Apr 10, 2024

Episode 128

Mario Tricoci

Mario Tricoci Aparium Hotel Group CEO


Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Mario Tricoci got the entrepreneurial bug at an early age, watching his parents revolutionize the salon world and invent the day spa concept. He saw what they created and wanted to emulate it, but with his own spin.

When he opened the Simeone Deary-crafted Elysian hotel in Chicago in 2009, it changed the hospitality landscape as a refined luxury hotel that put community first and offered approachable service. The project was short-lived (they sold it in 2011), but Tricoci was just getting started, launching Aparium Hotel Group in 2012.

Today, the hotel owner and operator counts 11 properties in its portfolio, with four more slated to open this year. In this podcast episode, the CEO and founder shares how his philosophy of finding the right partner, place, and product has led to Aparium’s decade-plus of success.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Mario Tricoci. Thanks so much for joining me today. How are you?

Mario Tricoci: I am wonderful, Stacy. Thank you very much for having me this morning. Really appreciate it.

SSR: Well, thanks for joining me. Okay, so we always start this pod at the beginning. So, where did you grow up?

MT: Well, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, in a town called Melrose Park, representing I guess my Italian heritage. Melrose Park is predominantly Italian or known to be prominently Italian. My father was an immigrant, emigrated from Italy. So, I grew up in Melrose Park and progressed through the suburbs of Chicago to ultimately land here in the city.

SSR: Nice. What were you like as a kid? Were you creative? Were you design-focused? What were you?

MT: Yeah, a little bit of everything. As we have more dialogue, I think maybe some of that will come out and I think some of it has come out in our company and our business, in how it manifests itself. I was real sporty to begin with. Soccer was most of my youth. Grew up playing in Chicago, went through the Olympic development program. I went to Notre Dame on a soccer scholarship, so most of my formative years frankly, were pursuing soccer. It allowed me to travel around not only the country, but internationally to experience many, many things. So I would say I was a sporty person, soccer being a great passion. That also came from my father who knew nothing other than the sport of soccer or football as he came over from Italy. So yes, definitely sporty.

I studied hard and worked hard in school. I think that’s more of a product of, again, my parents pushing both my brother and I to work hard, to study. No one in our family had gone to college or university prior to me, so it was very important to them that I behave and study. Then creatively, I would say, yeah, I was fairly creative. It’s in my DNA. Again, there’s a common theme here. My mother and father, they’re entrepreneurs. They started what turned out to be one of the largest salon and spa businesses in the country. My father was… I’ll say this, a creative genius. He is one of the top hairdressers to ever walk the face of the earth, frankly. He would never say that. He’s too humble. But now at the ripe old age of 82, I think people need to be saying it a little bit more, and I’m so proud of him.

But he’s immensely creative. He didn’t study. He got kicked out of two, three high schools in Italy before coming over here. But that pent-up sense for style and passion is innate in him. Then he of course married my mother, a Southside Chicago woman who was very creative in her own. She, I would say, started the day spa concept in the United States and brought that to the family business. So the two of them together, of course creating me, I think there’s some creative stylistic DNA that it took a little while to find its way all the way out. But I think growing up, I was I think fairly creative. I was dressing a little bit different than the average kid. I was thinking about style. I grew up in the salons and spas of the family business. So style, and I guess looking a particular way and taking pride in that was important.

One of the things that’s interesting in 1976, and I think Stacy, you’ll appreciate this, the salon and spa business is really unique. If you go back in time now, I know you’re not that old, but it was more like a barbershop. One thing that Mom and Dad did is they saved up all their money in the mid-70s and they wanted to take a real risk and they wanted to open up a salon in Woodfield Mall. So you spent a little bit of time out in Chicago, I know, for schooling at least. So it was the largest regional mall in the United States, and they wanted to take 900 square feet and create a destination place. What they did is they hired Richard Himmel to design a hair salon in 1976.

Richard laughed at my mom. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, so they took essentially all the cash they had stuffed away in their mattress, $25,000. Back then that was a lot of money, but to get this really incredible design that could really speak to the consumer. So I share that, because that is how my parents thought. So design and style and creativity is certainly embedded in our family.

hotel heron in alexandria, virginia from aparium hotel group

A rendering of the soon-to-open Hotel Heron in Alexandria, Virginia, a collaboration between Antunovich Associates and Streetsense

SSR: What was it like growing up? Because they must’ve been building the business when you were a kid, right? So I mean, you said you spent a lot of time in the salons. What was that like? Did you help out? Were you just…

MT: Yeah. It was definitely my first job. It was fun, a little bit stressful. I was definitely around very passionate people, beauty technicians, stylists, colorists, makeup artists. They are passionate. They’re immensely creative. They take a great sense of pride in what they do. All stuff that I realize now but didn’t then that I would take in terms of my entrepreneurial experience, and apply it to what we’re building here at Aparium. But it was fun. I was around beautiful people all the time. I think if I think about my high school days, my friends were very jealous, like “Mario, wow, you got to be around…” If the company had 1,500 employees, maybe 1,200 of them were young women between the age of 18 and 24. Everyone was really stylish and beautiful, so it was a really neat experience. But Mom and Dad, I think, did a good job of raising both my brother and I.

