Interviews.

The Student Hotel Founder on ‘hybridisation’ in hospitality

Charlie MacGregor is the Founder and CEO of The Student Hotel, which fuses long-term student accommodation with short-term hotel facilities for the social globetrotter

by Will Hide, Click. Travel Writer

Topic: Guest experience Leadership

Click. Takeaway

  • Sometimes you have to shake the hotel-school learning out of hotel people. Staff need to relax and be themselves
  • Getting Corporate Social responsibility right is difficult, especially when you’re new and every cent has to count
  • Use your hotel space as a melting pot meeting space for the community. Stand up for what you believe in and tell people what that is
  • There’ll be an increase in branded co-living where longer-stay, residential-type services meet hotel-style amenities
Charlie Macgregor, CEO and Founder of The Student Hotel

Charlie MacGregor, Founder and CEO, The Student Hotel

When you look at hotel lobbies, more and more seem to disguise the fact they’re actually a hotel – installing check-in next to a barista, co-work spaces, a gym and cocktail bar. What can Macgregor’s brand of hybridisation teach the hospitality industry, especially when it comes to positively impacting local neighbourhoods? And what can others learn from The Student Hotel’s to-the-front Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda?

Click.: You had no hotel experience prior to opening The Student Hotel – do you think that actually turned out to be a benefit?
Macgregor: For sure! Through the years I’ve employed a lot of hotel people because I wanted a safe pairs of hands, but I felt I had to shake the hotel-school learning out of them sometimes. You can’t learn how to make a cool environment – you go to parties and some are cool, some aren’t. You need to put your guests in the middle and empower your staff to be themselves. That doesn’t take away from any of the normal processes you need to do, but your staff need to relax and be themselves.

Click.: How would you describe the concept of The Student Hotel to someone who hasn’t heard about you before?
Macgregor: I think we’re the pure definition of a hotel, in that we welcome everybody. We have people staying for up to a year, as well as overnighters. Because of that long-term and short-term element, the locals feel very welcome – there’s a strong sense of community. Lots of hotels have a closed-door feeling when it comes to the neighbourhood, but I’d like to think we are much more embracing. We’re trying to embody that real meaning of hospitality, putting the customer first and building a community around them.

Click.: Do you see yourself as a disruptor?
Macgregor: Yes, but not intentionally. We’ve had the advantage of starting with a blank sheet of paper so we haven’t had to follow previous systems, especially with technology. PMS (property management systems) for example, that handle our type of customer, the big boys have really got a mafia-type control on the whole sector and when you come along wanting something different you can forget about them wanting to change it.

Rightly so, because we’re a tiny client. But then we have an advantage because we can come up with something that handles a year-long residence with all the accounts pages behind it plus have the capability to work with the likes of the Online Travel Agencies (OTAs), as well as selling co-working space, gym memberships and the Food & Beverage (F&B) side. So, we were forced to start from scratch. No one else was doing it to the standard that customers these days are looking for.

Click.: Does the hotel sector lack vision because it just concentrates too much on “the bottom line”?
Macgregor: I do genuinely think there are too many business-plan hotel companies out there these days that have been built up by passionate visionaries. These big chains have some fantastic locations in city centres with big lobbies and great F&B spaces but they’re empty. There’s no incentive for a manager in a hotel like that to decide, hey, I’m going to close my restaurant down and rent it out to the cool, local brand. As a consequence, he closes for lunch, has a skeleton dinner staff and his main focus is breakfast.

Use your space as a melting pot and meeting space for the community

From our point of view, we’re in control of all of that so we want us to be the local F&B hotspot. If we can’t do that, we partner up with someone who can because we want to make sure our F&B is really vibrant for outside guests. If we get it right for outside guests then our hotel guests will be the happiest kids in town too. Still having our entrepreneurial spirit helps also.

Click.: When it comes to CSR what do you think the hospitality sector gets right or wrong?
Macgregor: When I started, every cent went into trying to make the business plan stack up and interesting for investors. As you progress further, trying to get budget for CSR into an existing business plan is still quite difficult. We’ve been lucky and set out that 10% of everything we do is dedicated to social causes – we’re not there today but that’s where we’re aiming for. We want to give out rooms to scholarship programs or to refugees, making our space available to start ups and charities, using our buildings as living labs for the latest technology on water management and solar energy etc.

Some of the hotel industry is pretty advanced on this front, but it’s tough, not everyone has the power to do this type of thing.

Click.: What are the building blocks for hotels to be better neighbours in their community?
Macgregor: Use your space as a melting pot and meeting space for the community. We, as hoteliers, have many relationships with other companies and we shouldn’t be afraid to reach out and stand by our beliefs. Reach out to your network of business suppliers and tell them what you’re doing – helping refugees for example – and you’ll be brought to tears by the generosity that’s out there. There’s a real advantage in standing up for what you believe in and telling people about that.

Click.: How do you think hotels will evolve over the next 15 years?
Macgregor: I think they’ll become much more relaxed. Experience is the new luxury. I think there will be more exposure to the longer-stay market. I think there is a massive market for branded co-living: there’s a lot of weight in hospitality brands, say W or Marriott for example, that when translated to residential-type services with hotel-style amenities can be a big winner.


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Hero image: TSH Dresden Communal Area. Credit to Philipp Götze

Will Hide is a travel writer and journalist, who spent 12 years on the travel desk of The Times before turning freelance

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