how to do all different kinds of things, whether it be astrology or midwifery or, you know, leather crafting to you name it. I mean, it was like it’s pretty vast and I think a lot of the idea of the Whole Earth Catalog was based on that Emersonian idea of self-reliance.
And so I think that there’s, you know, I think that there is a lot of draw of the idea of far west Texas, or the west, the American West in general. And so there’s something it taps into in all and all of us.
Nagy: What I like about this as you’re talking about the evolution is ICON, which is the 3D printing company. I believe you told me they have a contract now with NASA to develop things on the moon.
Lambert: That is correct
Nagy: So first West Texas and next the moon, which speaking of self reliance you know?
Lambert: I know, I know. Somehow it’s perfect. I mean, you know, because even though, you know, the idea of El Cosmico has a lot to do with, you know, tuning in and dropping out, you know, getting far away from the usual, plugged in selves that we are these days. I think there’s still a lot about it that is future thinking as well.
And so I think it’s perfect that the company, the architect and the building company that has a contract with NASA to do the first dwelling on the moon and on Mars, is also building at El Cosmico.
Nagy: Now, because we’re on a podcast, it’s very difficult for people to kind of imagine what this is going to look like. So 3D printing is a way of creating structures in a very futuristic way that is more environmentally sustainable. You don’t have to bring in a bunch of trucks and a bunch of disruptive machinery, but help people envision what this is going to look like, you know, the aesthetic and everything at that.
Lambert: I don’t think I could have even understood what 3D printing was or I know, I know I couldn’t have. I didn’t even know how to picture it until I actually met Jason Ballard and the folks from ICON and went and watched the printers at work. And what the printers are basically doing is putting down, laying down a bead at a time of a mix of dirt, water and a binder that will then do the perimeter wall and some of the interior walls or the wall systems of a building.
And then they lay bead upon bead upon bead on top of one another until you have a completed wall system. It’s amazing to watch because what you’re watching, is it doesn’t care about how complicated the curves are or the machinations that the printer needs to go through. It’s just taking information from the software and then creating whatever you’ve been able to draw on CAD.
Nagy: So you don’t have any of the typical architectural limitations in terms of building materials. This allows you to have more fluidity, more organic lines, and kind of be a little out there with it right?
Lambert: By far., And it’s you know, it’s we’ve always wanted to do. It’s interesting because of what it looks like once it’s created and you can actually go online if you go to the ICON website or I think also to the El Cosmico website, you can see some renderings of some of the buildings, but it is very futuristic, but it’s also very ancient.
And if you think of ancient ways to build with mud and domes and, you know, things that were just built by hand without lumber, without drywall, without sticks and bricks. And you’ve freed yourself up from that, that sort of building. That’s what you can get.
Nagy: And know your relationship with BIG and working with, you know, such a visionary as Mr. Ingels. Tell me about how that relationship has kind of gone together, because I actually think that you guys are kind of made for each other. And I’m happy that you found each other. But how has that creative relationship been working?
Lambert: I mean, it’s been thrilling. It’s been a dream. It’s not just Bjarke, it’s also his whole team. I just came back from a trip to Marfa with three of the architects from BIG and a handful of the folks from ICON and I have some branding, I have some branding folks I work with, with a company called Souvenir.
And so we all went out there to do a campout and kind of be on the new site and sleep under the stars, except that it was really too hot to do that. We opted for not camping at the last minute and staying in the air conditioning at El Cosmico or places that have fans. But we spent a lot of time out on the site and it’s really freeing to be in a space where you’re working with some creative professionals that are at the top of their field and also with a really new and growing technology that is not limited in lots of ways.
Nagy: Now, is the team from the States or did they come in from Copenhagen or further afield? Because it has to be fun for them to be seeing this land for the first time.
Lambert: Mostly the New York office. They have a pretty big office in New York that I’ve been back and forth with. It’s really funny when you go in the, you know, BIG does some really, you know, everything from skyscrapers, to the Google headquarters to pavilions and museums. And when you go in, they’ve 3D printed models for most of the buildings they’ve done.
And you can see them all on one big table. And so of course, there’s these huge 3D printed skyscrapers. And then they go down in sizes. They you know, they’re arranged by size. So by the time you get to the ones at El Cosmico, they’re like pencil erasers, you know.
Nagy: I like it because the mock ups of this, it looks like something from Tatooine from Star Wars, you know it looks like something completely, that feels organic and natural, but also something far flung in the future, which is fun. And I like that you’re alluding to ancient dwellings or people that solved difficult problems, you know, through organic materials and stuff, because there’s a lot of ingenuity that comes from that type of building as well.
Lambert: It’s so exciting. I mean, it’s been an exercise in opening your mind and trying to get rid of all these notions you have about hospitality or not about hospitality, but about a traditional hotel room which, you know.
Nagy: Now, with El Cosmico community has been a huge part of the brand. You know, you do iconic events there, as you alluded to. I like the notion of adult summer camp where there’s, you know, learning new things and kind of stepping into a beginner’s mind. Right. And getting out of perhaps your day to day life in this spreadsheet or in New York or Los Angeles.
