Mushrooms on the grounds of Hotel McCoy College Station

How To Open A Cool-Ass Art Hotel

BY Chris M. Walsh | April 23, 2024

This story was first published in The Hotels issue (#6) which hit stands in March 2024. Hotel McCoy was one of the hotels named to our first-ever Greatest Hotels Ever list.

Uniquely rooted in community and art, the first Hotel McCoy in Tucson opened in 2018. As the hotel’s creative director, Nicole Dahl helped launch and expand the brand to three locations and had a broad purview overseeing brand, marketing, communications and ultimately, the guest experience. “Culture tends to only be available to guests at a higher price point,” she says. “Our mission was to create a boutique, independent, experiential hotel stay within that mid-budget range that competes with your Courtyards and your Alofts.” Dahl exited the day-to-day operations in early 2024 and moved to a creative advisor role. Here, we talk to her about building a hotel brand, Hotel McCoy’s unique differentiation and how she and her team built their customer-centric experiences. 

FIFTY GRANDE: How do you put the Hotel McCoy experience together, and what are the financial guardrails? You can’t go overboard on experience with tight financial margins.

NICOLE DAHL: First and foremost, it’s people. The people who are operating the hotel are so important because they’re the one driving the experience. You can have a great idea, but if it’s not executed on a property level, it doesn’t exist. Ideas people are great, but the executors are the heartbeat of the whole operation. Hiring people that genuinely love hospitality and really enjoy making people smile is really important. Especially in management, the front-desk level and hiring housekeepers who realize that they are a huge part of the success. All the razzle-dazzle cool stuff doesn’t matter if your room’s not clean and safe. 

If people are number one…

Number two is art. Hotel McCoy is an art hotel. And the reason is, what is the universal language of community? It’s art. The community’s voice rings true in the murals you see throughout the property, in the paintings you see, in the poetry and the stories that come from that community. The art part of the concept is really crucial because that allows us to have our experiential brand voice. And our art program is commission-free. So any artist who shows with us, they set the price of their piece and they keep the entirety of the sale. And that, I think, makes that voice more authentic. 

Nicole Dahl

And experiences?

The third part is the experience piece. The events. All of our hotels, every Friday and Saturday night, have some sort of experiential event. And a lot of times, Thursdays and Sundays too, whether that’s an art workshop that you can sign up for, local music or wine tasting or a funny  themed bingo. The locals and the hotel guests are all welcome, and 99% of our events are free. 

How did you go about creating the events? I remember you had comedians at one point. At least in Tucson. 

Right, comedy nights. I definitely consider comedy art. So the events are the thing that I think really sets Hotel McCoy apart from all the other mid-budgets. It’s pretty easy to say, “I’m gonna hire a DJ to come every Friday night and a guitar player to come every Saturday night.” But we actually had a dedicated creative manager at each property who is plugged in with the community. That’s a full-time role tasked with booking events. We made sure we filed our events calendar with activities and interactive moments for guests and community members alike. Our team works really collaboratively. We had sessions every week where we just threw out really cool event ideas. The idea part’s pretty easy, but the actual production and bringing it to life and promoting it is the tough part. 

Hotel McCoy expanded since the last time we talked. 

During the pandemic, the hotel really bounced back with some awesome marketing ideas, and Tucson did very well, all things considered.

Hotel McCoy Pullman. Photo by RL Miller.


Yeah. I can’t share the exact numbers, but I can say that compared to national hotels, we did about 90% better than the national average. We really pivoted. We had socially distanced events where people could get a hotel room and a singer songwriter would go around in front of the rooms and play songs. So, you’d just sit on your… 

[Chris laughs] 

Yeah, it’s just how you respond to things. And then, during the pandemic, we were able to acquire this really cool property in Pullman, Wash., which is a very small town, close to Idaho. It’s home to Washington State University, which is an incredible school with a really tight-knit, awesome community. Hotel McCoy got a property right on the main street. So that’s Hotel McCoy Pullman. It’s like being in this cozy lodge/art hotel. 

Then College Station [Texas]?

In 2023, Hotel McCoy College Station opened. I love Texas. I love how kind everyone is there. I love country music. So I loved my trips there. That is a very tight-knit community with Texas A&M there. The events have been really fun. 

