The idea of a college-themed hotel screams kitsch and pennants and banners, but you won’t find any of that near Graduate Hotels, a new line of lifestyle-centric boutique hotels popping up in college towns across the United States. There are no furry school mascots doing cartwheels down the halls and no red beer pong cups stacked in the lounge. Ben Weprin’s AJ Capital Partners has taken a more sophisticated approach to creating properties that cater to a diverse community of visitors and locals.
“Storytelling is the hallmark of our company,” Weprin, 36, says. “We try to integrate the story of the community and, more importantly, the people who make each destination so distinctive and unique into the curation of each one of our projects.” The AJ in the firm’s name stands for Adventurous Journeys, which is part of the identity of a group that strives to be urban, trendy, hip, and bold and part of what they want you to get out of staying in their one-of-a-kind hotels. “It’s all about inspiring somebody. We’re all storytellers in this office. We all work collectively to design and build these hotels. Everyone is important. Everyone has ideas.”
AJCP is a firm of 35 creative professionals that places a heavy emphasis on providing a unique backdrop for guests. It’s also a private equity firm with an established track record in the lifestyle-driven investment industry. The group develops, owns, and operates a variety of commercial and hospitality assets and businesses, such as the Malliouhana Resort and Spa in Anguilla, which relaunched last November as an Auberge Resort following a three-year closure, acquisition by AJ Capital, and an 18-month redesign.
The development firm has also received accolades for its joint venture with John Pritzker, chairman of
Commune Hotels & Resorts and founding partner of Geolo Capital, to acquire and convert the former
Chicago Athletic Association building into a 241-room boutique hotel. The long-vacant Venetian Gothic landmark, dating back to the 1890s, sprung back to life on May 27, after a two-year restoration project. The hotel falls under the Commune umbrella. AJ Capital also has a stake in Thompson Nashville in the Gulch, which is scheduled to open in 2016, and Thompson Chicago, which opened in 2013.
“We spend a ridiculous amount of time researching each one of our markets, spending a lot of time in focus groups and really submersing ourselves in the community,” Weprin says. “We want to create fun, vibrant, and inspiring places.”
Perhaps none of the firm’s more than 20 boutique hotels and opulent resorts personifies that communal connection more than the Hotel Lincoln in Chicago. Crafted to transform guests back to vintage Chicago in the heart of one of the city’s iconic neighborhoods, Hotel Lincoln sits on the banks of Lake Michigan and offers sweeping views of the water and Lincoln Park. “We designed it to appeal to a 10-year-old and a 72-year-old,” Weprin says. “If you stay in our hotels, you’ll see a very wide range of people. It’s not just young artists. We’ve got a really wide variety. It’s like a concert—everyone’s there for the same experience.”
Guests and locals alike are drawn to Hotel Lincoln’s F&B offerings—Elaine’s Coffee Call café, the farm-to-table Perennial Virant restaurant, and the J. Parker Rooftop Bar for great views of the city. The inclusion of a unique bar, restaurant, and coffee shop helps to create the nostalgic town square model AJCP is going for, where everything happens at the hotel. Trademarks like an eclectic lobby, a pop-art front desk constructed of vintage suitcases, and an artsy, sophisticated vibe are designed to appeal to visitors across generations. Hotel Lincoln was transformed in 2012, rebuilt on the bones of an iconoclast but dilapidated Days Inn. Its rooms are classic, preppy, and fun. Above all, Hotel Lincoln is dipped in Chicago and oozing with local culture. “A hotel is a backdrop for creating memories,” Weprin says. “Having something that’s unique and distinctive really sets the tone.”
Hotel Lincoln sets the tone for more than just a trip to Chicago. Its unique place in the market also inspired a whole new $500 million vertical that debuted last year with AJCP’s Graduate Hotels, a line built to capture a piece of a diverse legion of travelers that frequent college towns.
According to a recent HVS report, the greatest challenge for developers in college markets is drawing customers from a wide swath of travelers. In addition to families visiting campus, college hotels can pull sports fans, alumni, visiting professors and speakers, and business travelers. “We look for travelers, not necessarily tourists—people who have done their research and are looking to get submersed in the local culture,” Weprin says. “Not everybody connects with the Graduate Hotels or one of our edgy hotels. It’s for a certain like-minded traveler.”
There are currently three open Graduates, one in Tempe, Ariz., near Arizona State University; one in Athens, Ga., close to the University of Georgia; and one in Madison, Wis., by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Locations in Charlottesville, Va., and Oxford, Miss., are scheduled to open this summer as AJCP plans to launch 15 to 20 new Graduate Hotels, including properties in Richmond, Va., and Lincoln, Neb., within the next five years.
AJCP’s acquisitions team scouts locations and targets specific markets based on metrics like population and size of the school but also measures intangibles like school spirit and academic culture and then goes after them aggressively, Weprin says. Each market calls for a distinct asset. Keeping with AJCP’s one-of-a-kind blueprint, no two Graduate Hotels are the same. Each property is meticulously designed with local culture in mind, which can show up on the walls in a work of art by an artist native to the area or the canoe-like lighting fixtures in Wisconsin. There is no guidebook that illustrates why a certain piece of art makes it into a hotel.
“A lot of them aren’t very obvious,” Weprin says. “Discovery is a big part of what we do. It’s sort of found. All the staff is pretty well versed in what we’ve done at each of these properties and can explain why a certain piece is hanging in the lobby and what its connection to the area is.” Just as long as it’s not a furry school mascot.