Hospitality & Catering

The story behind community building at The Student Hotel

A hybrid hospitality model and a "Community First Organization". Read it all in this chat between Lucien van Geffen and Edwin Spruijt.

August 24, 2022

In the series of “As Conceptional we support our clients in Winning Concepts, Winning Teams”, today our first article of the conversation our colleague Edwin had with Lucien van Geffen of The Student Hotel (TSH).


Who is TSH and who are you?

TSH is a hybrid hospitality model, welcoming guests from all walks of life. Stay for a week, a year, work at a spot in the TSH Collab, host an event: all are invited to join the Complete Connected Community of TSH. We call ourselves a “Community First Organization”. The community is the beating heart of the organization. Ten years ago, we opened our first location in Rotterdam, focusing mainly on student accommodation. Now TSH has expanded to 16 locations with restaurants, meeting & events, co-working, retail and grab & go. I, Lucien van Geffen, 34 years old, am Director Community at TSH. This means that I am responsible for all community-related matters in the organization.


What was your first job at TSH?

I came from a completely different background; I was an actor at the Belgium production company Studio100, playing the main character in the daily TV-Show Het Huis Anubis. By chance, I was sitting on the terrace on the first day pop-up restaurant la Plancha in Rotterdam opened. It was chaos, but very successful. I spoke to the founder and five minutes later I was wearing an apron and became F&B manager for two months. TSH then offered me to become restaurant manager. I went in with the idea of doing this temporarily and continuing to audition in the meantime. But TSH fascinated me, it grabbed me. I have never left, and – after five job changes – I am now called a “dinosaur”.


How did the idea of building a community come about?

I was in the elevator with CEO Charlie MacGregor and received a power pitch with the main question: do we still get the best out of you? He proposed the idea of a “connector” and said: that must be you. I grabbed the opportunity. The idea was to build a true community hub, bringing together the sub communities such as our co-workers, meeting- & events guests, the local urbanites and of course the students into one complete connected community.


Who is the community?

Initially, only co-workers were members, but since a year we have started with an Alumni pool. This means that all other guests are still members after they have checked out. The challenge now is how to bring our diverse community of students, co-workers, restaurant visitors, M&E corporate clients and so on under one umbrella? The goal is to fully enroll, participate and want to be part of TSH. The emotional connection of guests to TSH is very important. Renting a room or desk is one thing, but what does our organization stand for and what does it bring me as community member? The loyalty of guests was therefore an important driver to make the community events successful. We have long said: anyone with the “student spirit” can participate. But we are looking for life-long relationships for all sub-groups. Therefore, in the future our community is open to anyone with a “Bold Builder of Better” mindset. If you want to make the world a better place, challenge the status quo? We, our community & facilities, are the brand for you. By now, 7,000 active members identify with us daily on location.


How do you create a community and how does a guest become a loyal member?

First and foremost, if you want an organization to become a community, you cannot put a team in place to take care of that, it must be implemented throughout the organization.

Determining in what way we want to make those connections has changed over time, but events is and remains a huge driver of that. In the beginning, we made the mistake of organizing everything ourselves and taking on an organizational role instead of a facilitating role. This took far too much time and came at the expense of quality. Even engagement went down, because for students it felt like mum and dad were organizing again. They preferred to be able to exert influence themselves.  Partnerships have helped us to become facilitators. It has built our credibility, they are the experts and bring the content, we stick to our strength of facilitator. Throughout the year, there are social and inspiring events on the calendar. Having a 1-on-1 mentoring moment with experts, joining Lunch & Learn events during which you learn a new skill, or taking a TSH Masterclass from the university of the city you are staying in are just a few examples of the benefits of the TSH community programming.

Offline ambassadors, also called the “tastemakers” of a city, are of great importance to us. They do not need to have a huge online reach, but they bring us into contact with their network and extensive knowledge of the local market. That way, we know what is going on in that city. They also actively participate in our events and get in touch with our other ambassadors. Our community managers and connectors manage these contacts to form lasting and intensive relationships.


“Taking care of our guests and their wellbeing is part of a community”


Taking care of our guests and their wellbeing is part of a community. That’s why every floor has a Floor Hero, someone from the community who we have said: ‘you are the leader of this floor’. If, for example, a guest is ill or not feeling well, the Floor Hero lets the team know. Initiatives such as cooking and eating together once a week are also included. This is great for new students who arrive alone in a new city without any friends, because in this way you suddenly have a whole floor of friends. Making friends quickly and increasing your network is a huge perk of the TSH brand. Since covid we’ve also partnered up with Open-up to offer free psychological support for our community members as well as employees who were suffering from anxiety, depression etc. during the pandemic.

We saw last year that the Alumni pool kept guests loyal during their travels. We want to reinforce this with an app and different types of memberships. By opening new locations with a wider range of facilities, the membership also gets more value, because you have more to offer the guest.


Why is creating a community of added value for TSH?

The members who give a high NPS score (would recommend TSH to friends and family) are very active members, and the new guests who come to TSH through them continue this. In this way, we want to reach a turning point in the long run, in order to reduce marketing costs, because new guests come from the community itself. In addition, the community is also becoming more active as a result of more active members embracing what TSH stands for. This is an important trend for us and one that we have seen for a year.

In addition, it leads to higher occupancy rates in our student rooms. The challenge here lies with the short-stay hotel guests, who in 99% of cases do not choose TSH because of the community aspect. In addition, this is the hardest group to reach for the community events. We have tackled the issue of changing the operational names of the employees in TSH in the past year: a receptionist, for example, is now called a community host. Because we want everyone in our team to commit to the community mindset. So, the receptionist is not just someone who checks in guests, he or she is also co-responsible for making our guests feel part of the TSH Community Life.


What was your biggest fuck-up?

Building brand partnerships is an important part of my job. Opposing objectives make this difficult. That is why it is so important that you have a click with the person sitting across from you. I went wrong several times by being too eager that the partnership was good for TSH as a brand, but the collaboration did not work out. Listening better to my gut feeling is what I have learned: do we share the same vision and values? Do we trust each other, and can we communicate transparently? Then you can make great partnerships. Otherwise, it becomes a fuck-up!


What is essential for hotel concepts?

It must be clear to the guest what your brand can offer him or her. A bit of everything is not good enough, you need to have a focus within your organization. That’s why you need to be strong as a brand, have a focus and make choices. Who you are and what you do must be acquired in your brand. “It’s a saying: he who chooses is chosen”.


“It’s a saying: he who chooses is chosen”


…As Conceptional we are Creative Minds in F&B Strategy and Solutions were we support our clients from F&B Strategy, Concept Development to Implementation and Performance Enhancement. We develop full F&B Masterplans for leisure parcs, shopping malls, airports and transforming spaces to places. We do this for our national and international clients for more than 12 years, executing over 300 projects. Are you also ready for developing new concepts or places? Don’t hesitate to contact us!

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