Charlie MacGregor’s father started out in the student housing business in Scotland, but it wasn’t until MacGregor moved to Holland and saw the dearth of student housing options that the business interested him. “Students deserved better than what they were getting,” he says. There were detractors along the way. People told him he was wasting his money, but MacGregor felt “like I had a blank piece of paper with nobody looking over my shoulder telling me how to do it. I knew it was going to change the market,” he says.
After the fourth Student Hotel opened in 2015 in Amsterdam City, the business model, which included longterm housing for students and short-term stays for hotel guests, incorporated co-living/coworking components after a Nike employee stopped in asking for a three-month housing contract. Kitchenettes were added to 10 rooms that were marked as extended-stay options for young professionals. Now, the segment accounts for 20 to 30 percent of the company’s hotel business.
A community focus emerged organically as more corporate travelers started coming into the space. “The atmosphere created by the residents is contagious,” says MacGregor, who compares the energy found in each of the Student Hotels’ 16 European locations to that of Soho House. “Everybody knows each other. There’s a relaxed feeling. That’s what makes us successful.” The addition of coworking facilities has further connected the properties to their neighborhoods.
While MacGregor set out to disrupt student housing, “I didn’t know that the hospitality world also needed to be disrupted,” he says. To bring his vision to life, the in-house design team works closely with local firms, eschewing kitsch for a playful color palette rooted in the student spirit. In fact, MacGregor says, “we are the definition of that spirit. We’re not finished, we’re on a journey. We’re going to try things. Sometimes it might work, sometimes it doesn’t, but we’re open to change.”
MacGregor started the Student Hotel brand during the financial crisis, and this past year proved no less challenging despite three openings in 2020 in Vienna; Delft, the Netherlands; and Bologna, Italy. The pandemic also tested MacGregor’s leadership. Starting a business requires a certain type of entrepreneurial spirit, he says, but leading a 500-person team during a crisis calls for another skillset altogether. He describes himself as a coach, noting that he has become a better listener and has learned to “give people the space to tell me their frustrations and fears. It’s never a good idea to waste a crisis, and we have been trying to make the best of it as a company.”
Looking ahead, MacGregor is hoping to expand beyond Europe into the U.S. and Canada, and plans to have 30 hotels open with an additional 10 in the pipeline by 2025. “We believe that doing all of these functions—working, playing, eating, and staying under one roof—is the way forward,” he says.
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