They said be responsible and take ourselves very seriously when we were in the business, so I used to drive out 45 minutes from our house to the [inaudible 00:08:09] Salon in Naperville. I’d have a suit and tie on, I’d work the front desk, I’d be answering phones. When I wasn’t doing that, I’d be sweeping up hair as an assistant. So at a very young age, I was in the business doing the things that you would do as you start in an industry. I was on the first rung of the ladder and never really made it up too high in that business as a story for a different day. But it was a fun experience and a great experience, and a lot I’ve taken with me on my professional journey.

SSR: Yeah. Did you ever think about going into the business following your parents’ footsteps?

MT: I did. The key thing, I said this a minute ago. Mom and Dad did a good job of raising my brother and I, and they made it clear to us as they built their business and built their lives that nothing comes easy. We as parents will open the door for you, help you give you the ability to access tools. But make no mistake, we’re not giving you anything. We’re not going to be giving you money. We’re not going to be giving you an executive role in this company. If you want to be in this business, you better really want it, and you better learn it. You better understand it. If you do want to come to the table, you want to bring something different to the business. I’ll take one step back. So I mentioned that I went to Notre Dame and played soccer. After graduating, the MLS, Major League Soccer didn’t exist in the United States. So, I hadn’t quite figured out what I was going to do.

So I moved back home with Mom and Dad and I worked for the family business for a year in a different capacity than I described earlier, where I was sweeping here and answering phones. But I worked in the corporate office. I was the lowest paid employee in the business. Again, suit and tie. I was the first one there, last one to leave. I was exposed to a lot of the business and tried to learn, but what I realized in that year is I don’t know that I’m going to be able to add a ton of value right now. Mom and Dad were incredible entrepreneurs, immensely creative, and I did not want to be either the kid that was perceived to have been handed the business and not get the respect of the employee base, the executive team, even friends and family. So, that was one thought.

The other thought was, if I’m going to come back into the business, I better be able to do something a little bit different, add a little bit of value. So, that’s the decision I made. I went to law school. So I left after a year, went to law school, realized quickly after three years of law school, that alone is not going to be enough to add a bunch of value to the family business. So then I went to go work for a large international law firm, started off in the corporate securities world, and then moved over into the Real Estate Finance Group where we had a large hospitality practice, and I never really went back into the business. Today doing a little bit of a round trip, we made the decision as a family to sell the business in 2000 because my brother went off to go into medicine, he became a surgeon, and I was obviously practicing law, starting to really identify where my passion lied in the hospitality space.

The family decided to sell the business. So, we sold it in 2000. Full circle, we bought it back five years ago, and I played a pretty significant role in doing that. So, I still stayed close to the business. I’m on the board. Dad is still involved. The culture and the team and the business is intact and continuing to grow and doing great things. So, I stay close to it after all these years. It still means the world to me. It’s a great sense of family pride and legacy that I do stay close to, but my primary baby and focus is Aparium Hotel Group.

SSR: Can I ask, I mean, obviously it’s your legacy, why you decided to buy it back or why the family decided to buy it back?

MT: It had to be a good opportunity, meaning the price was right, and it was. We felt looking at the business, and stayed connected to it, we always had. As we sold it, we maintained an investment in it. So we were very close to it, but it was the right time. The then existing leadership we didn’t believe was doing the right things to grow the business, and we felt there was tremendous opportunity. We’ve assembled a world-class board and an executive leadership team. Since then been doing some really great stuff. We want to grow the products business, which the company never did. So there’s a couple of avenues that we felt like we could to continue on with this incredible legacy that my mother and father created and carry it on and build the brand that was established some 48 years ago. So, it wasn’t just legacy. It was also we believed it was a very smart investment.

SSR: Got it. Okay. Well, I love the full circle-ness of coming back. Okay, so you’re a lawyer, so you move into the real estate side. How did you then get into becoming a developer with your first hotel? What made you take that step? Was it the opportunity? Was it something that you just found interest in? Tell us about that first project.

MT: Yeah, so again, ties to what we just talked about. 1999, so I was at this law firm representing a couple of big, well-known hotel REITs. The majority of those transactions were in the luxury space. So I spent a lot of time traveling around the world representing this REIT, as a lawyer for the REIT. So, I saw a lot of really interesting hotels. Again, all in the luxury space. We had represented brands like Rosewood Hotels, so I got exposed to the hospitality side in a significant way during my tenure at the law firm. So, I had built essentially a tool chest of skills and relationships. I don’t know if I had the plan laid out, and it’s not quite fortuitous. I think there was a unique coming together. I had this entrepreneurial DNA, I’ve obviously described where that has come from. I knew I didn’t want to necessarily bill hours for the rest of my life and be beholden to the proverbial man.

