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73: On the Luxury Kitchen with NKBA

Written by Rob Stott

June 8, 2021

pam McNally nkba luxury kitchen summit

National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) VP of Marketplace Pam McNally rejoins the Independent Thinking Podcast to talk about new luxury kitchen research from the association, as well as the upcoming NKBA Summit: Luxury Defined.

Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast. And excited, I looked back at our podcasting publishing schedule, and it felt like it had been a while, Pam McNally, the VP of marketplace for NKBA, National Kitchen and Bath Association. And it felt like it had been a really long time since we talked but it’s only been nine weeks since we published the NKBA episode with you?

Pam McNally: COVID. COVID makes everything drag, I tell you.

Rob Stott: It’s crazy, but I appreciate we apparently had enough fun last time that you did not mind stepping back on with very good reason that we’ll dive into, but glad to have you back.

Pam McNally: Thank you, Rob. I’m always excited. I love podcasts and I particularly follow yours. I appreciate you kind of letting me come on and spat a little bit. Thank you.

Rob Stott: Not a problem. And we’re going to dive right in because I know, we’re talking right now, just a short time ahead, you guys have a luxury event that I think you might’ve briefly mentioned on our last episode back a few weeks ago but tell me about this Luxury Defined Summit and what it’s all about.

Pam McNally: This totally new for us, it’s called the NKBA Summit: Luxury Defined. We’re holding it June 23rd and 24th. And really, what it’s all about that’s kind of a loaded question. If you think about the title, it kind of says it all. We chose that title because it’s simple and we wanted to say exactly what we were talking about, which basically the changing definition of luxury. I think we all have preconceived notions of what luxury is. I do. I kind of focus on brand or people focus on price and our research, after we did our research, it kind of showed that while those are still a part of what defines luxury, I don’t think you can get away from it, there’s been a shift, to more intangible factors. And when I say shift, it’s not an abrupt ship. I think it’s kind of been gradual shift to more intangibles.

When we talk about more space, more freedom, more experience, really more of everything that confines someone say on a budget because the reality is for all intents and purposes, budget is secondary because this consumer wants what they want and they’re willing to pay for it. I think that’s important to know too. Sure we all know that budget’s always going to be an issue but it’s secondary for this luxury client to get what they want. And that’s really what this is about is defining what luxury is today and how as a designer, someone who wants to service a clientele or get into this market, how do they do it and succeed?

Rob Stott: No, that’s all. You mentioned the research, which I know we’re all excited to get our hands on here eventually at this summit and see what it is that you guys have discovered. But talk about the why. Why go into this research? And who participated? And that sort of stuff.

Pam McNally: Great. Well first, if you come to the summit, you get the research for free, which is normally and I’m going to do a plug, which is normally $2,000 and NKBA members are free. Non-members pay 99 or unless of course they’re a partner like yourself. But to be honest, the head of our research, Tricia Zach has wanted to do this study for a while. And she’s been really chomping at the bit. She noticed before anyone and I don’t want again say shifting, but this gradual norm has changed and wanted to do a qualitative study that would really dig deep with not only the designers who target the 1%, it’s really the 0.1%. Let me clarify, but also the clients themselves. The goal, the main goal of the study was to discover the real difference between a luxury kitchen and the focus is on kitchen, a luxury kitchen and a nice high end kitchen.

Also, what does a luxury client want that a designer can provide? And how can a designer track this clientele? All of which we kind of explore at the summit. To get the answers just in how we conducted this study. It’s qualitative, not quantitative. She talked with about nine designers and some of their clients for hours on video to get a really well rounded and comprehensive feel for both about the term luxury, what it means to them and you know what? What it doesn’t mean, which might be even more important. Finding out what luxury doesn’t mean, might end up being the defining factor of this summit.

There were nine designers who participated, all of whom are successful in the segment, were really very open about how they worked and succeed. In fact, several of them pulled their clients in which I said before, I think it’s kind of amazing. And the clients were very open. Was pretty eye opening to hear them talk. But I think, our recent coffee table book that we produced called, The Luxury Kitchen, kind of highlights the four areas that everyone felt defines luxury, experience, it’s personal, simplicity and just beautiful.

