AJ Capital Partners identifies and executes in “white space” environments – exploiting misalignments between low-quality, highly commoditised offerings and the consumers’ appreciation and desire for authentic experiences. With Graduate Hotels opening in Cambridge and Oxford and three Scottish hotels under their Marine and Lawn Collection, AJ take a hospitality-minded and residentially inspired approach to design, development, and placemaking.
What was your background prior to launching AJ Capital Partners?
In 2008, I founded AJ Capital Partners, investing in a portfolio of luxury resorts at the height of the economic crisis. In my hometown of Chicago, I restored the Hotel Lincoln, Chicago Athletic Association, Soho House and Thompson Chicago. The current portfolio includes projects throughout Chicago, as well as the iconic Pontchartrain Hotel in New Orleans and the Thompson Nashville in Nashville’s Gulch neighborhood, amongst others. Recent projects under way include The Armory in San Francisco, May Hosiery and Nashville Warehouse Company in Nashville, The I PROMISE Village by Graduate Hotels with The Lebron James Family Foundation, and the forthcoming hotel with the Magnolia Company in Waco, Texas.
With all your hospitality experience, what fascinates you most about the hotel industry?
My passion for the hospitality industry itself stems from the power of placemaking and building memorable gathering places in unique, once-in-a-lifetime destinations.
Travel is the distinctive opportunity to escape from one’s day-to-day life to experience something entirely new, exciting and enriching. For me, it’s all about creating properties that serve as the ultimate backdrop for these unforgettable moments. It’s less about the price point and more about the feeling throughout your stay.
What’s one unexpected shift you’ve seen in guest expectations or demands in the last five years?
Guests crave a highly customised and unique experience more than ever when travelling. They want to wake up and know exactly where they are in the world, and come away with a tangible understanding and connection to the destination upon their departure. Our hotels have always leaned into this localised approach, and we know that’s what keeps people coming back.
What role does Europe play in Graduate Hotels’ growth?
Our team is incredibly excited and humbled to be expanding the Graduate Hotels brand into the UK with the launch of Graduate Cambridge and The Randolph Hotel, by Graduate Hotels, in Oxford.
These are two of the oldest and most prestigious university communities in the world, so it has definitely been an ambitious and ultimately rewarding set of projects. It’s a huge moment for us. Our team has been blown away throughout the process, and has taken joy in embracing and bringing to life so many of the inspiring people and innovations that have called these cities home.
Beyond the properties themselves, it’s a very unique time to be opening hotels and bringing something new to the market. There’s an immense amount of pent-up demand, in particular for the staycations and regionalised travel. We’re looking forward to offering a convenient and unique retreat for travellers throughout the UK and internationally. In addition to Graduate Hotels, our Marine & Lawn properties launching this summer in Scotland embrace a growing audience of curious leisure and adventurous travellers and golf enthusiasts.
"Guests crave a highly customised and unique experience more than ever when travelling”
How does design play a role in driving customer loyalty?
Design plays a huge role in the Graduate experience. Each property has its own unique identity, and that personality and spirit is brought to life throughout the hotel. These narratives drive the guest experience and create a sense of discovery throughout the visit that’s playful, fun and nostalgic. That connection builds loyalty and a desire to return to that property, but also to experience that feeling of discovery at another Graduate hotel. Whether guests are alums of the neighbouring university or grew up nearby, they love to stop in and see how their favourite age-old narratives are incorporated into the design.
In which parts of the hospitality experience is good design most important?
Our approach to design is comprehensive. The smallest detail, such as our student ID card-inspired guestroom key cards, or the bathroom wallpaper featuring watercolours of local architecture, is just as important as the statement, custom punt boats hanging in the lobby in Cambridge. It’s the layering of different colours and textures, and the weaving of an array of narratives new and old throughout that brings the hotel to life. We focus on the storytelling, but also on creating a variety of vignettes throughout the hotel, where new perspectives can be had on these very same stories. This ensures that each visit is unique, each guest has their own experience, and every stay is different from the last.
The most important element in ensuring we achieve this is doing our homework. Upon acquiring a new property our team takes a deep dive into everything that makes that destination unique. From devouring history books and local book shops, to taping the favourite local bartender or cab driver. We want to cut through the known and uncover the unknown, the lesser-known graduate, the secret freshman right of passage.
We also take inspiration from notable alumni and reimagine guestroom key cards as student identification cards. This personalisation expands the storytelling into each touchpoint of the guest experience and continues that feeling of exploration throughout every aspect of the visit.