It was an opportunity to really ring together both of those things. A skillset, a talent, relationships from a transactional standpoint, from a development standpoint, from a capitalization standpoint, and a particular way of thinking, having been a lawyer and gone through law school. Then the creative side, the passionate side, the entrepreneurial side, the desire and willingness to build and create and take risk. So the first opportunity that really lit my fire was the Elysian. At the time we had a small, unique partnership that had a vision to really create the best hotel in the United States, if not one of the best hotels in the world. We had believed that the big, ultra-luxury brands were getting complacent. They were replicating themselves over and over and over again. We thought there was an opportunity to deliver at the highest end of the market in a far more approachable and genuine way.

I had started out representing the then founder of the idea, frankly. We had hit it off and we shared a common vision, a common experience. I had a lot of the transactional background and experience and a lot of relationships on the capital side and the structure and deal-making side. It felt like a really unique opportunity. It was in my backyard. I left the practice in 2004 and joined at the very, very beginning, frankly, when it was really just an idea. Let’s see. Almost six years later, it was born. We opened in 2009, December of 2009. But yeah, it was a special project, for sure.

SSR: Yeah. What did you learn from that project?

MT: That’s a podcast in and of itself, and we’d need more than an hour for it. No, there’s a couple of things. One, the experience did essentially spawn Appium. Some of the things that we did really well, some of the lessons learned there, some of the points of differentiation are the foundation of Aparium. One of the most important things that does relate to how we think about new transactions and new deals is the complexity of how you capitalize a hotel. That project was really special. There was so much blood, sweat, and tears and passion that went into it.

Everybody involved cared deeply. As you know, it was wildly successful, did very, very well here in Chicago and across the United States, won essentially every hospitality award it could. Five star, five diamond, number one hotel on Robb Report, number one hotel and Tripadvisor, Travel + Leisure’s number one hotel in the United States. Had it all, two Michelin stars with two consecutive chefs. So it really had an incredible, albeit short run before we transacted it in 2012, but one of the things that was incredibly important to its success, and this is maybe not what you want to hear or our design community wants to hear, but I sometimes say flippantly and it’s not correct, anyone can build an incredible building and design an incredible hotel. Now, you and I both know that’s not really true.

It takes an army to build and design something really and truly special. I do believe we did that. All of our consultants, all of our design team architecture, everyone that put their thumbprint on that hotel is incredibly proud of its design, it’s positioning in the marketplace, the art program. We built out a world-class kitchen, and it was one of the top kitchens in the Chicagoland area at the time. We did some incredible things, created that European style courtyard. We paved over a quarter of the city block in Chicago’s Gold Coast, which people thought were absolutely crazy. There were a lot of things that we did to ensure its beauty. But at the end of the day, the thing that I’m probably most proud of, and the thing that I do believe impacted the marketplace, and the reason why the hotel was so well respected was because of what was happening inside the four walls of the hotel.

It is the team that we built, the leaders, the culture that we established. It was a culture of collaboration. It was a focus on service, I think the hospitality space has moved a little bit away from, which is sad. But there was so much pride in delivering service, delivering a really unique service. We call it intuitive service, an intuitive-based service model, which frankly was born out of what we did at Elysian and Aparium, we’ve absolutely unequivocally embraced it, and it’s part of our trainings and our teachings and our philosophy. Training is important, but we spend a lot of time hiring, finding the right people and the right personalities, and asking our team members to be really thoughtful. Listen, be perceptive, be open-minded, and deliver an experience, deliver a service, have a dialogue, have communication with a guest that they want.

So read the room, really take a breath. Don’t just recite what you memorized. I pick on some of the brands for that. I think Ritz-Carlton, “Ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen,” there’s a memorization. There’s a rote process to service. Sometimes when you get really big and you scale and you can’t have the precision in terms of hiring, it does become harder. So I’m sympathetic there, but we try really hard to find the right people and train, teach, talk about and build a culture of authentic and genuine service. I know we did that at Elysian. So again, the team we built, the collaboration, how we delivered service was really genuine and authentic. We didn’t say no to anybody. We listened to them. So, I think its success in many ways was a really unique service model. The other thing that was really key that’s a point that we have taken away and is embedded in Aparium’s philosophy is the focus on food and beverage.

As we, and this is going back to 20007, ’08, ’09, we thought about opening this hotel, we didn’t want the restaurant or the bar or the lounge to be an afterthought, to just service the guests staying in the hotel. That’s about all any hotel did around the country at that point in time. It was very important to us to think about competing with the top restaurant companies and restaurant groups in the Chicagoland area, which may be second to New York. We’re an incredible culinary town, and we didn’t want to hire traditional hotel people to work in the kitchen or traditional hotel people to serve. We wanted a real F&B culture.

So we built out our culinary team from some of the best restaurants in the Chicagoland area, and we wanted to compete with the best and we did. What that did, it wasn’t so much like an ego thing, or something we just felt might work. What it did is it connected to the local community. If you recall, 2009, that was the Great Recession.