Rob Stott: Right. I’m interested to hear, you mentioned kind of the difference between high end kitchens that I think a lot of people are seeing these days and obviously within the last year, we know how much investment has been put into the home and kitchen in particular. What are some of those big differences between what would be defined as a luxury customer, a designer working with a luxury customer as opposed to the high end kitchen customer?

Pam McNally: I think it’s important. Well, the luxury consumer’s like us, but they’re not. And I say us because I’m definitely in that 0.1%.

Rob Stott: Hey you and me both.

Pam McNally: But first of all, they definitely want what they want. Like all of us, we want what we want but unlike the rest of us, they can actually get most of it because they can afford it. We all want some level of personal service today, but this client expects a designer to take it to a whole other level. That means white glove service. As one of the clients said, “White glove level of service, we wanted American Express not Holiday Inn.” Get the plumbers out here fast. When they want something, they want it now. You can’t ignore their calls. If it’s on a weekend or after hours, guess what? You better be picking up that phone.

And it’s not just about the work, it’s also about really knowing them. They certainly don’t want to be just another client in your roster. They’re not another number. As Peter Salerno, who’s a CMKBD commented in the study, “Make it personal. Know their names, their kids’ names, who comes to visit, who comes to cook. People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care about them. Trust is 80%, price is 20%.” Which I got to be honest, I feel that’s an amazing quote because for this client, it’s not about the money, it’s about the trust that they build with their designer.

Rob Stott: No, that’s really interesting to hear. And everyone, I think likes to think that that’s how it works but it’s for sure something that when money, cliche as it is, money isn’t an object then it becomes about more than that. And kind of that’s the way, those are the things that they put more emphasis on or expect, I guess, out of who they’re working with as opposed to you or I, if we were looking at a kitchen redesign.

Pam McNally: Yeah. They’re not going to pamper me. Let me tell you that.

Rob Stott: No, I haven’t done enough to earn that kind of a level of care. But no, it’s all right. Someday we can hope and pray or wish.

Pam McNally: Yeah. And the one thing I do want to emphasize, the biggest difference between the luxury client and just the average high end client, which I even hate saying, the average high end client. The luxury client isn’t remotely concerned about resale value. It’s about ensuring the look, feel and function of the space is exactly tailored to the lifestyle and life stage because you know what? If they don’t like it, they rip it out.

Rob Stott: Yeah, no, that’s a really interesting point because we talked about it the last time, how looking at my own situation and what we’re doing downstairs and that’s one of the things you think about, that we were certainly thinking about well, we’re putting in X amount into the kitchen, what’s it do? What’s the return for me? If we ever decided to move or anything like that, but that’s an interesting way of looking at it. That’s not something that is very top of mind for them because if they’re doing all this work, they certainly plan on making the most out of that kitchen that they’re redesigning.

Pam McNally: Well, I think it also depends on how many homes they have. As we all know, that 0.1% could have multiple homes and maybe this is their main abode or maybe it’s not but at the end of the day they want what they want and if they don’t like it, A, they’ll probably not be happy with the designer, which nobody wants. And B, they’ll just start over where you and I, I’m pretty sure that if you didn’t get what you wanted sure you complain, but if they weren’t going to replace it.

Rob Stott: You’re living with it.

Pam McNally: You’re living with it. I’m living with it. You and I both are living with it.

Rob Stott: All right. Were there any unexpected findings? Anything that kind of shocked you guys as you’re going through this research?

Pam McNally: Well, I don’t know shock is the right word, but I think the biggest surprise, at least to me, was the very personal nature of the designs. How the clients incorporated personal statements, collections from their travels. In one kitchen, for example, the client wanted to incorporate souvenir tile from their honeymoon.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Pam McNally: The designer used it as inspiration for a backsplash. And at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a client that was struck by the sleek, clean lines, the overall simplicity of say German designed kitchens and directed the designer in this case, Nar Bustamante to move the design in that direction. And I think what really ties all these designers together is that they come to the project with no preconceived notions. They don’t ever force the design that they’ve used in the past or try to go with the recent trend. There really are no trends. They look at the space, they take in the conditions and they really listen to the client and then they try to create something unique and unexpected and unique and unexpected that suits this client. It may not be unique or unexpected to you and I but it’s what this client’s looking for. I think every client in this category wants something unique, but it’s not for show.

