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This college town boutique hotel chain is the anti-Airbnb


The tailgate tour in his Mutt Cutts van, stocked with Yeti coolers and cornhole boards, was an opportunity to engage with students, locals and visitors on the way to Providence, Rhode Island ... for his father's national real estate firm and within ...


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Ben Weprin loves a good road trip, but when he celebrated the acquisition of his latest Graduate Hotels property this past year, he didn't just hop in one of the spiffy vintage Jeeps or Grand Wagoneers he collectsInstead, Weprin commandeered an exact replica of the fur-covered Mutt Cutts van, floppy dog ears and all, from the cult movie classic Dumb and Dumber. The founder of AJ Capital Partners, an investment outfit in Chicago that develops hospitality destinations, is wacky like that, but he clearly keeps business front and centerIn 2014 he noticed that most college towns lack any chic or upscale accommodationsHis answer: a collection of hotels that reside in the most dynamic university towns across the country, each uniquely tailored to the spirit of the college community. The tailgate tour in his Mutt Cutts van, stocked with Yeti coolers and cornhole boards, was an opportunity to engage with students, locals and visitors on the way to Providence, Rhode Island, home both to the movie's characters and Graduate's forthcoming location opposite Brown University. 'Not a cookie-cutter hotel chain' To Weprin, 39, being creative, enthusiastic and a little weird is what makes his brand so uniqueOn track to open 25 affordable boutique properties in university markets across the United States, Graduate is taking on hotel giants less with corporate muscle than with the dash and whimsy that are the signatures of the company's charmingly offbeat founder. He has already opened 10 Graduate Hotels, in places like Ann Arbor, Michigan; Richmond, Virginia; Minneapolis; and Tempe, ArizonaBy 2019 additional locations will include Iowa City, Iowa; New Haven, Connecticut; Bloomington, Indiana; and Seattle A typical Graduate property isn't very typical at allEach is tailored to the school's culture and localeThe picket fence at the Bloomington, Indiana, location references a memorable scene from the movie Hoosiers, which featured the schoolGraduate Minneapolis, which opened last month near UMN, has hundreds of visual allusions to Prince's Purple Rain. Source: Graduate Hotels The Graduate Hotel at the University of California at Berkeley. Some Graduate properties are newly built; others reimagine existing structures, like the former Hotel Duncan at Yale University, which the company acquired this fall and plans to open in 2019Graduate rooms are typically under $250 per night. "We're not a cookie-cutter hotel chain, and we're okay with that," says Weprin, who holds an MBA from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and lives in ChicagoWeprin started out working for his father's national real estate firm and within a few years was among the company's top brokersHe opened and ran an office in Nashville for several years but came back to Chicago to work for restaurant investor Larry LevyOne of Weprin's earliest wins was pulling together an investment group of his own, AJ Capital, to buy Levy's stake in Auberge Resorts. From the beginning, investors loved Weprin's affable personality and knack for delivering returns on projects other groups passed byThis past fall, AJ Capital closed round-two funding to bring its total investment pool to $1.5 billionFunders include John Pritzker's Geolo Capital and Hong Kong-based Gaw Capital PartnersGraduate Hotels is now the company's primary focus. "Ben is trying to merge really well-located real estate with a creative spin in these robust college towns where there's fantastic built-in demand," says Michael Nash, a senior managing director of real estate at Blackstone, which provided the loan for Fund II against the company portfolioGraduate currently has nine properties with 25 slated for opening by 2020 and an ambitious expansion goal of 100 markets within ten years"What Ben's doing isn't easy, but he's young, spirited, entrepreneurial and truly passionate about this platform," Nash says. "Delivering a sense of offbeat authenticity can be hard for a big hotel company to pull offIf Graduate can give people the feeling they're not staying at a boring chain, they're likely to grow their customer circles by word of mouth." -Maggie Rauch, research director at Phocuswright, a travel industry market research firm Still, Weprin doesn't fit the stuffy CEO stereotypeHe loves thrift-store art, Nike T-shirts and vintage flannel and insists on adding funky touches to his Graduate locationsThe rooms of the Berkeley, California, hotel feature lamps fashioned from bongs, and a lobby wall of 8,500 National Geographic magazines (the yellow border matches Cal's university colors)"For me this business isn't about how we can be everything to everybody – it's more, how can we be unique in a way people will love," he says"A lot of it comes down to what's personally appealing to me." show chapters Hilton CEO: Innovation is in our DNA    2:53 PM ET Wed, 6 Dec 2017 | 02:31 The Graduate vibe might attract prospective students, parents and visiting professors, but is it a winning and scalable formula in a highly competitive hospitality market? Maggie Rauch, a research director at Phocuswright, which monitors the travel industry, says "the reality for a lesser-known hotel group like Graduate is that the United States is the most