When I started JAI 20 years ago, I wanted to create something different from what I saw in other design firms. I made a conscious effort to build my business around a relationship-first principle. From the start, I wanted the designers, vendors, and clients that worked with JAI to feel like they are part of a family.

I didn’t know how much perseverance and resilience it would take to stay true to myself and my vision for the firm. While I wanted JAI to be people-centric, I realized early on that I wouldn’t be able to please everyone, and I would exhaust myself quickly if that were the goal. Instead, I would need a lot of grace and empathy to manage people’s expectations—including my own.

Relationships have been the cornerstone of my success and long-term growth, and the collaboration process is one of the most refreshing aspects about my business. Whether it’s within my team or with vendors and clients, I am always looking for ways to earn a deeper mutual-level of respect and loyalty.

Inspiring A People-First Approach: How It Started

I met Tim at a boardroom table in the spring of 2000.

I was an assistant designer and joined in on a project my employer had been working on for quite some time. It was a Renaissance Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, FL. I was invited to sit in on the presentation she was giving Tim now that I had become involved with his project. 

Tim was very professional and personable, and he put me at ease as a young designer. He valued my thoughts, ideas, and designs. Naturally, I was thrilled to start working more closely with him on a custom Courtyard in West Palm Beach, FL next. He had a knack for design, too, so we had fun with the process, and he also took the time to mentor me on development and construction.

As a young designer, there was something very empowering about working with someone who saw my potential and had the utmost faith and confidence in my abilities.  At the time, Tim saw in me what I could not yet see in myself. We worked so well together, and I knew this was just the beginning of a wonderful working relationship.

As the Courtyard project was wrapping up, I left the firm where I was working to pursue my own business. As a gesture of appreciation, I called Tim to thank him for the experience of working together the past year. I told him I was starting my own business, and since he was my employer’s client, this was goodbye.

Tim played a considerable role in my desire for JAI to be a people-first design firm. I wanted everyone I worked with in the future to feel the way Tim made me feel. We shared a mutual respect that influenced the way I wanted to conduct business moving forward.

3 Ways To Make People Feel Valued and Respected

Here are three principles I’ve learned from Tim about how to make people feel valued and respected.

1. Remain Optimistic and Genuine

I had experienced how negative energy can rub off on others, but Tim showed me that positivity could do the same thing. As I started JAI, I knew it would be essential to be upbeat and positive with the people working with me. I wanted to genuinely be a leader who could see the best outcome in each situation.

My optimistic outlook was about to be challenged right out of the gate.

I was getting my business up and running when I received a surprise phone call. It was from Tim.

“I have your first project,” he said. My immediate concern was taking a client from my previous employer, but Tim explained that the way he saw it, he had worked with me on the West Palm Beach Courtyard project, and he wanted to work with me again—now. We had already established mutual respect and a rapport with one another.

“Jacki, this could be the most challenging job you’ll ever do,” he warned, “but I know you can do it!” Tim was so positive. No matter what the challenge ahead, he made me believe I could handle it.

Tim introduced me to the Penn Avenue Courtyard, a historic renovation in downtown Pittsburgh, PA. The design included taking four historic warehouses and cutting out a lightwell in the center to allow natural light to reach what would have otherwise been a dark, enclosed area. We would make use of the existing exterior windows for guestrooms as well as being able to line the new interior courtyard windows with guestrooms as well. It was indeed a monumental challenge, but Tim and I remained positive and excited about the work.

The hotel opened the week before my wedding, but I wanted to be there for JAI’s first big project launch. On opening day, Tim walked in to see the final design. He hugged me, and I broke down into tears—a tradition that has continued at every opening I’ve attended over the last twenty years.

Standing in the finished space was the most gratifying and rewarding feeling ever. I grew so much during that first project, and I gained so much knowledge and confidence.

Optimism creates a belief that, even though you understand the challenges ahead of you, you choose to see them as surmountable.

2. Show (Don’t Just Tell) People You Care

It’s not enough to just tell people that you respect and care about them. Engaging in behavior that demonstrates respect can instill confidence in the people around you and offer them much-needed encouragement.

It was around 2014 when the JAI team worked with Tim on the Cambria Hotel in Washington DC.  It was the first Cambria Hotel for JAI and Concord Hospitality Enterprises, so we had to learn the brand standards together.

After working very closely with the Cambria team at Choice and learning they did not have an in-house design review, Tim suggested I speak with Choice about becoming their brand design consultant. This was an idea I would never have come up with on my own, nor was the brand even looking at the time! 

Tim didn’t benefit in any way from recommending me. It was a gesture he made to show his respect and care for my company and me. He is well known and highly respected in the hospitality industry, so a recommendation from him goes a long way.

He helped pave the way for JAI to work with the Cambria brand on their new prototype and become their brand design reviewer. The experience with Cambria was enriching, and we brought Tim in for development consulting before launching.

There are many moments in our lives when we will look back and remember the kindness shown towards us. These moments help define us. Since we met in 2000, Tim and I have shared many unique experiences, including 9/11, the recession of 2008, and now the pandemic of 2020. We have also walked through many personal milestones together, including marriages, divorces, births, and deaths. At the core, I have learned that it takes so little effort to make a significant impact on someone’s life.

In business, when we show people we genuinely care about them, we can have a profound effect on their emotional state, mental health, and overall motivation.

3. Build Trust Into Everything

As a people-centric leader, trust is foundational to relationships. Whether it’s with my team, vendors, or clients, I need to be a person of my word—dependable, honest, and supportive—through good and bad times. If I say I’m going to do something, I do it, and I don’t try to slip out of my commitments.

Trust is a critical component of respect. It motivates others to give the best of their time, energy, efforts, and creativity to produce the greatest results possible.

The types of projects JAI handles are large, and I don’t expect a new client to instantly feel comfortable trusting us with such a considerable investment of resources. I am grateful for strong recommendations and a vast portfolio, but we earn mutual trust and respect over time. My goal is to show my clients that our firm is trustworthy at every turn.

From the moment I First meet someone, I try to make them feel how Tim made me feel twenty years ago—valued and respected.

You never know where an initial connection will take you.

20 Years of Project Collaboration

Take a look at some of the highlights from the projects Tim and I have worked on together over the last 20 years.  Many of them are on my top list of most challenging projects JAI has done, but they are also among my favorite.

Penn Ave Courtyard, Pittsburgh – historic renovation *picture 1*

Marriott, Des Moine IA – partial renovation 

Residence Inn Midtown, Atlanta GA – renovation

Residence Inn, Pompano Beach FL – condo conversion *picture 2*

Indigo Bay, Islamorada, Florida Keys – new construction

Cambria Hotel, Washington DC – new construction *picture 3*

Hilton Garden Inn, Brandon FL – renovation

Hyatt House, Shadyside PA – new construction *picture 4*

Residence Inn, Durham NC – new construction *picture 5*

Residence Inn, Secaucus NJ – new construction *picture 6*

Beaufort Hotel, Beaufort NC – new construction *picture 7*

Marriott, SeaTac WA – partial renovation *picture 8*