So in 2009, as we started to open the hotel, our marketing budget, let’s say we had a million dollars in our marketing budget, because it was a big real estate development, 60 stories, 51 homes, retail underground parking, a hotel. It was a crisis in our country. We had to redirect certain budgeted items toward paying our lender and carrying the property and things like that. So one of the first things unfortunately in times like that, marketing budgets get ripped away from you. So we had to be really thoughtful, and that happened, and we had to be really thoughtful and really smart and scrappy as to how we’re going to approach creating awareness for this hotel in the best way.

This is again, transitioning or sharing the connection between what we did at Elysian and Aparium today is connecting to the local market. We thought about what’s happening one block around the hotel, five blocks, a mile, five miles, and we really tried to appeal to the local consumer, made sure that they understood that we were a bar, a restaurant, a dining experience for them first, not for the hotel guests. Of course, the hotel guests can experience it, but we wanted them to feel like it was the place to see and be seen in Chicago. It ultimately was. Had a great cocktail lounge, a three-meal a day restaurant that the local market was eating at two, three days a week. Then we had the two Michelin star fine dining dinner-only restaurant. So really, Chicago embraced the Elysian. Homegrown and developed and positioned and opened by Chicagoans, so Chicago and its community embraced it.

What happened there, they, the broader Chicago area that loved the Elysian, what did they do? They told everybody about it. So, we organically had built in a reservation system. We had built in a marketing tool that you can’t buy; you can’t invest in. It was organic. So from that, lesson learned or real benefit, Aparium does the same thing today. As we open hotels in unique markets around the country, we spend a tremendous amount of time, one, getting to know the market and understanding and appreciating the market, and then trying to appeal to the local consumer. We don’t go into a market and tell them what they need or what they don’t have. We learn, we educate ourselves.

We’re the interloper, so we go in with respect and we go in humble and we learn, and we then provide something that they don’t have or try to provide something they don’t have. But understanding and appreciating and thinking about what’s happening in their neighborhood, in their community, the one-mile radius, the five-mile radius in their city. So very, very similar to the approach taken on a broader scale at the Elysian in Chicago. We have now taken that and created a similar strategy and philosophy with each hotel that we opened around the country.

Net-positive hotel populus in denver from studio gang

A rendering of Studio Gang’s exterior for the forthcoming Populus hotel in Denver references nature

SSR: What made you decide to go from one hotel to launching Aparium, and what’s behind the name too?

MT: So name first, wanted something different, always want something different. Part of how we describe Aparium is hotels done differently. But that said, we don’t want to just do things because it’s different. It has to have some meaning and soul. I knew what I didn’t want and we didn’t want to just name ourselves something that was predictable, Gold Coast Hospitality Group or… I don’t want to pick on some of our contemporaries and our peers, but something that just felt obvious. So we wanted to be creative and thoughtful, and we really thought about what do we do when we create a hotel? We create our ground floor, our lobby, our lounge, our bars, our restaurants, how we activate and how we connect to the local market, very busy, lots of people eating and drinking and working and socializing, moving around, through the space. When it’s busy, it looks like chaos.

I’ve described it as organized chaos. We orchestrate that stuff. We spend so much time on the upfront creating an environment or trying to create an environment that the locals really love. So we started to think about, okay, are there any analogies out there? One of the things came up with was a beehive, an apiary. So if you think about what a bee colony is, queen bee, the orchestrator of it all, highly efficient, highly productive, organized chaos. Bees buzzing around, producing honey, creating harmony, but it looks a little hectic. So we view ourselves as, by analogy, something very similar. Creating and orchestrating what’s happening on the ground floor as it relates to a local community. So Aparium is a derivative. Not a word, it’s a derivative of that. Then as we got a little bit more thoughtful, okay, Aparium, it’s not a word, so easily marketable and easily searchable.

So, high SEO. It looks pretty cool when you lay it out. At least from our perspective, it does. To serve the purpose that it just did, you asked me, “Where did the name come from?” So that gave me and gives our team an opportunity to talk about it, versus Gold Coast Hospitality. You would never ask me, “Oh, where did the name come from?” So part of it is to spark conversation, and it has, of course, meaning. And it grounds us in something that we think about as our common goal. Then the second part to that, you asked-

SSR: So what made you decide to, after you sold your shares or your part of the Elysian, and then go and launch a whole new hotel company, and I guess too, was it the idea to start a collection of hotels? Was it the idea to try another? Was there a master plan behind it? Because I’m always curious. Some people just make the leap and it all organically flows. Other people have, “This is what I’m going to do and this is how I’m going to do it.”

