Graduate’s new exec team eyes growth

CHICAGO—In anticipation of rapid growth and its forthcoming global expansion, Graduate Hotels, owned by AJ Capital Partners, has expanded its executive team, promoting established leaders and integrating new talent.

David Rochefort has been promoted to president, Saxton Sharad has joined as COO, and Tim Ryan is the new chief investment officer. Rounding out the leadership team are Julie Saunders, CMO, and Martin Hanson, president, Graduate Hotels Management.

Describing Graduate Hotels as having “the authenticity and emotional appeal of a small hotel collection with the commitment to standards and quality assurance of a larger brand,” Rochefort has a strategy for the brand going forward. “My ultimate vision is to develop the greatest service culture that is built on creating emotionally charged experiences for our guests through the art of storytelling,” he said. “Every guest that walks through our doors should be taken back to the carefree moments of college, whether they went to university in the community they’re visiting or not.”

That type of experience requires the right team, and the qualities that make a team excel start at the top. As such, the executives take their roles seriously.

“I see myself as a steward of the most unique brand and some of the most dynamic real estate in the country,” said Rochefort, who joined AJ Capital Partners in 2014 to support the launch of Graduate and has been instrumental in the brand since. “Our brand positioning and point-of-view could not be stronger. I have two key responsibilities in this stewardship role: to ensure that our message is being amplified to the world as we continue to grow; and to support and empower our employees, both in the corporate offices and at the property level, to feel like they have personal ownership of the brand.”

For his part, Sharad added, “My biggest focus as COO is ensuring the consistent quality of the Graduate Hotels experience across all of our properties. In order to achieve this, we take the approach that every small detail matters and create processes to streamline these consistencies from one property to another. As we continue to get larger, our focus on the little things must become bigger and bigger.”

Having worked with a number of hotel brands while running his own consulting firm, Sharad didn’t think he’d ever return to working for another company—but Graduate Hotels held the right appeal. “The vision for Graduate Hotels is exactly what was missing in the market,” Sharad said. “This inspiring brand combined with our entrepreneurial attitude and the opportunity to work with an incredibly talented and diverse group of people at AJ Capital Partners made this decision easy for me.”

With 21 hotels open, Graduate Hotels has another 11 in the pipeline, ranging from Palo Alto, CA; to Chapel Hill, NC; to the brand’s first international hotel in the United Kingdom.

“Cambridge is such an iconic and quintessential college town,” Ryan said. A conversion from a DoubleTree by Hilton, the 148-key hotel will debut as Graduate Cambridge in summer 2020. The hotel will undergo a complete interior renovation, including guestrooms, the fitness club and pool, and ground floor common and event spaces.

Speaking about the brand’s growth strategy going forward, Ryan said, “Whether through ground-up construction, adaptive-reuse or the transformation of an existing hotel, our growth strategy is centered around bringing incredible hotels to vibrant university-anchored markets, big and small. We’re very methodical about securing the perfect location for each hotel. Our disciplined approach can make growing a challenge, at times, but it’s vital to building a portfolio of irreplaceable properties and offering our guests the atmosphere and experience they’ve come to expect from Graduate.”

Rochefort, who has been with Graduate Hotels since the beginning, reflected on the company’s evolution. “In some ways, we have evolved considerably since our inception, and in other ways, we haven’t changed at all,” he said. “It speaks to the power of the brand that our mission—to create experiences that allow our travelers to reminisce and reimagine the spirit of their college years—has not changed in more than five years. With that said, we have also changed considerably because the marketplace requires it. We have seen nearly every major brand try and copy our commitment to locally inspired and differentiated design. In response, we have invested significantly in developing our people as well as in technology, systems, training and quality assurance so that we can continue to stay a step ahead of the bigger brands.” HB

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