Skift Take

Expect other hotel brands to watch the Graduate Hotels' experiment. Professionally managing vacation rentals may be a path for hotels to expand their reach while minimizing some risks.

Fans of college football teams such as the Ole Miss Rebels and Michigan Wolverines are about to find that booking accommodations for home games has gotten a bit easier — if they’re willing to stay in a house instead of a hotel.

Graduate Hotels has just launched Graduate Homes, a short-term rental program that targets major college football markets while adding crucial inventory during busy periods. It’s the Nashville-based global hotel chain’s first non-hotel product. While hotel companies such as Marriott are promoting stays in vacation rentals, Graduate Hotels is taking a more hands-on approach.

“Ben Weprin, our founder and CEO, had this idea to expand the brand without actually expanding our physical footprint,” Graduate President Kevin Osterhaus said, referring to the company’s 32 university-themed hotels.

“Given our collegiate markets, our (room) occupancy is maxed out for home games, graduation, homecoming, and we thought we had an incredible opportunity to leverage our presence while providing ancillary services for guests and homeowners.”

College football has for years been a big source of local tourism.

Graduate’s first rentals are located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Oxford, Mississippi. The new program will help the brand make greater inroads among football fans, a lucrative market that has generated millions of dollars for the hotel industry. 

While Airbnb, Vrbo, or Booking.com hosts are responsible for duties such as cleaning their properties, providing fresh linens, and handling the proverbial 3 a.m. calls about lost keys, Graduate Homes assumes all of those tasks. The program also provides homeowners discounts for stays at Graduate’s brick-and-mortar hotels. 

Groups that would otherwise be split up into separate hotel rooms — or even different hotels during busy periods — can stay in the same, spacious unit. Properties sourced by Graduate have three to four bedrooms and are equipped with dens and living rooms. Home guests have access to Graduate’s pools and fitness centers as well as discounts at the nearest hotel’s eateries.

To be sure, skeptics question how Graduate or other hotel operators can extend their brand to the servicing of home rentals. Time will tell if it can provide a consistently branded experience that ensures safety and security at a price point to make it profitable and without straining the existing hotel operations.

But the unique surging demand for college football on a handful of dates of year makes this a good test case.

Opportunities for upselling may also help give a margin cushion. Graduate can arrange optional services, such as transportation to and from airports, tailgate parties, or refrigerators pre-stocked with food and beverages. 

In addition, a partnership with experiential platform Way offers additional in-home experiences, such as yoga classes, personal mixologists, and chocolate tastings. 

“We’ve added all of these interesting things that are very specific to these communities,” Osterhaus said. 

Graduate Hotels isn’t the only brand to leverage the platform for streamlined concierge-level activity bookings. Jenny Schipani, corporate director of experience for The Standard’s Austin, Texas-based boutique hostel brand Bunkhouse, said that there’s so much to do in the city that she “could spend an entire day putting together an itinerary for one guest.”

But, what’s the one thing missing from Way and Graduate Homes? The easy ability to get tickets to the biggest games. All-inclusive packages, such as those offered by ESPN Events, often come with some caveats. Minneapolis’ Hotel Ivy once offered — in an Ultimate Tailgate Package — a one-night stay in a penthouse suite and three other hotel rooms with food and beverages credits, limo service, and six tickets on the 40-yard-line to a Vikings game for a whopping $12,000. Those tickets were only for a preseason game, though.

Other companies, like fledgling Field Day, partner with hotel brands like Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott to sell party packages that include accommodation, an open-bar welcome celebration with a DJ, transportation, and a pre-game tailgate. The $399 packages don’t include tickets to see any elite college teams play, however. 

The least expensive but perhaps less immersive experience may just be a good old-fashioned parking lot party. Residence Inn by Marriott Pittsburgh North Shore allows guests, who can park overnight for $27, to tailgate in their parking lot before Steelers games, provided they don’t prevent others from entering and exiting the hotel.

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Tags: colleges, football, future of lodging, graduate hotels, hotels, sports, universities

Photo credit: The interior of a Graduate Homes rental in Oxford, Mississippi. Finn Properties