MT: It’s probably combination of both of those things. Wanted to leap, but had somewhat of a plan. I think as a leader or an entrepreneur, you can’t get too carried away about trying to stay so precise to some rigid plan. But what I did know is we sold the hotel, the Elysian in 2011. Prior to that, that year, we knew we were going to sell it. We had a capital partner out of the Middle East that needed to sell the asset. So quietly, we knew that we needed to and wanted to sell the asset. Mario didn’t want to sell it. Our partnership didn’t want to sell it, but our capital partner did. In part, it related to some of their other investments around the country.

So, we were forced to sell it. In anticipation of selling it, we talked a little bit about this earlier, thinking about some of the things that made Elysian really successful, can I take some of those things as a founding principle into a new enterprise? What I knew is, okay, coming out of the recession, because we’re still in a recession in 2011. We’re just limping out of it. Creating another Elysian wasn’t going to happen. That was a 300 plus million dollar project, 60-story high rise. There’s only a handful of people and royalty and businesses that can actually do that deal coming out of a recession. I couldn’t. The capital wasn’t readily available like it was in the late 2000s when we put that together. So, wanted to think about independent hotels. So that’s what the Elysian was, and it was very successful. So we knew that Aparium and what we created, we wanted to focus on the independent side of things, creating a one of one experience, a brand every time, creating a new brand that was created for and born of a particular market.

So that was critical and we thought that the best place to do it were not from the get-go in major international markets, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, New York, Paris, London, Milan, Washington DC, et cetera. But markets that are still in the top, call it 25, 35 MSAs, markets that were generally speaking, underserved by certainly anything independent or anything cool, meaningful, and soulful and independent, and that is relevant to that particular neighborhood, community market, city. And more importantly, smaller in scale.

So coming out of the recession, doing a 30 to $50 million project is much easier than doing a $300 million project in a major international market. So thought thesis, business thesis, my business plan, which I still have to this day frankly, hasn’t changed that much. Meaning the vision for the future, which was independent, celebrating it, consumer behavior was moving in that direction. Doing it in markets that are underserved by an interesting hospitality product for the most part.

Taking some of the things that we did really well at Elysian food and beverage, real, authentic, and creating authentic, local F&B, connecting to the local market, building collaborations and relationships with the local communities, artisans, makers, et cetera. Creating that buzz around the hotel, building that local sense of pride, essentially giving back the hotel to the city and let them, let the city rally around the hotel. That becomes that built-in reservation system I described earlier, that built-in marketing channel that I think is really unique to what we do, and felt it was easier to do in smaller markets. That’s why it was Milwaukee. That’s why it was Detroit. That’s why it was Minneapolis and Kansas City and Tampa. So it was really a focus to get into markets where we know we can move the needle pretty quickly because those markets were craving something special.

So yeah, it was opportunity. The way the world was working at that point in time, any of these cities, we’re all one degree of separation today. So I’ve got a lot of friends in Kansas City, and a lot of business colleagues, and it doesn’t take much to get entrenched into a local community if you’re willing to do it. We’re really willing to jump in, build relationships with the local community, local philanthropy, local politics, local business people, local artist, community, local social network. That’s part of our secret sauce, frankly, is really rolling up our sleeves. It’s a highly inefficient process, but I think that’s what differentiates what we do.

SSR: Also I mean, there is a strong focus on design too, that really ties into the place, which seems much more common these days. But when you guys first started out, it was very, very important to you all to make sure there’s a true sense of place and a respect of the building.

MT: Yeah, very true. I do think when we formed and we launched, our first handful of hotels were adaptive reuse of historic buildings. In some ways, and it’s a slight misconception today as we were known for that. I think while that’s where our attention was drawn, and we got excited about it because just today there aren’t that many beautiful, incredible old historic buildings being underutilized in interesting markets. They’re spoken for these days. So now some 12 years later, I can’t walk into Minneapolis and find this gorgeous building that I can turn into a hotel or I can’t do it in Tampa, I can’t do it in New Orleans. So part of it was timing, part of it was opportunity, but I think logically… Maybe not logically, but historic buildings, there’s a richness and a unique fabric to it.

It’s a great starting place to start to tell a story, to inspire design, to inspire a personality, inspire soul. You take from the building, you take from its history, you take from its architecture, small design elements, you take from the stories that were told in some of these properties years and years or decades or centuries ago, and you try to distill those things down into important points. We’re not too overt about it. We want to be really thoughtful. Again, consumers I think are pretty smart these days, and they look for the BS or the exploitation of things. So we work really hard to find the truth and find something that we can hang on that’s genuine and real, and then work with our design teams, our collaborators to pull that stuff out and accentuate it. We’re probably not the easiest group to work with as from a design nurse point of view, because we care so deeply and we don’t just let a designer take something off their shelf and plug it into our hotel. That doesn’t happen.

