George Mason University plans to shutter Mason Inn at the end of this school year, four years after the luxury hotel and conference center opened to much fanfare amid hopes that it would further bolster the college’s forward-thinking reputation.
Yet while the venture failed, losing more than $11 million since its opening, the Fairfax university plans to turn their loss into their students’ gain.
“We have the Mason entrepreneurial spirit here,” said J.J. Davis, the university’s senior vice president for administration and finance. “When we find things that aren’t working, we transform them.”
George Mason has decided to renovate the Mason Inn, converting the center into a mix of residential, dining and instructional spaces. The hotel’s 148 guest rooms will become dorm rooms for students, and the restaurant will become a campus dining facility.
While details are still tentative, according to Davis, the conference center’s meeting rooms could become classrooms or student activity rooms, and the ballroom will be maintained to hold events.
The change will help alleviate pressures that a growing student body is placing on the university’s existing residence hall and classroom space. This fall marked the largest freshman class in the school’s history, and the university plans to keep that growth going.
“The change will really allow us to focus on the core of our mission, which is educating and providing for our students,” Davis said.
The Mason Inn will remain open until June 2014, when it will close for summer renovations. The university aims to see the updates completed in time for the start of the 2014-15 school year.
Still, the decision to shut down the Mason Inn was a difficult one, according to Davis. The university invested $54 million to start the hotel and conference center, which opened its doors on George Mason’s Fairfax campus in July 2010.
The construction followed significant growth in the university’s enrollment and reputation, as George Mason became a player on the national stage. The Mason Inn was built to accommodate visitors to the campus and to attract business meetings and local events to the campus.
Originally, the university expected the Mason Inn to be self-sustaining, operating on its own revenue rather than relying on university funding. However, since its opening, the hotel has operated at a loss, draining the reserves of the university’s auxiliary enterprise budget. This $200 million covers the school’s dining, housing, recreation, and other business enterprises.
By the time Davis arrived at George Mason in March 2013, the outlook for the Mason Inn already looked grim.
“When I got here, the first question was, ‘This is not a sustainable model financially, so what can we do about it?’” Davis said.
In July, president Angel Cabrera formed the first task force to see if the current model for the hotel could be saved. After the administration realized a new model would need to be implemented, the university started a new task force to look at possible options.
“This fall, we had more students wanting housing than student beds available,” Davis said. “So we started looking at whether it would be a viable option to convert it for use that way.”
Soon, the university made the decision to transform the Mason Inn to a shared residential and academic space.
According to Denise Taylor, executive director of housing at George Mason, the school has added more than 3,000 beds in the last 10 years, and still needs more.
“The addition of the Mason Inn to our housing stock will certainly alleviate some of the pressure without the long wait that a new construction project would require,” Taylor said.
The renovation should be speedy, according to Davis, as the hotel should not require major conversions to start its new identity.
“We’re glad we can start on this,” Davis said. “We pride ourselves on our innovation, and we look forward to seeing what comes next.”