College Station location. Photo by Jonathan Garza.

Are there plans for more locations? 

I love that this [hotel] concept gives people a chance to reconnect with other humans with purpose and community. I’m excited to see it all over the nation. Though it’s unlikely that you’ll see a Hotel McCoy in a major city. We tend to go after the mid- and smaller markets because nothing like us exists there. We want to offer value. We want to go to places where we’re needed, but on the flip side, it does have to be the right fit because we’re not ever going to build new. So we have to get a building that needs some new love, that needs some new life breathed into it. 

Keeping the culture intact is more challenging as you grow. 

Yes, but it’s also very exciting to see the guest feedback as the hotel grows. A lot of feedback that I received was “I’ve never felt anything like this.” “This place felt like a solace.” “It felt like a community.” “I feel like I belong here and I have to come back.” I loved that because, from a business stance, that’s obviously great for the brand, but from a human stance, it felt really good to create that connective experience for people in a world where we’re so distanced and always online. 

College Station location. Photo by Jonathan Garza.

What are you most proud of from your time as creative director, in terms of the artists that you’ve showcased? 

We kind of broke through and created a new space. Our concept allowed very talented artists to value their own art without the convolution of a commission or anyone taking a piece of it. 100% goes to the artist. So that is something that I’m very proud of. But maybe the thing I’m most proud of is to have been a part of giving someone a platform to step into a career in art. Because that’s really difficult to do without a lucky break or support. We supplied that lucky break for people.

The Tucson property has tons of murals. 

Between the murals, in-room artists and the gallery artists, the hotel showcases over 100 artists in one spot. It’s not just paintings: it’s the poetry, it’s the sculptures, it’s the handcrafted mugs. It’s the cool little things in the vendor shop that are locally made that people get to connect with. I think that’s a big part of the experience. 

More than 100 artists have been featured in the Tucson location? 

Over 100 artists are currently being featured in the Tucson location. Right now. It’s more than that over the years, for sure. There are 90 guest rooms and each one has an artist featured in it. A couple artists are duplicated. But, when you stay in a room, you stay in an artist room and it could be their mural, it could be their pieces on the wall. If it’s their pieces, they’re for sale; if it’s a mural, you just get to enjoy it. But there’ll be a bio in the room so you can read about the artist who is behind your room. And then there’ll be a website or social media so you can directly connect with them. You know, if you were in a mural room and you wanted to buy a piece from that artist, you can work directly with them. Throughout the property, Tucson has over 50 murals. Then in the lobby is a gallery. 

Hospitality, like so many industries, can be a grind because you’re interacting with people all day. A lot of businesses have trouble finding the right people who can thrive in that role. What’s the key to hiring? 

I think it starts with your ads and your recruitment process. Being honest about what the job is. The Hotel McCoy front-deskers are ambassadors and welcomers and friends for the day. We made that really obvious in the recruitment process. Also, everybody goes through two interviews and they end up meeting like three or four people. The managers and the assistant manager maybe did one round and then the owner or myself did a second round. I really encouraged job seekers to make sure that it’s the right fit.

College Station location. Photo by Jonathan Garza.

Hotel McCoy offers a “kindness rate.” What is that? 

The hotel gives guests a straight-up discount for being kind. If you book with the “kindness rate,” you get a reduced rate for that stay. Then, all you have to do is commit to an act of kindness before you check in. And at check-in, our front-deskers will ask you about it. Then you get to share your story. You also got to do an act of kindness and that feels good. Our front-desker got to hear your great story. Just like when you’re on social media and you read those sweet stories and you get a little tear in your eye — that dopamine kick — our front-deskers get it every time. So it’s sort of this feel-good-circular-domino effect. That’s the kindness rate. 

Is there anything about the hotel that you want people to know that maybe you haven’t touched on yet?

I would love for people to know that the team is small, but mighty. When someone emails hello at hotelmccoy dot com, which is the general email, [people like] the owner read those emails. When they leave a review, the managers read those reviews. When we heard something positive, we’d sometimes call each other and be like, “Oh my gosh, did you read that?” We really care about guest feedback. We really care about the guest experience.