Our design and programming team is opinionated, and they are really thoughtful and they care really deeply. That started frankly, with me. I care. I would never just let a designer design. Now the industry is amazing and there’s so many incredible talented designers, and they certainly know more than I do. But if we want it a certain way, we really look for and crave designers and consulting teams to think similarly. Take a deep breath. Let’s learn. Let’s understand. Let’s not start designing before it’s time. Let’s not put a name on the hotel yet. Let’s really learn. Let’s take it all in. Let’s ideate and then let’s design, then let’s brand. Then let’s put a name on it. People love to. Some of our third party developer owners and partners, they can’t wait to get the branding. “What’s the name of the restaurant? What’s the name of the hotel?”

No, no, no. That’s the last thing we do. Let’s be informed by the local market, by the building, by the neighborhood. How can we really celebrate that in a great way? That takes work and that takes time. It also takes a patient and thoughtful design team to work with us. We’ve worked with so many great ones across the years and most of which you know, or all of which I’m sure you know. But we’re lucky to have built those relationships and we go back to a lot of them. We’re always looking to build new relationships as well.

SSR: What is your most favorite part of the process?

MT: The beginning and the end. The beginning is unique. Because we don’t replicate anything, it’s a blank canvas every time. Sometimes I get asked, “What are you going to be doing in five years?” Or “What are you going to do with the company?” As long as I get out of bed and we’re looking at a new opportunity and it’s a blank canvas, and we as an organization can collectively create and tell a new story, I’m all in. The moment we start replicating over and over and over again is the day that it’s not for me. It’s probably not for our team. We have 50 incredible, deeply talented, passionate leaders and executives here in Chicago. I think… I know they all feel the same way about this. So the beginning part I love because we’re starting from scratch.

I mentioned inefficient; it is inefficient by design. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t, but that’s the only way to get a real authentic result, something that is very real and is so we create a process that by accident, it’s not going to be a replication of something we did before. The process might be similar, but the end result’s not. So the beginning part, learn. I learn about a community. I learn about a neighborhood, I learn about a building. If it’s not ours, because we develop about a third of our portfolio for our own accounts, and now we’ve built the relationship with a lot of great individuals, a lot of great development companies, and a lot of great investors that want to create something special, which we’ve worked hard over the last 10 years to establish relationships like that. But those people all think similarly. So coming into a market, being humble about it, learning, educating ourselves, it’s an education process.

As we all move through life, I think one of our joys is education. Educating ourselves, learning something new. So the upfront process, meeting new people, building relationships in a market. Then the middle is very important, but it’s a lot of work. It can be tedious, it can be frustrating, it can be rewarding. Then the end result, of course is the moment we unveil this new brand, this new local brand, and introduce it to the market and start to feel the fruits of all that labor. It’s three years in creating these brands sometimes, sometimes more. So, beginning and the end. That’s how I feel about that.

SSR: Yeah. Do you ever go and sit in your own buildings, and just watch how people use them?

MT: I do. Almost every single time I visit a property, I intentionally sit in the lobby or in the bar or in the restaurant and watch. I like to, when I travel, just work in the lobby. Partially it’s rewarding because I get to see people move through the space and use it in the way that it was intended, and that means use it any which way you want. That’s how it was designed, how we intended. Go in the space, work, have a spontaneous gathering with friends, have a quick meeting, go on a date, have a cocktail before going out, and then after a cocktail, after an event, have a dinner. Our space, our lobbies, our hotels, our rooftops can be used for any particular purpose. So, that’s really important. So as I see that come to life and happen, that’s rewarding.

Also how we make mistakes too, and we design and program space and they’re either being underutilized or not being used, or people just shy away from it. So, part of it’s an education process too. I don’t think there’s a project that goes out our door that I don’t know about in terms of the vast majority of the details and how a consumer’s intended to use the ground floor. So, I’m intimately involved and care deeply about what’s happening. If some of those things aren’t working out, I think it’s a nice takeaway to be constructive and learn from it. So pretty important, and I definitely do that every single time I travel. Frankly even at hotels that we don’t own or have a stake in or operate, those are also great learning experiences. See how other people are doing things well and see how other people are doing things not so well, but always to learn, I think is pretty important.

Denver's Hotel Populus guestroom from Urban Villages

A Populus guestroom, shown in a rendering, helmed by Wildman Chalmers Design and featuring undulating forms

SSR: Speaking of learning, I mean every project has its challenges, but was there one project that you did that you learned the most from?

MT: Yeah, I mean, we talked about it and probably spent maybe too much time on it. The Elysian, I think it is funny. It’s the first project, which I think is true. I think to the extent Aparium is successful or our hotels are successful, in part, it’s because of lessons learned and things that we did really well there and things that we didn’t do well, how to build a culture, how not to build a culture, how to capitalize something, how to design something, how to communicate, how to market, how to listen to guests. But I think the first one, the Elysian was the hardest in part because when we started the process in 2004, ’05, ’06, ’07, if you go back in that time, the capital markets were flowing. Things were easy to execute and get done. I hadn’t developed anything before.