And I think that the other thing that was a little bit of surprise, at least to me, was it’s really done for them in a very personal way. It’s not like I need this all out to show everybody who and what I am. It really is to satisfy them and nobody else. It used to be all right, put my Sub-Zero, put my huge Wolf range on show, but in today, really, to be honest, it’s got to be what I want. And a lot of cases, a lot of it’s hidden behind paneling in the pantry so it’s really not about show. Their vision takes precedence over even products and features.

Rob Stott: Interesting.

Pam McNally: And the needs of the designer to realize that I think what the key here is that the designer has to understand that, you know what? Don’t push a product, don’t push features unless it fits with the vision of this very particular client.

Rob Stott: No, that makes a lot of sense. And something you touched on there was kind of a follow-up to this and it almost sounds like you might’ve answered it already, but you mentioned that trends aren’t necessarily top of mind for these folks. Obviously trends are something a designer will stay on top of and kind of know and be able to incorporate into other projects that they’re working on. Is there any use for doing that with these types of luxury products? Or is it very much just take the client’s vision and work it into what they want?

Pam McNally: I think it’s part of, to be honest, if you look at the research and listen to the quotes and then talk, you have to keep your mind open because obviously there are times when the client’s going to come to you and ask your opinion. When you talk to these designers, they tell you the secrets to their success are various, but one of them is, you know what? You really, really have to grow outside your field. What that means is get inspired by other things, travel, architecture, study jewelry, furniture, cars and look at these shapes forms and curves because some of that might inform you and be able to help you do the vision that your client wants. I feel like trends in and of themselves, whether it’s a white kitchen or whether it’s using stainless steel. I don’t think that’s really what they’re focused on but they are focused on what’s happening around them and how that can inform their work with the client to get to that vision.

Rob Stott: Are there any consistencies, I guess, would be the word across the luxury clients right now that are maybe like you said, it’s not necessarily white kitchen or certain even brands or technologies, but is there any consistencies at all across this type of client?

Pam McNally: I think when it comes to, I think there are a few things such as they’re into craftsmanship. Original and unique detail and can be small. It could be a knob, it could be cabinet hardware. I think again, being very personal, meaning that kitchen is very personal to them. It’s personal to what they want but also to their life stage. For example, Sarah Robertson did a kitchen that was for a young family so what they asked is that a lot of everything hidden in storage but also to have things at a certain level so that the children could access them. There’s a craft drawer, which by the way I want myself. I didn’t even think about that. There’s a craft drawer. There’s a lot of things that are what’s happening today but they’re not trends. They’re more about lifestyle and life stage than they are about anything else.

Rob Stott: No, that’s cool. If anything it’s lifestyle trends as opposed to in the kitchen or appliance trends or things like that, that you typically see or maybe more so applied to that high end kitchen, as opposed to the luxury kitchen. Changing gears just a little bit, I want to talk about the designers themselves. Do luxury designers have an opportunity to promote themselves in any different ways than the rest of their colleagues?

Pam McNally: I’m laughing because another thing that kind of surprised me is that you always talk about word of mouth, word of mouth. And when somebody tells me a word of mouth, I’m like, okay, so you’re just lazy. But actually I would say in this case, you know what it is, they even said in fact, many of them are so busy they don’t need to do really anything. As one designer said, “You can’t hunt luxury, they’ll run away from you. It’s a tight knit club. You have to walk the life, take incremental steps with each client and the work finds you.”

I don’t know. I’m a little bit, that would scare me a little bit, but I get their point because obviously it’s a very refined group. You may not even be able to access to that group until you know somebody who knows somebody. In fact, one designer isn’t even on Instagram, won’t publish images, which in today’s world, you wouldn’t even hear. We’re talking about a very high level group that to be quite honest, isn’t really swayed and really probably you need to hear from somebody who knows somebody before you hire someone. No, I think that promoting themselves, the best way a lot of these designers feel they promote themselves is the work they do and how they establish trust with that client.