How is that notion of community going to pull through, you know, as you develop the new concept?
Lambert: Well, I hope more than ever. I mean, what this does allow us to do, we’ve always been challenged at El Cosmico by our size, but we were only basically 40, 43 rooms, tents, a lot of that being tents that weren’t conditioned, some tents that were and some tents that weren’t. And by the way, I mean, we will have the new dwellings, which will be a variety of different domes and spiral buildings.
But we’re also going to bring over, you know, we’re moving to a new site, which is a bigger site, which is a longer story, but we’re on 21 acres right on the edge of Marfa. But with a desire to expand to more rooms, we were challenged by the space we were in.
We’re also next to the border between the Border Patrol and the highway. And right to the south of sort of an area that has some more building going on. So we finally decided to look for other sites, which was sort of mind bending on its own to think about moving a hotel. That’s like, what? Like we can’t move it.
And then the more I started thinking about it, you know, it’s based on the idea of nomadic structures from the get go. So it’s like if we can’t move this hotel, I don’t know what hotel we can move. So basically we’re moving about two miles away to the other side of Marfa, a little further outside of town.
And we’ll have more room, as I said, for more gathering spaces. So we’re going to have a bathhouse in the pool that I have always longed to make manifest. But we’re also going to have a workshop studio and, you know, over time we hopefully will be able to do everything from the beginning, but some of this may take a while. Over time, we’ll have gardening, a greenhouse. I mean, there’s all kinds of things I want that I’m not even going to say out loud.
Nagy: I like the idea. I like the idea of like a creative village. And, you know, I’ve pointed out to you in the past, Potato Head and like what they’re doing there because there’s very interesting elements of, you know, agriculture. They do a lot of stuff with like recycled ocean plastics. So it feels like the future of the El Cosmico can be a little bit of a playground and continue to be R&D for some of your other projects because that’s the exciting thing, is that you could you could try stuff out here and then it’s probably applicable to what you build in Aspen and what you build in other places over time, right?
Lambert: And if it’s not, we tried it, right? It’s like I’ve always thought of it as a laboratory and, and that goes for, you know, building things that may not last or building things and, you know, and then packing in and packing out. You know, we do a music festival there every September, and the Village grows really big.
And then, you know, it’s like the circus has come to town and then and then it packs up and leaves for a couple of years running. We actually did have a Ferris wheel, which I wish we could have all the time, but it doesn’t seem to be the, you know, like it doesn’t seem to be in the cards to always have a Ferris wheel.
Nagy: I like the notion of the expansion and contraction because, you know, in some times of the season, there’s not as much there’s not as many people coming to West Texas, perhaps when it’s hot, right?
Lambert: Honestly, that was one of the reasons that El Cosmico came into being like when I watched how business, how businesses struggled in Marfa, it was really like, you know, some weekends there were, you know, a thousand people in town for Chinati Weekend or for the Marfa Lights Festival or whatever it might have been. And then there’s other times that it’s just completely crickets.
And so having an ability to expand when there’s a big demand for it and being able to contract back in when there’s not many people in town was an important part of the original concept. It also is a reason we always wanted a place where you could have camping, because with people being able to pitch their own tents out there, it meant that we could accommodate a lot more people.
Nagy: Yeah, and also just different experiences, right? There are the people that want to sleep under the stars and just have a little canvas between them. And then there’s people that want something a little bit more cushy. So, the other thing I wanted to talk to you about Liz is just some of your inspirations. The thing that I’ve always appreciated about the way you kind of design spaces is there’s just a depth and almost like a subconscious pleasure to being in the space.
You know, it feels like something is lived in and it has a thing that almost defies the logical. And so, you know, you’ve you’ve cited Christopher Alexander, you’ve cited some very interesting things in other interviews. But, you know, what are you inspired by lately, you know, in terms of your designing, in terms of as you’re building these new projects, you know, what’s top of mind for you?
Lambert: Well, I will say, like the new technology and emerging technology of 3D printing has been really mind opening, not just because of the technology itself, but the process of thinking about how to build makes sort of a world open up, that you are rethinking things. And I can say the normal things which are very, very true, which is travel and looking at other projects and looking at what other people are doing or just going to a new place and particularly traveling outside of the U.S. to look at different ways of doing things.
And, you know, I do always consume different books and look online at things and, you know, travel in the mind as well.
Nagy: I like the travel point because I think what happens to people within the hospitality industry or even just travelers is you can get in this locked groove that is like certain things you like. Oh, I like my Hyatt points, or oh, I like this certain thing. And you know, you got, you’ve got to break out of that in order to really see what’s going on.
Lambert: I totally understand the desire for comfort and predictability and the things that you like, 100%. But I think part of travel for me is work, meaning it’s always part of exploration. And so pushing to go to different places and to look at things in different ways is really important. And collaboration by the way. I mean, collaboration has been a huge part of what my life has grown into over, I don’t know, the last many years.
