The Education of a Brotelier
Posted July 14, 2018 12:13 a.m. EDT
Wearing jeans, a red vintage T-shirt, an Eric Church baseball cap and a backpack, Ben Weprin bound down a sidewalk of Roosevelt Island in New York, home of the Cornell Tech campus, a satellite of Cornell University, looking like a college student on the first day of class.
Weprin, 40, had taken the subway there from Manhattan, an experience that he seemed to regard as a kid would a carnival ride. (He stood the entire train ride despite all the empty seats, and excitedly gave a subway mariachi musician $10.) When he emerged from underground, he didn’t have his bearings. He walked south. He pivoted. He walked north. He asked a security guard for directions. Then he found what he was looking for.
“There’s our hole,” he said while trying to climb a wall to take a peek into the $125 million project that his hotel development company is building here. Like at all Graduate Hotels, there will be an emphasis on design that connects the local history with the collegiate experience. The lobby will have 10,000 square feet of textbooks and a 20-foot sculpture by Hebru Brantley of a flyboy crouched in an inquisitive pose.
As Instagram bait goes, it will be hard to beat the view from the roof bar — the entire East Side skyline of Manhattan. “The Graduate was just an idea, and now it’s coming to life in New York City,” Weprin said, adding, as he often does, a four-letter expletive. Then he spotted a hot dog truck, ambled over and ordered two, which he gulped down in one bun.
Weprin is the founder and chief executive of AJ Capital Partners, the Chicago real estate company that is behind Graduate Hotels, a 4-year-old chain of boutique hotels situated near college campuses and designed to cater to the nostalgia and local boosterism that are part of the culture of university towns. (Room keys are imprinted with the names of famous alumni, and public spaces are decorated with historical photos of campus life, vintage art and other collegiate artifacts.)
“The cost of living is low, you have culture, you have commerce, and you have a youthful energy,” said Weprin, who, with his confident manner and determinedly youthful look (that country singer cap seems to be a staple of his wardrobe) might well represent a new generation of hotel executive: the brotelier.
He and his company are trying to create a brand that will find year-round business by catering to more than just alumni coming back for once-a-year football weekends or 10th anniversaries of their graduating classes. Travel to college towns has increased in recent years thanks to more frequent visits by “helicopter parents” and the rise of the parent-child college tour. Weprin, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Tennessee, has even come up with a name for this growing niche: “visitcation.”
There are 11 Graduate Hotels in locations like Ann Arbor, Michigan; Oxford, Mississippi; Tempe, Arizona; and Charlottesville, Virginia; and nine more in construction or renovation phases, including in Nashville, Tennessee; New Haven, Connecticut; and Palo Alto, California. In September, AJ Capital expects to close a $475 million fundraising round, said Cooper Manning, a principal of AJ Capital and its head of investor relations. The company, with $3 billion in assets, expects the portfolio to grow to 30 hotels or more.
In 2014, Manning — whose brother Eli, the New York Giants quarterback, is one of Weprin’s best friends — began to advise Weprin as he was developing the Graduate in Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, the alma mater of the two Mannings and their father, Archie. The Manning family connected Weprin to locals and helped him get a feel for the Ole Miss vibe. Weprin named the roof bar the Coop.
Weprin didn’t start out to be a hotelier.
After graduating from college, he moved to Chicago, and took a job as a broker in the low-income housing market. While there, Weprin became friends with Ari Levy, a son of Larry Levy, who built a large company for food concessions at sports and entertainment arenas and who also holds significant real estate assets. Weprin came to know and look up to the elder Levy. “Larry knew everyone,” Weprin said. “He had a lot of influence and power, and a lot of swagger.”
After two years in Nashville, where he and a college friend started a business buying and renovating buildings, Weprin and his wife, Mary Ann, moved back to Chicago, and Weprin took a job overseeing Levy’s real estate investments.
Among the investments that were in his purview was Levy’s interest in Auberge Resorts, which operated luxury hotels like the Esperanza Resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. In the fall of 2008, as the economy was cratering, Levy told Weprin that he intended to sell his interest in Auberge. Weprin, a new father who was studying for an MBA at Northwestern University, decided he wanted to buy it. Levy was encouraging, but reminded Weprin that he was going to have a hard time getting bank financing to buy a luxury hotel business when Wall Street was in a free fall. He gave him about 45 days to get the money.
“My dermatologist from Dayton, Ohio, was probably our largest investor,” Weprin said. (AJ Capital sold its interest in Auberge in 2016.)
Through his newly created AJ Capital (“Adventurous Journeys” with “Q4 08” in its logo to remind itself of its tough-time beginnings, in the midst of the financial crisis), Weprin also moved into ownership. He said he bought a majority interest in the Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France on St. Barts in 2010 for 65 million euros (then about $80 million), then renovated and sold it in 2013 to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton for about nearly double that amount.
“That validated us because people thought we were nuts trying to be in luxury hotels at that time,” Weprin said.
Creating ‘a Sense of Place’
The idea for the Graduate started a little closer to home. Weprin was walking in his Chicago neighborhood, Lincoln Park, when he focused on a shuttered, neglected Days Inn. The location had none of the traditional market drivers in its favor — it wasn’t in the business or tourist districts. But it was near Wrigley Field, DePaul University, and the homes of thousands of young professionals and families who might need a close-by place to put up visiting relatives, if not a cool local spot to grab a drink.
AJ Capital bought and renovated it, infusing it with a hyper-local style that drew inspiration from its neighborhood. It reopened as Hotel Lincoln and was a quick success. Weprin started to focus on how to replicate it.
The first branded Graduate Hotel, in Tempe near Arizona State University, opened in 2014. Next came Athens, Georgia, and Madison, Wisconsin.
Design is the key element of Graduates, and Weprin brought in as a chief creative officer Andrew Alford, a San Francisco designer who had created the look of the Hotel Lincoln. Alford has since been building visual narratives for each Graduate property, commissioning vintage-inspired pieces of art and furniture while haunting flea markets and stalking eBay.
“We want people to wake up and have a sense of place, and it should be secondary that they’re waking up at the Graduate Hotel,” Alford said. For the new Graduate Hotel in Iowa City, home to the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Weprin and his team commissioned a local author, Timothy Taranto, to write a novel with paint pens on surfaces throughout the lobby. The wallpaper in the guest room bathrooms is printed with corn cobs coming out of husks. Key cards feature such alumni as actor Gene Wilder, former basketball star B.J. Armstrong, and George Nissen, a gymnast and inventor of the trampoline.
These sort of details, and the overall business model, have impressed other successful hotel owners. Jonathan Tisch, the chairman and chief executive of Loews Hotels, met Weprin about six years ago, when Weprin was attending a Giants game with Eli Manning’s wife, Abby. (The Tisch family owns the Giants.)
The men, along with their wives, have become friends. (Tisch’s wife, Lizzie, persuaded Weprin to include her student ID photo on a key card for the Graduate in Ann Arbor, putting her in the company of Gilda Radner, Iggy Pop and Desmond Howard.) But the two have a professional connection as well.
“I have tremendous respect for him for finding a market that was not necessarily being filled and, having been in the business for 35 years myself and knowing the challenges, for having the ability to react to the white space and create a brand,” Tisch said.