Rob Stott: No, absolutely. And you talk about, if you can have word of mouth marketing among that 0.1%, you’re talking about they’re talking to their friends and they’re coming into their kitchens and seeing the work that they’ve done. Obviously I feel like they’re going to talk about pass around contacts and things like that. And once you get that in, then you’re set. Then the work speaks for itself, if you will, where they don’t have to be on Instagram or Pinterest necessarily to promote that work. Whereas, the eyeballs that they want on their work are getting their eyeballs on that work from the friends and from that word of mouth marketing, which is like you said, it’s scary to think about, but if you’re working with someone in that space, then the work itself speaks for itself.

Pam McNally: There’s that famous quote, “If you have to ask about the price, you can’t afford it.” And I think a lot of them kind of feel that way. If you’re looking on Instagram and you direct message or contact them and ask them, “What’s the cost of that kitchen I see in the image?” They’re probably going to say, “You can’t afford it.” Because you have to ask about a price, these high end consumers, which are different than luxury, they’re about checklists and dollar amounts, but luxury is about fluidity and it’s really not about the cost.

Rob Stott: No and crazy, but very true. And talk about marketing and different ways to market, kind of an interesting segue into you mentioned it already, but The Luxury Kitchen book that you guys worked on. Got a chance to flip through it. It’s a gorgeous book and lots of inspiring ideas for sure. And maybe that’s the way to market some of your luxury work is to get inside this book because it’s impressive some of the projects that are in there and kind of shows what we’ve been talking about here on this podcast, but tell us about that book and how it came together and the reason behind it.

Pam McNally: It was really a team effort. And I would say to you, if you think about luxury today, print is really a luxury. We all know that all of those print magazines that we used to love are either cutting back or going digital but really we wanted to make a mark that felt luxurious. And what better way in today’s world than to publish a print book. It is kind of almost sinful. It’s called The Luxury Kitchen and it’s oversize and glossy and it’s a coffee table book. It’s not for sale. We are not wildly distributing. You have a chance to actually win it if you go to the conference but then again, think about it. The exclusivity is a sign of luxury now. I guess we did it because it felt right for luxury and I have to say the team that worked on it did an amazing job. More, I guess beat our expectations.

Rob Stott: No, and it’s one of those, you mentioned coffee table. It fits the bill perfectly. Even flipping through digitally, the way that the images come through and just pop off the page and it’s kind of one of those inspiration. I could see this being a value to potentially clients that are looking at this that want some inspiration themselves. If they maybe don’t that vision per se in their head of what they want, but also to the design community to be able to see sort of what their colleagues are doing. And it’s just all around impressive. It’s really cool to flip through even digitally.

Pam McNally: Well, I know. Don’t worry. I’m going to give you a copy. I know you’re thinking we’ll give you a link because we don’t have any copy. We only have five, so I’m sorry. My bosses get them first, even for me. You’re going to get a copy, don’t worry.

Rob Stott: No, that’s cool. But it’s also to see the different styles and kind of how you kind of get a sense of kind of counterpointing what we were talking about earlier, how there really aren’t and to your point, there aren’t trends that this client, this level of client really that they have. These pictures that are in this book show that whatever vision they have, they’re clearly working hand in hand with their designer to make what they want come true for their space, whether it’s some of these, it almost looks like a cabin, some of these designs where everything looks like the cabinets were cut off of a tree. No finishes, no clean finishes. I just like to see that, then you flip the page and it is just these glossy flat cabinets and things like that. And now I’m seeing fuzzy, the bench of the seats. The bar stools.

Pam McNally: Isn’t that amazing?

Rob Stott: It’s crazy.

Pam McNally: Everyone is different. And I think that’s what’s important to note is that every one of those kitchens was the direct vision of the client. And I think another thing that came out loud and clear in the study is that all these clients, what they said was, “You know what? You can’t do this on your own. You need a designer.” And I know we’ve all made the mistake of thinking we can do the DIY. Let’s get up to YouTube, how to video. But at the end of the day, when you’re doing these type of kitchens that are 250,000 plus, I’m sorry, you can’t do it yourself.