It’s always something I’ve been interested in and it’s always been something I’ve done. By the way, if you look back at the beginnings of El Cosmico, so much of that happened with and in collaboration with my friend Jack Sanders. There’s a company called Design Build Adventure, and with a group of other people I mentioned briefly, I had the group Souvenir, which is Isidora McKeon and Landry Moore, and they both worked with me at Bunkhouse, but they do branding and and a lot of culture and a lot of those things.
But both of them have been instrumental in creating what El Cosmico looked and felt like and was all about the pure definition of it. But collaboration through my company, Far West, that creates retail goods for mainly, for travel and for home, from robes to leather goods to, you know, cross-body bags to dopp kits. I’m doing a collaboration right now that’s been kind of working for a while.
I just got off the phone earlier with Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin and Christina Kim from Dosa, and we’re exploring how to use damaged out sheets from hotels and turn them into clothing, high end clothing. I’m collaborating with Caddis Glasses on, you know, a pair of sunglasses. I’m like, there’s all this fun with Sabah, the company that does, you know.
Nagy: Shoes. Yeah, Yeah.
Lambert: And we’ve collaborated on some shoes in the past and we continue to do. It’s just, when you start talking to other creative people or other people making things, that opens up whole new worlds for you too. And it also gets you out of your regular way of looking at things.
Nagy: I always appreciated that because when I would shop at the boutique at the Saint Cecilia, it was a world view, right? It was a curation. It was a world view. It wasn’t just staying at a hotel, it was being exposed to different creators, different small craftsmen. And it actually told me a lot more about the hotel, just through things like that.
So that makes a lot of sense to me. And also it’s fun as is. I like the sort of Liz Lambert recommendations because, you know, in the FT weekend piece that you did a few weeks ago, I bought a pair of those Ranch Road Boots that you were talking about. So the Liz is influencer effect is real, you know.
Lambert: That’s awesome, that’s really great to hear there. The Ranch Road Boots are amazing. I could tell you a whole story about that. But no, I think it’s, you know, the opportunity to make a hotel store. The gift shop and the minibar are two opportunities that hotels should grab on to, to further tell the story of the place and the brand. Absolutely.
Like it makes me crazy to go into, well, you know, a lot of hotels. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if there is some M&M’s, and a milky Way, you know, and a Coca-Cola in your minibar. And that’s all. But there are hotels that you really want to see a better expression of, you know, the DNA and the point of view of the hotel.
Nagy: I feel like it’s a very good canary in the coal mine in a lot of ways. Like when you open up a mini bar and you see something inspired or you see something that’s not your average Pringle, I’m like, okay, there is some intent that went into this.
Lambert: Like they thought about it. Like you should be thinking about the music you’re hearing, you know, like again, or a playlist, I was, I was in a meeting earlier. I was saying, well, you know, remember that, you know, music can be the most inspiring thing and really put you in the place properly. Or music has been used as torture.
Nagy: It can snap you out of the trance I mean, I think your partnership, I think it was Orchard was it? in with some of the hotels in Austin? I remember hearing really great, you know, Roky Erickson and in great sort of psychedelic music at Saint Cecilia and different twists down in Baja. But like, it’s a real consideration.
Lambert: Oh yeah, completely. I mean, I think most inspiration for a brand or a particular hotel starts with imagining the music that you hear there and the logo.
Nagy: What do you think about the role of of scent? Because that’s another one that I feel like always has a very powerful connection with the place. How you think about that?
Lambert: It’s huge. I mean, it’s one of the considerations that in every hotel that I’ve ever been part of creating is, you know, what you’re hearing, what you’re smelling, what you’re seeing, meaning like color or just vibe completely. And I mean, that’s a place to completely begin. Scent is, you know, you hear it is the, you know, madeleine de Proust, was taste, not scents.
Nagy: It’s again, there’s probably the scent of a madeleine as well.
Lambert: But it’s like, it can take you back to memory so quickly. And just so you know. Yeah, the Saint Cecilia you talked about that, the scent there is nag champa, very much on purpose because, you know, the whole experience is supposed to elicit it as sort of a decadent, elegant hippie experience. Right.
Nagy: So many nice memories of that hotel. Like, I love how the fireplaces are burnt in and I can’t remember the name of the gentleman but you know, I was there at the bar and then it came back a year and a half later and he basically just knew exactly what I was drinking. Like off the top of his head, like it was nothing.
And I was like, this is something else. Very good.
Well, cool. Liz, thank you so much for joining us. We covered a lot of ground and I think that, you know, everyone listening will be inspired and find their own pockets of things to kind of dig in and go deeper with. But I can’t thank you enough for joining us and kind of sharing a little bit of your worldview and what you’re working on lately. So thank you.
Lambert: Always a pleasure, Colin. And you know, I’ve been a big fan of Skift for a long time. I think these guys do such a great job and serve such a great service for the whole industry and people that are interested in it.
Nagy: Cool. Well, thank you so much for saying that and we’ll talk soon. Appreciate it.
Lambert: All right. Take care Colin.
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