consolidated big-brand-dominated hotel market on Earth, and there's little room if you're not a Marriott or Hyatt." At the same time, Graduate arrives at a moment when consumers, particularly millennials, are searching for alternatives to conventional hotel staysIn recent years, Marriott's smaller, Aloft and Moxy divisions, Hilton Centric, Radisson Red and Hilton's Canopy properties have all aimed to create a hotel experience that's predictable without being generic. "Delivering a sense of offbeat authenticity can be hard for a big hotel company to pull off," says Rauch, who says that's one reason online hospitality services like Airbnb and VRBO have taken off"If Graduate can give people the feeling they're not staying at a boring chain, they're likely to grow their customer circles by word of mouth." Source: Graduate Hotels The Graduate Hotel at Oxford University. One unique challenge to Graduate is the ebb-and-flow nature of college life itself, where summers and holiday breaks are traditionally slow and where longtime customers can be hard to find in a market where students cycle in and out every four years. More from iCONIC: John Paul DeJoria went from homeless to billionaire by following 3 simple rules This mom turned a $2,000 loan from her mother into a $260 million fortune A $1,000 bottle of wine grows in Brooklyn on a first-of-its-kind rooftop vine Weprin insists that's a misrepresentation"We're not going into remote college towns that don't have diverse demand," he says"In summer in Tempe, we're right by spring trainingIn Iowa City we're in the thick of where everything is happening in a great dynamic cityIn Charlottesville we're right across from a major hospitalWe're a cultural hub for people in these towns, as much as a place for Mom and Dad to stay on alumni weekend." Graduate is building a 195-room hotel on New York's Roosevelt Island at Cornell TechScheduled to open in 2019, it's part of a new campus and will be the island's only hotelOther openings are scheduled for Lincoln, Nebraska; Richmond, Virginia and Seattle. Weprin says the goal in the long run is to "build something that's attractive to a lot of exit opportunities, whether that's a portfolio sale, an IPO or a deal-by-deal exit." But in the short term, the idea is clearly to have fun"What we're best at is being creative, enthusiastic and a little weird," he says"We're taking a chance and trying to do something differentAs DrSeuss once put it, 'You have to be odd to be No1.'" — By David Hochman, special to CNBC.com var mps=mps||{}; mps._queue=mps._queue||{}; mps._queue.mpsinit=mps._queue.mpsinit||[]; mps._queue.mpsinit.push(function() { mps.insertComponent('#taboola_article_you_may_like', 'taboola-article-you-may-like') }); David HochmanSpecial to CNBC.com var mps=mps||{}; mps._queue=mps._queue||{}; mps._queue.mpsinit=mps._queue.mpsinit||[]; mps._queue.mpsinit.push(function() { mps.insertComponent('#mps_article_insert_footer', 'article-insert-footer') }); var mps=mps||{}; mps._queue=mps._queue||{}; mps._queue.mpsinit=mps._queue.mpsinit||[]; mps._queue.mpsinit.push(function() { mps.insertComponent('#ad-com-content-one', 'ad.com-content-one') }); var mps=mps||{}; mps._queue=mps._queue||{}; mps._queue.mpsinit=mps._queue.mpsinit||[]; mps._queue.mpsinit.push(function() { mps.insertComponent('#sbc-rightrail', 'sbc-rightrail') }); var mps=mps||{}; mps._queue=mps._queue||{}; mps._queue.gptloaded=mps._queue.gptloaded||[]; mps._queue.gptloaded.push(function() { (mps && mps.insertAd && mps.insertAd('#dart_wrapper_topflex', 'topflex')); }); var mps=mps||{}; mps._queue=mps._queue||{}; mps._queue.mpsinit=mps._queue.mpsinit||[]; mps._queue.mpsinit.push(function() { mps.insertComponent('#ad-com-rightrail-top', 'ad.com-rightrail-top') }); var mps=mps||{}; mps._queue=mps._queue||{}; mps._queue.mpsinit=mps._queue.mpsinit||[]; mps._queue.mpsinit.push(function() { mps.insertComponent('#article-insert-sidebar', 'article-insert-sidebar') }); CNBC Disruptor 50 Call for nominations — 2018 CNBC Disruptor 50 The hunt is on for the next group of innovative private companies transforming the economy and altering industry. A Tesla self-driving blind spot that few are focusing on Tesla is the only major player in the autonomous cars race that has no patents in recent years related to self-driving. Stock trading app Robinhood to launch bitcoin, ethereum trading in five states Customers in five states will be able to trade bitcoin and ethereum through the app starting in February, Robinhood said. Google, Microsoft, Ford partner with innovative start-ups The biggest public companies are seeking partnerships with some of Silicon Valley's most highly valued start-ups More From CNBC Disruptor 50 A college town hotel chain that is the anti-Airbnb Meet the 2017 CNBC Disruptor 50 companies After a patent mega-millionaire bought a bitcoin, it gave him an even bigger investing idea An anti-Silicon Valley fund launches to back moonshots for social good Lockheed Martin invests millions in defense start-ups to fast-track R&D This 'dumphone' is the antithesis of the iPhone X and yet start-ups are charging hundreds for it Japanese start-up taps into space boom with an Airbnb service for satellites MongoDB will raise $192 million in IPO, making it worth $1.2 billion Ending the utility as we know (and hate) itFirst up: New York City China’s blueprint to crush the US robotics industry Latest Special Reports Global Investing Hot Spots A globe-trotting look at the world of investing, from developed Europe and Asia trends to the least-traveled frontier markets. 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