Rob Stott: No, no way at all. And it just shows the value of obviously having a community like NKBA where you guys can come together and help identify the designers that are best suited for these kinds of projects because they’re impressive. I want to take it back to the summit though, to the Luxury Defined Summit and tell us a little bit more about it. What can people expect that will be there? And then kind of what’s the plan moving forward for this event?

Pam McNally: I think, look, we all know that Zoom, it’s a Zoom conference, but we’re trying to make it as interactive as possible. There’s going to be video interactivity, giveaways. We’re trying to make it fun. I know it’s luxury so most times people think luxury, staid, silent, but we’re trying to make it fun while you’re also going to learn something. Not only do we have the designers, nine of them, that will all be there. Talking about their story, talking about how they became a luxury designer, what the secrets to success are. We’re also going to have experts talking about who is this client? We have our qualitative study, which is our designers, thank you. And then we also have, we’re looking at the quantitative part, which is talking about the demographics and psychographics, who is this client? What do they like? How have they changed in the last several years?

We’ll have experts talking about that. And then there will be panels where there’ll be Q and A, and then, like I said, interactivity. Asking the audience to kind of ask questions, maybe pull them in. Love to see people that are part of this that are the audience. I feel like it’s going to be a really well rounded conference. And here’s the thing, no session is going to be longer than 30, maybe 40 minutes. And that includes Q and A. I think we all know, don’t make me sit for an hour and just watch a talking head and there will also be a lot of images. And like I said video. And then it’s only each day, it’s 1:00 to 4:00. Again, a lot of content into four hours, four to five hours. And you know what? You don’t have to come to watch the whole thing, but I would definitely say, come to watch the designers talk about their success, about the clients they work with and actually some of the clients will be there. They’re also going to be talking about what they expect.

Rob Stott: Wow. No, that’s awesome. And certainly, as we sit here, 15, 16 months into a pan, we’re finally getting how these things should go. How these events should happen and they’re getting better. They’re getting better, certainly. I very much look forward to being able to participate in this one. What do you see moving forward? Is this something that will continue? Do you guys plan on having more of these types of summits?

Pam McNally: Yes, we do. I think that we are, NKBA summits are really an outgrowth of our research. And I think you know that our research is very well respected. This is a natural outgrowth of what Tricia Zach, who is our head of research has been doing. Our next and NKBA summit in the near future, we’re looking at bathroom. We just did an NKBA Summit: Luxury Defined for kitchens and this would be luxury defined for baths. I’m very excited about that and very excited about a book on bathrooms. I’m a bathroom fiend. I think that’ll be just as amazing. And then again, talking about the difference between again, the high end client and the luxury client and what their expectations of the bathroom, which by the way are probably hugely different.

Rob Stott: Yeah. I’m expecting bathrooms that are probably the square foot of my first floor.

Pam McNally: I’m thinking of my house. I’m thinking of my house. It’s probably a bathroom two floors.

Rob Stott: Split level bathroom. Oh no, that’s awesome. And something very much to look forward to too, of course. I know it’s always great to attend whether in person or virtually, it’s been great to attend NKBA events and look forward to seeing the kitchen, the Luxury Defined Summit for the kitchen and then what you guys have coming as well, so for the bath. This is lots to look forward to.

Pam McNally: You know what? I look forward to being on your podcast because I have so much fun. And like you said, I get to chill little bit and relax from my day to day. Thank you again, this has been great.

Rob Stott: Hey, no problem. Any time I can provide a break from reality for a little bit and we can ponder what our luxury kitchens would look like or luxury bathrooms, I’m all for it.

Pam McNally: Good. I want a two level bathroom.

Rob Stott: All right, I like that, I like where that’s going. We’ll have to follow up when that comes around and we’ll talk about, I’ll bring some ideas to the table.

Pam McNally: Thank you, Rob.

Rob Stott: Nah, thank…

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