“That Solo cup was a total miss,” Ben Weprin laments with a sigh.
He’s the founder of AJ Capital Partners, which has teamed with GAW Capital Partners on a $500 million project to open 20 Graduate Hotels in college towns around the country over the next five years–boutique hotels in cities like Madison, Wisconsin, Tempe, Arizona, and Athens, Georgia. The hotels channel a distinctly collegiate aesthetic, and are meant to appeal to business travelers and alumni who’ve come back into town for a reunion or sporting event, filling them with the warm nostalgia and optimistic glow of their college days.
We’re chatting on the phone, looking over early mockups of the interior design. I point out a portrait of a red Solo cup hanging on the wall, and ask if it’s an attempt at a sort of frat house chic.
“We actually hate the red Solo cup,” Weprin cuts in. “It was the first model room we had. That won’t be in the [final] room.”
It signifies the fine line Graduate Hotels is walking to create just the right tone for its new chain. College towns have some shared quirks. They’re often relatively small, cultural meccas dropped in the middle of corn fields, and it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that visitors have the choice of staying at the Union or the Marriott. Graduate Hotels wants to offer an alternative, appealing to the worldly urbanite who is as accustomed to boutique hotels as he is nostalgic for his college days.
“We got an email from a designer. He said, ‘I can help you out here, because I’ve done hotels before where I’ve done university colors, pennants, and black and white photographs,'” explains Christian Strobel, AJ Capital’s president of the hotel division. “Ironically, that’s exactly what we’re not trying to do.”
That’s not to say that Graduate Hotels isn’t capitalizing on classic collegiate aesthetics. Tartan prints, warm wood desks, and tufted backrests are all sprinkled into the mix–evoking vibes of Ivy League student unions. A room in Oxford, Mississippi, features an end table made of leather suitcases topped by a trophy lamp. In Athens, a rough, pipe-based light fixture harkens back to a lousy dorm or that first apartment. These elements assemble with rich curtains and modern furniture to give the rooms a higher end, urban hotel vibe.
“There are stories of alumni who’ve changed the world. We can bring them out in a less obvious way,” Strobel explains. “In Athens, we did a lot of research on University of Georgia, and found out the person who brought football to Georgia was the chem teacher. We took that a step further. The artwork is chemistry equations.”