Uncovering these details and incorporating them into design is the most important part. And of course we renovate, restore, and ensure each property has the latest tech and conveniences expected. But we’ve found it’s the distinct sense of place that sets a Graduate apart.
Have you noticed any particular trends in interior design?
We focus less on trends and more on creating an emotional response. Our spaces are personal and timeless. This is achieved differently in each market, and therefore we lean into the latest trends where most seamlessly incorporated into the guest experience. A welcoming, residential feeling is important in our hotels, so we focus on sourcing the final portion of decor from local vintage shops, markets and vendors. This ensures we achieve the right style, energy and time period for the corresponding community.
We do lean into making sure our hotels best serve students, collaborative work and group gatherings, so guests can expect easy access to outlets, great lighting installations and incredibly comfortable furnishings.
How important is choosing the right designer for each hotel?
We’re lucky to have very talented internal design and development teams that oversee our projects, as well as a range of wonderful collaborators that we team up with to localise and bring each hotel to the finish line. This has played a huge role in our success and our ability to create distinct projects that still feel uniquely Graduate.
Beyond design, the development and restoration of historic landmarks is incredibly important to our team and an integral part of what we do as a company. This is a true labour of love for our team. We work super-closely with the local experts to ensure we honour the history of the buildings. The Randolph, for example, has been renovated and restored to preserve the heritage standing at the hotel and celebrate the storied architecture.
In the design, there is a strong reference to classic British furniture styles and fabric patterns throughout, notable alumni can be found in the art packages, Cambridge- or Oxford-specific motifs in the corridor carpet, and there are fabrics in the guest rooms that are a direct reference to the city and the famous Oxbridge cloth shirts. The right design team understands how to beautifully and impactfully use design as a vehicle for telling the history of a property.
“Design plays a huge role in the Graduate experience. Each property has its own unique identity, and that personality and spirit is brought to life throughout the hotel"
How would you define Graduate Hotels’ identity?
Created for travellers who seek memory-making journeys, Graduate Hotels is a thoughtfully crafted collection of hotels that reside in dynamic university-anchored cities across the country. Each property celebrates and commemorates the optimistic energy of its community, while offering an extended retreat to places that often play host to the best days of our lives.
Which is your favourite property to date, and why?
I can’t pick a favourite. They’re all special in what they represent and the approach that we took.
“It’s the layering of different colours and textures, and the weaving of an array of narratives new and old throughout that brings the hotel to life”
What plans and aspirations do you have for Graduate Hotels – and, of course, your latest brand to launch in Scotland, Marine & Lawn Hotels & Resorts?
We’re excited to open the first Marine & Lawn properties this summer and provide travellers with distinct, once-in-a-lifetime experiences along the storied coasts of Scotland. Rusacks in St Andrews will be the first to launch. This property will set the bar high for the collection, and will represent a standard we will continue to aspire to with each of our properties.
The team has long been enamoured with the rugged beauty of the region and the rich history of Scottish golf, and these properties will sing in celebration of these distinguished traditions. From avid golfers and bucket-list travellers to those looking for a leisurely long weekend, our properties will offer a welcome respite and luxury for all.
The Marine & Lawn hotels take inspiration from each building’s location and architectural history, as well as from Scotland’s greater heritage as the birthplace of golf. Spaces will be nostalgic, playful and exciting, balancing the past with the present. We want to inspire a new generation to play golf and introduce travellers to the outstanding Scottish views, enjoying the comforts of their surroundings.
For Graduate Hotels the aspiration is to be the go-to hotel to stay at in each university town, and the go-to restaurant for locals in both Oxford and Cambridge to dine in and be seen in. There is pent-up demand for travellers wanting to explore again after being at home for so long, and we are excited to offer them the Graduate Hotels experience.
What’s next for you and AJ Capital Partners?
We’re really focused on successfully launching Graduate in the UK. For a brand so fundamentally rooted in the American university experience, it’s an incredible moment to bring what is now such a diverse and dynamic hotel collection to these amazing UK destinations.
Back in the States, we’re excited to enjoy a fall semester in many of our Graduate markets, where the past school year was far from traditional. In Nashville at our HQ, we’re continuing to expand, and are currently developing an entire neighbourhood named Wedgewood Houston. As international travel opens up, this will absolutely be a new arts and culture destination for those on a hunt for a different perspective on Nashville. We’re feeling stronger than ever, and excited to see what the future holds.