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A Graduate Success

Ben Weprin (HCB, ’01) had an optimistic vision of success and a talent for leadership. Launched during the economic recession in 2008, Weprin’s hospitality company, Adventurous Journeys, now represents more than $5 billion in holdings.

COLLEGE STUDENT ENTREPRENEUR

A NATIVE OF OHIO, Weprin fell in love with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, on a campus tour and decided to apply. “It was a magnetic campus in 1997 with Peyton Manning returning for his senior year on the football team,” Weprin recalls. “I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.”

Weprin’s desire to be an entrepreneur began at age 10, when he and his brother started their own business selling baseball cards. As an undergraduate at Haslam, pursuing a general business degree was a natural fit. “The college provided me with great opportunities to figure out my passions.”

Within a year, Weprin dove into leadership positions for campus events as an orientation leader for new students and eventually as president of the Interfraternity Council. He and a friend, William Kirkland, also launched a side hustle selling ads for a campus telephone directory.

Jerry Adams, associate director of residence life for university housing, worked with Weprin during that time. “I found him to be an authentic leader and a really hard worker,” Adams says. “Not worried about getting his name in lights, he just wanted to get the job done.”

While at UT, Weprin met and later married his wife, Mary Ann, and the day after walking in a graduation ceremony, he drove to Chicago to start his career.

CHARTING A COURSE TO REAL ESTATE

WEPRIN FIRST WORKED as a real estate broker in the low-income housing market, then moved to Nashville where he started another business with Kirkland, this time buying and renovating properties. A few years later, he returned to Chicago to work for an established real estate investment firm.

In 2008, he had the opportunity to purchase interest in a luxury hotel and decided to take a chance despite the economic downturn. Adventurous Journeys, Weprin’s fledgling company, grew from resorts to urban development to a hotel chain in 2014 that is now expanding internationally. Two locations will open in Cambridge and Oxford this summer. Graduate Hotels use college memorabilia and local art from the university towns where they’re located. “I loved college and didn’t want to give up the excitement it brought,” says Weprin. “How that all comes together is a huge credit to the towns and the local voices who help us. Starting Graduate Hotels was a great way to spread that excitement on a national and global scale.”

HOTELS THAT TELL STORIES

TO CREATE A GRADUATE HOTEL, Weprin’s team puts together a local focus group to share ideas. Such groups help the team discover the heart of the market, both in the present and the past, finding the nostalgia of the university and surrounding areas. The process of discovery and design takes one to three years before the hotel opens. “We want our visitors to walk in and think, ‘These people really get me. This feels like home.’ That builds loyalty and trust, the most important values in hospitality.”

The chain’s twenty-fourth hotel opened in Knoxville last August, designed with help from football icon Peyton Manning. One of Manning’s brothers, Eli, is Weprin’s longtime friend and another brother, Cooper, works for Adventurous Journeys. When Weprin acquired property for Graduate Knoxville on Cumberland Avenue, he asked Peyton for input. “He developed every single item on the restaurant menu, chose every musician and song on the jukebox, and selected every photo and piece of memorabilia on the walls,” says Weprin. “His love for Knoxville and commitment to this project were obvious.”

The hotel’s bar and restaurant, Saloon 16, has a cozy atmosphere with dark walls and warm colors. Handcrafted by Manning, it tells the story of his UT experience. “For me, it was fun to go down memory lane and celebrate the people who have been part of my Tennessee journey,” Manning says. “The goal was to create a place where everyone who comes in can reminisce about their time in college.”

As he worked on the project, Manning was impressed with Weprin’s abilities. “Ben had this great vision of where everything was going to go,” says Manning. “He could see it before it was there.”

Weprin’s longtime friend and colleague William Kirkland agrees. “Ben sees potential where others don’t see anything at all, and he has the work ethic to match his vision,” he says. “He also has an amazing heart for others—he wants a project to succeed not just for himself, but for the community it will impact.”

Reflecting on his entrepreneurial success, Weprin is amazed at how everything has come together. “For me, the best part is the impact we can make on employees, guests, and the community,” he says. “Opening a property in Knoxville, home of my own alma mater, has really brought it full circle.”

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Haslam Magazine is the premier publication of the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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