I’d developed a $300 million high rise skyscraper in Chicago. That can’t happen today, a newbie, with a small partnership that hadn’t done it either. So we surrounded ourselves with talented and smart people that ultimately helped us get it done, and then we opened in the dead heart of a recession. And then what we had to go through to one, get it open, and then be successful, there was no way we were not going to be successful. The effort and the things we had to do, we all had to put our entrepreneurial hats on, even the people that came from operations, and get creative. That was the hardest, the most rewarding, the most painful, the most fun. Like I said, it’s another podcast and the stories are to be told at some point in time in a meaningful way, but there was a lot that went into that. The thing I’m probably most proud of is that it spawned Aparium and what we’ve created today.

SSR: Well, we’ll have to do part two. Okay, so you have a lot on the boards. You have Alexandria, Virginia, you have Atlanta, you have Denver, and you have Hotel Westland. It seems like a good amount of growth for a smaller company. Is it just the right time? Has it been the right deals? I guess that’s also a question. Sorry, it’s twofold. Is it the opportunity or the place that calls you, or is it a mixture of both?

MT: Great question. It’s something… I don’t know that we wrestle with it. I think we did in our early years. To be honest, we took some opportunities that are not in our portfolio today that maybe were opportunistic. Maybe they were a bridge to get from point A to point B, and they didn’t quite fit the philosophy or they had some things that weren’t quite ideal. I say that because today, our decision making process is far clearer, and I think the four hotels that we’re opening this year are a perfect example of that.

So opportunities do come by often, which is good. We’ve done some things right over the years, and we pass on far more opportunities than we seize. There’s some really great ones. We said no to one yesterday, which my heart hurts as a result of it. But for a particular reason, we said no. So, we are being very thoughtful and careful. We describe it as a place, product, and partner. Those three things we cannot waver on. Is it the right place for Aparium? Most places are, just a matter of time. So, let’s look at that top 50 MSAs. One of the things, and I’m digressing a little bit here, one of the things that I do think is a misconception is that Aparium does secondary markets and tertiary markets.

Have we been in a tertiary market? Yes. Secondary markets? yes. One, I think I feel terrible saying those words, because they’re demeaning to the importance of each one of these incredible cities. But the fact of the matter is, if you look at our portfolio, the vast majority of our hotels are in top 25 cities. New Orleans, Tampa, Denver, Seattle, about to open. Alexandria/DC area, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Detroit. Big cities, and we’ll continue to grow into big cities. It’s just probably where the best opportunity to fit Aparium’s business philosophy. So as it relates to this year, it’s a busy… Four hotels, and frankly, they’re all opening within a probably five-month period. That’s a lot. That’s a lot for any hotel company.

The four projects are quintessential Aparium hotels that check each one of those boxes: place, partner, and product. True independence, true celebration of each one of those markets and what’s important, great partners in all four cases. So we’re very, very lucky, but it’s going to be tough. We have 50 great leaders here in Chicago, but four openings is going to be a challenge. We’ve been preparing for it for 18 months. We didn’t plan it when we took these opportunities on. We did just have COVID, and we’re well beyond that now. But that did cause a lot of delays and build-up and things have become compressed, so that’s created the challenge. Inevitably, a development has delays. So it’s a little fortuitous that they’re all happening in the same half of the year, but we’re all over it.

Then you mentioned Louisville. We’ll hopefully be announcing in Nashville here soon, and hopefully announcing in Miami soon. So some real exciting things that are out beyond in 2025 and 2026, so our pipeline’s robust. Again, being very thoughtful about the right opportunity today and does it satisfy those three Ps that are really important to us? If I look back at our 10 years, the most important lesson learned is not finding the right place, not finding the right product, or ensuring that the right product is there. It’s finding the right partner, and that means whether it’s a third party owner, do they have the same philosophy? Do they have the same temperament? Do they have the same shared vision? Do they think about hotels in a similar way? Do they desire the things that we create? If we get aligned on that, we’re really excited. That’s how I feel about our future right now.

Clayton Hotel & Members Club in Denver, designed by AvroKO

The light and airy sun room in the AvroKO-crafted Clayton Hotel & Members Club

SSR: Speaking of good partner, you have the same partner for the Westland and the Populus, which have a really great sustainability… I don’t want to say story, but are very focused on sustainability and creating something different in that arena. Was that important to you, or was that part of the project when you came in? Talk a little bit about those things, if you don’t mind.

MT: Yeah, sure. Urban Villages, they’re our partner. They’re the owner of the project in Denver and in Seattle. PPP again, so we knew the places were right, Denver and Seattle. This particular developer has great style, great vision, has developed some world-class things. So we knew the ultimate product and has partnered and collaborated with world-class architects and branding firms and design firms, so similarly situated and then partner, of course, the leadership there, second to none, and we have two now with them. Our goal and objective is to continue to work together and work on projects into the future. As we pick good partners, we’re always looking to educate, and one thing that UVI has that is… It’s not unique to talk about ecological responsibility or sustainability. That is more commonplace today. It is definitely relevant and incredibly important in all companies and all developers and all hoteliers should be thinking about it.

