Interview: Paul McGowan, Study Hotels

BHN talks to Paul McGowan, founder of Study Hotels, a lifestyle hotel brand conceived around the needs of leading university locations.

• Please tell us a little about your background and career history

“I started in the hotel business with ITT Sheraton, working closely with countless developers and franchise owners across the US upgrading their properties. I learned a lot about the business and what it takes to support the capital investment required to be successful in any given market. From there I quickly transitioned into managing large repositioning and new-build projects within the company’s owned portfolio, primarily resorts and convention hotels. When Starwood Hotels bought ITT Sheraton in 1998, my role continued until the launch of W Hotels which then consumed all of my time during my last two years with the company. In 2003, I founded Hospitality 3 as a hotel development firm and took on several large development/redevelopment projects for a select group of private and institutional investors. Study Hotels was then launched in 2008 out of a real estate investment opportunity that I discovered on the Yale University Campus.”

• What initially gave you the idea for a hotel brand based around university locations and what makes the Study Hotel concept unique?

“In 2003, I was touring colleges with my daughter Lauren and couldn’t find decent accommodations near many of the schools we visited. I was intrigued by this and imagined that if we could create a thoughtful place reflective of the quality of the university, consumers would respond. Sensing that university campuses were brimming with positive energy, personality and culture, I realised there was so much material to work with in crafting an authentic, meaningful environment for guests.  Not to mention, a customer base that is clearly defined and loyal at its core. The opportunity became clear; start thinking about a brand that was mature, adaptable, intellectual and cultured, without being pretentious or constrained.”

“Study Hotels was then conceived around the idea that each location would be designed to reflect the character of the university while maintaining key brand attributes – comfort, functionality, style, natural light in abundance and a strong pedestrian connection to the campus and local community. The Study at Yale is a great example of how this idea has taken root and the hotel has become an integral part of the school’s culture.”

 • How closely – if at all – do you work with the universities in your chosen locations?

“We put a tremendous amount of effort into understanding the uniqueness of each school on levels that are not obvious or cliché. It’s amazing what you discover when you peel back the layers and start to understand the richness of these institutions, in areas that are very interesting to our customers. Books by Yale authors, museum cases displaying artefacts from U Penn’s Museum of Anthropology or free tickets to a Yale hockey game are good examples. We also work hard to make connections on meaningful occasions like commencement weekend, when commemorative graduation notebooks and whoopie pies are given free to our guests as a gesture of kindness and celebration. Beyond that, we continually foster a dialogue with each school to be sure that our mission is aligned with their needs at any given time.”

• What did you draw from your experience at W Hotels that helped with the Study Hotel conception and launch?

“The biggest takeaway for me was the art of simplifying our business and staying focused on our customers’ needs. A really comfortable bed, a great shower experience, abundant work surfaces and comfortable reading chairs in the guest rooms are good examples of what we felt our customer was seeking. We took that further by adopting a ‘no-hassles’ approach to customer service, providing bottled water, wireless internet access and morning coffee, free of charge to our guests. We also went against the grain a little by not developing a dialogue about the brand, choosing instead to let the experience and inspired design of our hotels speak for itself. This philosophy continues to be the hallmark of our brand.”

• When you decided to buy the Philadelphia site for your latest property, did you have a clear vision in your head of how the property would eventually look?

“The Study at University City was a new-build so we had an opportunity to create a hotel that fit well in the context of its location. Our site was small which put pressure on getting our program to fit. I like the creative tension that comes from working within these constraints as it leads to better design. Our location was ideal, a corner lot situated between the entrances of two thriving universities.”

“Our goal in the design of the building was to create a sophisticated urban hotel that calls attention to itself as a commanding, yet stylish form, with a strong connection to the street. The materiality of the building was conceived from several precedents found in the Philadelphia market; a composition of natural materials presented in a variety of finishes with metallic accents to create interest.”

• How big do you think the potential market for the brand is? Where do you plan to take it next?

“A third location is in development at the University of Chicago and talks are in progress at several other prominent universities. As for growth potential, every university is different and demand generators vary from market to market. Many college towns are seasonal, so it’s difficult in the underwriting process to make the numbers work.  We’re looking primarily at urban markets where the university demand is enhanced by other dynamics, including medical and research centres and/or a strong corporate base.”

• Do you have plans to go international? Could Oxford and Cambridge be on your list?

“We’d love to go international – Oxford and Cambridge would be an ideal fit for us. The rich character and history there would provide strong inspiration for our design.”

• What is your vision for where the brand will be in five years from now?

“Scale is not important to us but rather the quality of each hotel. Our goal is to continue growing the brand in markets where we know our concept will take root and become an integral part of the community for decades to come. We want to become part of the culture of the school as we’ve done over the past 10 years at Yale.  It’s very gratifying to watch families celebrate the college experience in an environment that you’ve created.”

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