In this interview with Charlie MacGregor, CEO and founder of The Student Hotel, we find out about the entrepreneur’s perspective when it comes to investing in Tuscany.
How did the idea for The Student Hotel come about?
It came about through student housing, which I used to build in the UK. I moved to the Netherlands and saw a massive demand for it there: European student housing was non-existent at the time. I also realized that the industry didn’t treat students very well. The reputation of students, especially for our generation, was along the lines of they’re just going to destroy the place. Today’s students are not like that: their workload is huge and yet they perceive themselves as the lucky ones. We wanted to create a space where people could meet together and share ideas. We took our cue from Facebook, which came not from a university so much as from the dorms. We’ve connected the professional local community with the student community, so the atmosphere is much more like real life.
What were the challenges and joys of opening TSH Lavagnini in Florence and how did you find the support provided by the Invest in Tuscany team?
When you’re working in Italy, you learn that the culture is totally different from northern Europe. We were lucky. Under former mayor Matteo Renzi, there was a well-defined overview of the city and we fitted in somewhere. We then met the current mayor, Dario Nardella, and got his support too, which was really important. We were an external investor and Italy has a certain reputation. However, Invest in Tuscany’s attitude was we’re going to hold your hand as an investor, and we’re going to have a lot of meetings with you to make sure you’re comfortable. We called everyone for everything, all the time. But it meant that it only took three years between the first moment we saw the site and the moment we opened. For a building like this and for Italy, that was amazing.
Any particularly hard bits?
The bureaucratic stuff can make things difficult. I firmly believe that if you want to give an old building a new life, you have to accept that it can have a new life, and that requires a bit of give and take. Sometimes it’s very difficult to get through those rules and regulations. But that’s where the support of the Region and the city becomes very important.
What’s the state of play with TSH Florence Belfiore?
Construction is coming up to the ground floor by summer. That’s a big milestone. We’re working very hard to sign the contract with the existing builder, so he can just roll straight into the same building. It’ll be open in two and a half years. Belfiore will be two or three times the size of Lavagnini, making it one of the biggest hotels in Italy.
Florence has got a lot of things going for it. It’s very attractive for foreign and Italian students. During the summer period, we’re a hotel. During the academic period, we’re student housing with a hotel. We’re able to move our room demand. What I see in most hotels here is an old mentality: you come here, you have breakfast, then you go out all day long. It’s exhausting, it’s too much to do, and it means that the facilities in these hotels often aren’t that great. Our hotels—and Belfiore especially will be like this—are designed for people to enjoy the city, but also for people to meet and connect with the local community.
How has The Student Hotel braved the pandemic, especially here in Italy?
A crisis affects a business, and you have to take advantage of it. It was the first time since 2012 that we’d pressed a pause button on the business. We took time to reflect and asked ourselves Will community be a thing? Will people want to be together? Our conclusion is yes, people do want to be together, now more than ever. We believe that with the way people want to work, away from offices, this type of facility will be really popular. We’ve tweaked the model for sure, and the whole industry is moving towards us. Marriott say they want to have a community; Hilton wants to do extended stay. We as customers have changed too. There’s a new generation of corporate travellers who are looking for a vibrant place to work and stay, eat and play. Our goal is to be one step ahead of all the competition.
In October, you opened a new location in Bologna and have just announced plans to open in Rome by 2023. What’s the feeling among your staff and guests?
As we blend communities, we also blend hotel teams. We have a lady who’s normally at the Bologna hotel who’s working here because Bologna’s less busy than Florence in the summer. It’s a trend in hospitality, the blending of spaces and communities, but also the blending of the team. It’s no longer a question of one person working behind a bar and another behind reception: everyone can do everything. Italy has the best infrastructure in the whole of Europe: the high-speed rail line is off the charts. Our properties lie along those rail lines. If we are able to work in Rome, Florence and Milan on the same day, then our guests will feel they can do the same.
Do you feel a sort of responsibility as well, given that you’re the first to introduce a hotel like this in Italy?
A little bit. A lot of international investors have called and asked me for advice. We have a very open philosophy and the student property industry here is tiny, so we know everybody. We’ve helped each other a few times. We’re lucky: not many people have the connections with the city that we have. We’ve invested 100 million euros, so we’ve stayed current. Everyone’s still interested. But I’m passionate about other people coming to work here, so I try to give realistic advice and help wherever we can. The door is always open.
Invest in Tuscany is celebrating ten years of attracting foreign investment with an e-book featuring 16 multinationals that have chosen Tuscany to further their business operations. Invest in Tuscany, Invest in Values is available as a free download in English or Italian.