But in lies an incredible passion and awareness and a sense of responsibility that UVI has with respect to developing in a better way, giving back to our climate, and being incredibly thoughtful about sustainability and ecological responsibility. They walk the walk. There’s a lot of companies out there that market that, talk about it, but they go deep with it. It’s important and the effort… Effort’s the wrong word, because we’re fortunate. Because we’re being educated. My company is learning and we’re fortunate as a result of it, and we are going to be a better company and better stewards as a result of our relationship with UVI.

But what we are doing with respect to not only the built environment and the design and some of the things that we’re integrating because there’s just so much there, but how we’re going to be operating and the teachings and the training of our staff in terms of how we deliver service, how we remove and deal with waste, I mean, at so many different levels, it’s a new frontier in a sense. I think when these two hotels come to life, we are definitely redefining, I would say, sustainable travel and with UVI’s partnership, we’re going to be the authorities in it. I really believe that.

SSR: Talk about learning too. I’m sure this is a whole new learning curve.

MT: It is. I’d love to say I can speak it fluently, but I’m going through the learning process myself and our team is, and it’s very important and we’re certainly grateful for that partnership.

SSR: Yeah, no, I’m excited to see them both. Okay. Two quick questions and because just for the sake of time, but I could sit here all day. We interviewed you in 2017 and you said you weren’t building something to jump out quickly, but something that you can have control of and enjoy doing for the rest of your lives. Do you still feel that way?

MT: Yeah, I do, for sure. More so than ever. I alluded to it earlier, and that is if I roll out of bed and if I’m thinking about something organically, thinking about a new way to deliver a service or a new way to design and create a hotel in a particular market, and I’m always learning something new and associating myself with people that are more talented, have different experiences. I think Aparium and what we do is that really unique platform where we run into all of it. So, I definitely feel the same way. The moment we start replicating is the moment I lose passion. I think our entire team feels the same way.

SSR: Yeah. Is there anything that keeps you up at night, or is the most challenging part of your day to day?

MT: Everything. Everything’s hard and it’ll remain hard, that I know. Internally, it often feels like things are really messy and really complicated and there’s tons of obstacles, when externally everything looks beautiful and incredible. Someone told me accepting that it does not get any easier is the key to sanity, and I totally think that’s true. So really scaling an organization thoughtfully, I’ve talked about culture and collaboration and our office here in Chicago, we do try to focus and we want and desire for everyone to work together and collaborate and input and share ideas. As you get a little bit bigger, it’s tougher to do that and wrangle all these great ideas in and respect all the ideas because you can’t implement them all. So part of what makes Aparium great also creates its challenges, and that is staying on top of communication, respecting everyone’s collaborative ability, and listening.

So as you scale, and as we continue to build our organization, find incredible leaders that are deeply passionate, putting a lot of passionate people in the same room sometimes creates friction. Friction’s good too. But I think just scaling and maintaining the integrity of what we do, celebrating independence, creating one of ones, and as you scale by definition, you got to create process. You’ve got to put operating procedures in place, create levels of accountability. So balancing that with the maintenance and celebration of that entrepreneurial spirit is probably the biggest challenge and the thing that keeps me up at night the most.

Hotel Haya in Tampa, Florida from Alfonso Architects

The lobby in Hotel Haya in Tampa, Florida, the handiwork of Alfonso Architects

SSR: Yeah, for sure. All right, so we always end the podcast with the title of the podcast. What has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

MT: I talked about the three Ps, and our experience over the last 10-12 years. Where the most friction has been created, where the biggest challenges have existed are where we have been misaligned, for whatever reason, with the partner or the owner. So doing diligence, taking the time upfront to really understand and get aligned with the owner or the partner in terms of what their goals and objectives are, what they foresee in terms of the product and how it should be operated, getting aligned with the philosophy and positioning of the hotel.

Also making sure with projects like these, I do believe we create/co-create really special, really unique assets, where anyone involved in it has a great sense of pride. And sometimes, pride turns to ego. So we’re very cautious about and let’s see… We really focus on making sure that we understand and get alignment with the owner. So, the partner-owner alignment is really critical because of what we do. If we just slapped a brand on, it’d be very different, but because we are creating something really unique, something indigenous to a community, into a neighborhood, oftentimes where that developer owner might be or reside, so there’s a premium or a high focus on the end product and the service that’s going to be delivered. So, getting alignment and working collaboratively to achieve that goal is critical for what Aparium does.

SSR: Yeah. Well, congratulations on all your success and can’t wait to see the new ones that are coming down the line. Thanks for taking this last little bit to chat with us today. It’s always so great to catch up with you.

MT: Absolutely, Stacy, thank you so much. Thank you for the opportunity to share a little bit more about, I guess, me and Aparium and its history. So we’re excited to introduce the next four hotels to the world, and they’re going to be pretty incredible. So, we’re looking forward to it.

Photos by Jon Shaft and courtesy of Studio Gang and Aparium Hotel Group