Reprinted with permission from Northwestern Magazine
In 2014, Ben Weprin ’10 launched Graduate Hotels, a hotel collection providing affordable lodging in college towns for families, alumni, prospective students and other visitors.
Weprin, founder and CEO of AJ Capital Partners in Nashville, conceived the Graduate Hotels project while he was a student at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
“I started studying university-anchored markets around the country and found that there wasn't anything purposefully built for these towns,” Weprin says. “I love [these] communities — the culture, commerce, creative spirit.” He wanted to capture that spirit in his hotels.
Weprin says he got his start in hospitality through Larry Levy ’66, ’67 MBA, who founded the Larry and Carol Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice at Kellogg. “Larry acquired a hotel operating company and I helped manage that on his behalf,” Weprin says. “[Later,] I went to Kellogg with his encouragement.”
Kellogg strategy professor Michael Mazzeo says Weprin was one of his favorite students. “His business strategy is a direct manifestation of the concepts from my course,” Mazzeo says. “I use his business as a case study in my courses, and he is very generous in coming back [to speak] to my students.”
By the end of 2020, Weprin had launched 28 hotels in 28 cities across the U.S., including 10 towns that are home to Big Ten institutions.
One might expect Graduate Hotels to be decorated with school pennants and mascots. Instead, the hotels draw inspiration from the surrounding region, featuring local artwork, food and drink. “We’re passionate about reflecting community spirit and camaraderie in our neighborhood-driven hotels,” says Weprin. His team holds conversations with alumni and locals in each town, to understand what truly makes the community unique.
“College towns change a lot, but we try to find things that will connect with people over time,” Weprin says.
Graduate Tucson, for example, features a restaurant with Southwestern fare and rooms with cactus-shaped lamps, while Graduate Nashville features a Dolly Parton–inspired room.
Though Weprin is a Dayton native, Graduate Evanston, which opened in October 2020, holds a special place in his heart. “We really focus on the art,” he says. “We have beautiful pieces of the lake. And we also did these caricature paintings of a bunch of [Northwestern] alumni who inspired us.”
Graduate Evanston guests can also “spend the night like Kevin McCallister” by booking the Home Alone room — a replica of the parents’ bedroom from the classic 1990 movie, which was filmed in the Chicago area.
“Our team is so passionate about the details,” Weprin says. “We took so many different pieces and parts of the [Home Alone] story: the escape plan and the black-and-white movie playing on the TV — it’s just so much fun!”
Like many in the hospitality industry, Weprin faced unique challenges amid the pandemic. The Graduate Hotels collection closed in March 2020 and reopened throughout the summer and fall, at which point they began renting rooms to local students, providing alternative housing after some universities closed dorms. Graduate Evanston will begin offering rooms to students this coming fall.
Each of Weprin’s hotels also has a philanthropic goal. For instance, 10% of the proceeds from booking the Home Alone room at Graduate Evanston is donated to Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “It felt like a really natural thing to us — Home Alone being a family movie and the Lurie hospital being such a world-class institution,” Weprin says.
Graduate Hotels’ largest philanthropic project is the I PROMISE Village, created in partnership with the LeBron James Family Foundation. The Village, located near the I PROMISE School in Akron, Ohio, provides free, short-term housing to students and their families who are experiencing homelessness, domestic violence or other difficulties, so the students can continue attending school.
“Our goal is to be the most thoughtful hospitality group,” Weprin says. “We bought a dilapidated building and renovated it and gave it to the school for homeless and displaced students. We just want to be great partners and however we can do that is important.”
This year Weprin will open four more hotels: one in New York City on Roosevelt Island near Cornell Tech (where it will be the very first hotel on the island), one in East Lansing near Michigan State University and two in the United Kingdom, near the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge.
“It’s been a hard year, obviously, for travel, but I think people really want to connect and be in places that are familiar — places you have wonderful memories of and nostalgia for,” says Weprin. “There’s no better sense of community than your alma mater.”
Diana Babineau is a writer and editor in the Northwestern University Office of Global Marketing and Communications.