When university students have left for the summer and classes dwindle, generating sufficient revenue from residence halls can be a real challenge. Success seems to hinge on finding a use that is sufficiently compelling. At New Hampshire’s Plymouth State University, where we designed a new residence hall, we folded in something special: a hotel and conference center.
Many universities use residence halls for summer camps or conferences, but rarely for individual stays. Merrill Place was designed to optimize the experience for every use, so that residence hall bedrooms can be rented not only as part of a conference package but to individuals visiting the area.
Given the relative novelty of this space type, its design grew out of a research process that was particularly deep. We asked ourselves, what are the financial, operational and design requirements to make the “flip” successful? How do average occupancy and the building’s capacity affect the calculations on financial return? What amenities and room types work best? How can the look and feel of hotel-level hospitality be compatible with the durability required of a residence hall? And especially, what are the business competitors in the area?
A market analysis looked at other hospitality venues nearby and evaluated gaps in service. In the town of Plymouth, there was just one conferencing center with a 330-person, ballroom-style capacity and a handful of hotels serving a wide area. Plymouth State University saw an opportunity to provide a conferencing center that could draw business from the university, the town, and the region. Given Plymouth’s location in the heart of central New Hampshire, it’s a pretty great hub for tourists. It’s near the Appalachian Trail and offers fantastic hiking, rock climbing and cycling opportunities. With its natural beauty and optimal location, likely guests could be nature lovers, people looking for a weekend getaway, and anyone associated with the area’s many university-affiliated events, summer camps and professional development conferences.
Our design team provided a design aesthetic, a brand, and the amenities to position the university firmly in the hotel market while providing everything students would need during the academic year. The industrial aesthetic is clean and modern, yet retains the indefinable authenticity of the area. Our brand drew on the feel of a mountainous hike, alluding to trail maps and peak altitudes through raw materials like reclaimed wood and selectively exposed structural elements. The brand also incorporates eight graphic posters alluding to the university’s values, with themes addressing sustainability and social responsibility.
The seven-story Merrill Place Residence Hall has a maximum capacity of 345 beds during the school year and 188 beds (or “keys”) for summer hoteling. The bedrooms are mainly hotel-style (a double occupancy bedroom with a private bathroom); some are semi-suite-style (two double occupancy bedrooms sharing a bathroom). While the hotel-style units fit the expected model for hotel use, the semi-suites are an affordable semester option for students, and make a convenient spot for family or friends traveling on a budget. In front of the elevator bank at every residential level, there is a lounge; at the end of each corridor, there are high tops with stools for working, collaboration, and enjoying the amazing view from the upper floors.
To clarify the arrival process for first-time users, we placed a particular emphasis on choreographing its experience. We were careful to clarify what guests would do upon checking into the hotel or attending a conference event, and stayed conscious of how student uses would differ or align. Upon entering the building, users of either type come into an open, daylit lounge environment with a variety of seating, a feature kitchen that can convert into a demonstration kitchen or an events bar, a laptop counter that doubles as a catering surface, a study room that doubles as a conference room, and tables for pool and ping pong that can transform into standard tables. Visitors to the conference center have a dedicated entrance and the ability to connect through a door to the residential side by swiping a card. The conference center, a year-round, prefunction space and multipurpose room, can be divided into two spaces, holding anywhere from 276 seated attendees to 827 standing attendees. Beyond all that, the greatest success is that, since Merrill Place opened in August 2017, the conference center has been in great demand.
Now that the project is completed and thriving, we’ve looked back and seen the value in our early due-diligence efforts. They helped us understand operational requirements for flipping the facility from semester to hospitality use. We also found it crucial to involve an event coordinator in the design process—attracting interest in events will depend on the project’s aesthetics, its seating capacity, and how the space can be marketed.
Finally, we drew confidence in the process from the market analysis and from the pro forma.
Because many pro forma elements don’t generate revenue—such as debt service, insurance, personnel, maintenance and administrative fees—it’s important to weigh those against the revenue-generating side, where elements include anticipated occupancy, semester and summer hoteling, quantity of new beds balanced with the overall campus portfolio, the bed rates for students or hotel, and the potential revenue from hospitality events.
Operators should also consider how they balance the building’s size and bed count to meet the pro forma. They must also strike a balance on quality, one that is acceptable from a hospitality perspective yet durable enough for student use. Finally, they must establish and maintain a construction a schedule that allows the finished product to be unveiled with little downtime.
Aligning program and aesthetics with a revenue-generating model is increasingly critical to today’s budget-conscious colleges and universities.