Editor's Note: Graduate Hotels is a winner of Inc.'s 2017 Design Awards, our annual recognition of entrepreneurs using design to build great companies, in the "Interior Design" category.

Graduate Hotels exist only in college towns, but you'll never see a felt football pennant in one of their lobbies. Instead, in the boutique chain's Berkeley, California, location, you'll find 9,000 vintage issues of National Geographic--the magazine's cover features a Pantone number that matches one of UC Berkeley's team colors. In the Graduate in Lincoln, Nebraska, home of the Cornhuskers, cornhusks styled to mimic the pattern of the banana-leaf wallpaper at the Beverly Hills Hotel adorn the walls. And at the Athens, Georgia, outpost, rooms are decorated with chalkboards bearing the chemical formula for sweet tea.

"If it's obvious, we won't do it," says Ben Weprin, founder of AJ Capital Partners, an investment outfit in Chicago that develops hospitality destinations. In 2014, six years after starting his company--with hot boutique hotels like the Hotel Lincoln in Chicago and the Raleigh in South Beach, Miami--Weprin saw a hole in college towns, which were populated by soulless Marriotts and mom-and-pop motels. "We're not going into markets where there are no hotels. We're just doing it differently," says Weprin of his brand, which is now in seven cities.

Graduate begins by targeting the strong­est university-anchored markets. In those cities, the company approaches the top-performing hotels about buying and converting their properties. As early as two years before the chain opens a new locale, Weprin and his six-person design team immerse themselves in
that community--befriending merchants and bartenders to understand the local psyche, and meeting vendors at flea markets and antique stores where they'll source furniture and decor.

The result is a hotel that doubles as a hyperlocal storytelling vessel. Rather than hang portraits of star athletes and famous alumni, Graduate quietly bakes stories into its interiors--the sweet tea formulas in Athens, for example, are an homage to Charles Herty, a University of Georgia chemistry professor who in 1892 created the school's football program. But you probably wouldn't know that unless you asked the hotel clerk--Graduate trains its staff to know the art and design details of each property, turning them into informal town ambassadors.

These nuanced touches have helped create a thriving business. Since its launch, the chain's revenue per available room--the hotel industry's metric for sales--has grown from 10 to 20 percent year-over-year. A recent infusion of $275 million will fund five new locations in the next year, including New York City's Roosevelt Island, Minneapolis, and Seattle. Andrew Alford, Graduate's chief creative officer, says the highest compliment his team can receive is being mistaken for locals. "I knew we hit the nail on the head when we opened in Oxford, Mississippi, and someone asked me which of the area high schools I went to. I said, 'I actually grew up in Ohio.' They couldn't believe it."

FROM THE JUNE 2017 ISSUE OF INC. MAGAZINE