Ben Weprin (’01) has developed a national brand on building and repurposing hotel properties in college towns to appeal to alumni returning to their alma maters. His latest project has brought him back to his own alma mater, and he has given fellow Vols a chance to be a part of the project.
Weprin opened Graduate Knoxville in the former Hilton Garden Inn on Cumberland Avenue on August 13. The revamp includes a lot of features that will make Vols cheer, including UT-themed illustrations by cartoonist Marshall Ramsey (’91) in the lobby. And thanks to a friendship between Weprin and Peyton Manning (’97), the hotel’s bar and restaurant, Saloon 16, will boast the largest collection of Manning family memorabilia anywhere.
“It’s exciting to team up with Graduate Hotels on their Knoxville location, bringing Saloon 16 to the heart of the University of Tennessee community,” Manning said. “I love Knoxville, and when I am there, this is where I’ll be hanging out.”
Weprin’s team does extensive research on each institution’s traditions and history for their properties. As a UT alumnus, Weprin took a more personal interest in Graduate Knoxville.
“There are simply no words to express the amount of pride and gratification I have in bringing Graduate Hotels to Knoxville, where it all started for my wife and me,” said Weprin, who used to sell telephone ads up and down the Strip.
Late last fall, Graduate Hotels reached out to Associate Professor Courtney Childers of the School of Advertising and Public Relations to see if her students could work on a real-world marketing campaign for the hotel. The project was perfect for her Advertising Management class.
“The syllabus indicated that we would have a legitimate client for the final project,” said Kara Wegner, a Nashville native who graduates in August with a degree in advertising and a minor in business. “Dr. Childers informed us in March who our client was, so we pretty much hit the ground running.”
The 33 students also had the added challenge of not being able to work on the campaign together in person because of the pandemic. “Coming back from spring break,” said Wegner, “when we learned we’d be going online, Dr. Childers did a great job of keeping us engaged and on task.”
Amy Wexler, the senior vice president of strategic marketing and communications of Graduate Hotels, met with the class via Zoom in early April, telling them about the hiring of Ramsey and Manning’s Saloon 16. She charged the class with helping the hotel ingratiate into the community.
Wexler told them about a campaign that had been done at the University of Oregon. Since Eugene, Oregon, is the birthplace of Nike, the students created the concept of a Nike shoe claw to enhance the guest experience. The idea has been brought to life and now exists within the lobby of the hotel.
“They wanted out-of-the-box ideas,” said Mary Grace Satterfield, who is an advertising major with a minor in business administration from Memphis. “It gave us a very realistic idea of how actual ad agencies work. It was really nice to work with a company that makes appealing to younger audiences a priority.”
For example, Wexler asked for ideas for activities that could be held in the open lobby area that would attract younger audiences. The class suggested cooking classes, cocktail classes, and different game day experiences that would resonate with students.
“We divided into different teams—research, creative, media, production, and pitch. It was nice to have everyone in the class be able to give their input,” says Satterfield, who headed up the media team. Wegner led the creative team, which created a campaign plan book, which was 53 pages long with 14 sections, including a competitor analysis of Knoxville’s The Tennesseean and the Oliver Hotel.
In the end, the students came up with the tagline: Where Volunteers connect, stay, and play.
The pitch team prepared to present their campaign to Wexler and her team like Don Draper made his magical pitches to clients on the TV series Mad Men—only via Zoom. “We found out Ben Weprin was going to be on the call two weeks before,” said Wegner. “It was a little nerve-wracking.”
Six students were voted to represent the class. “We recorded the pitch the night before,” said Satterfield, “just to make sure nothing went wrong.” Weprin, Wexler, Ramsey, and five others from Graduate Hotels were in the meeting. “Pitching to the CEO and his team was an incredible experience,” said Satterfield. “He was so insightful on the call. He gave us some information. He mentioned that putting a hotel in Knoxville is a personal experience for him. He asked where we go to hang out. A lot of us said Market Square. He said it was always the Strip when he was a student. But when it came to placing his hotel, he said, ‘We had a dilemma on our hands. Market Square, which is the center of so much activity these days, or closer to the university on the Strip.’ He chose the Strip.”
“Our hotels boast youthful optimism and connecting with current students to hear what’s exciting and relevant on campus and in their lives is central to the success of our brand in each market,” said Weprin. “We’re grateful for their thoughtful feedback and were tremendously impressed with their insight and wonderful display of the Volunteer spirit.”
Wegner said, “Ben Weprin was so supportive of the whole thing and was really proud of the work we did. My huge takeaway was, if you have a creative idea, run with it. Be open to listen to anything—any ideas that you have are great. There are no bad ideas in that process. It was just like a mini agency, and we would all jump into each other’s ideas and run with them.”
Graduate Hotel photos by Steve Freihon