The highly-awaited opening of The Social Hub – a combination of four-star hotel, student accommodation, co-working space and leisure facilities – will officially take place on April 12 following a £90 million investment in a 20,000sq metre new-build hub in Glasgow’s Merchant City.

The concept is the brainchild of Edinburgh native Charlie MacGregor, who set up the first of what has grown into a portfolio of 18 hotels in 2012 in Rotterdam.

“Glasgow is on fire. Glasgow is buzzing. It has been buzzing for a long time, so we are really excited,” Mr MacGregor said. “We have Glasgow and Edinburgh in our targets – we want to still be in Edinburgh, so we have been looking in both cities for a long time.

“But the way that Glasgow embraced us as a model was really, really exciting. This site was just a dream come true. To be able to be part of a city centre regeneration project is fantastic.”

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Backed initially by private equity, Social Hub more recently secured financing from major institutional investors APG, the Dutch pension fund, and Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC. This will provide firepower for growth plans going forward.

“We have hotels in eight European countries at the moment so it would be nice to try and increase the number of hotels in those eight countries to get a bit more density and the economies of scale coming through,” Mr MacGregor said.

The son of Charles MacGregor, whose company Peaston & Co built the UK’s first purpose-built student accommodation (PSBA) for the University of Edinburgh in the early 1980s, the younger Mr MacGregor was involved in the industry from an early age. Raised in Edinburgh where he lived until the age of 19, he also travelled extensively up to Dundee and Aberdeen and down as far south as Newcastle and Plymouth with his father.

“I was living with my dad who had split up from my mum so I used to have to go to work with him,” he said. “I spent time in the university offices while he was having his meetings and my job was to sort out the keys or stuff like that and, as I got older, I would help him strip out the buildings that he bought or move furniture into the new buildings.”

The Herald: Co-working space within The Social HubCo-working space within The Social Hub (Image: Colin Mearns)

The model in those days was for universities to lease new student accommodation from the developers, giving the builders assurance of a return on their investment. Mr MacGregor says this also fostered an atmosphere of “who cares?” when it came to designing and furnishing new accommodation, with the assumption being that the “students are going to destroy it anyway”.

“As I started to come of age the universities stopped giving leases to developers, so developers had to take on the risk themselves,” he said. “Suddenly they came into contact with the customers, and it really struck me that [the way things operated] was totally the wrong way to handle people.

“I was determined to do it differently – I was determined to make students feel special. We believed that students deserved better.”

More inclined to hands-on activities than academia, Mr MacGregor started working on building sites at the age of 17. He left his father’s business and joined a valuer’s office in Newcastle before moving on to London where he was employed by another developer with the task of acquiring new sites.

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That company also started moving into the PBSA sector, which suited Mr MacGregor until it emerged that his father was preparing to retire to Brussels. They reached an agreement whereby the son purchased his dad’s remaining businesses, which included projects in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Leeds and London.

It was on a trip to visit his father’s new home in Brussels that Mr MacGregor and his girlfriend realised they too would like to live in Belgium. He decided to take a crack at the local PBSA market upon discovering that in Amsterdam there was a four-year waiting list for student accommodation, but planning permission proved “impossible” due to rental caps and minimum room sizes.

“That was when I realised that, if I did a hotel, I could build a room the size I wanted, which was great – then suddenly the financial model worked,” he said. “I could also, of course, build a nice lobby where the heart of the building was, but the most beautiful thing about being a hotel was I could invite mums and dads to come and do the student experience with their kids.

“We started to see very quickly that we got corporate guests and proper leisure travellers coming in, and then we added in co-working and the whole business kind of evolved from there. I came at it through a student basis and turned slowly into a hotelier.”

The Herald: The building is part of a major redevelopment in Glasgow's Merchant CityThe building is part of a major redevelopment in Glasgow's Merchant City (Image: Colin Mearns)

Social Hub Glasgow has space for up to 222 co-workers along with 20 private offices and eight flexible meeting and event spaces totalling 1,500sq metres. There are 249 dedicated four-star hotel rooms and a further 245 rooms for students and extended stays that will revert to hotel accommodation when students are away during the summer break.

Mr MacGregor says this has proven a robust business model with Social Hub remaining cashflow positive throughout the Covid pandemic, when many hotels were forced to shut down entirely.

“If you look what happens in Edinburgh and the knock-on success to Glasgow during the Fringe and the Festival, our model is designed to embrace that, where we have a smaller hotel in non-peak time and then we have a very big hotel during peak times,” he said. “That fluctuation is needed.”

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He further maintains that it is a superior form of student housing, hotel accommodation, and co-working because the mix promotes a sense of community with people from different generations and backgrounds intermingling in the extensive shared facilities that include a theatre, restaurants, bars, a gym, and event spaces.

“The ground floors are much more representative of how society is, it’s much more how real life is,” Mr MacGregor said. “It’s quite strange really that you would have a building that is filled only with 21-year-old students, or only full of young professionals, or only full of corporate travellers.

“That’s quite weird. Why would you want to be in that space? “The reason we like Starbucks is because it’s a blend of everybody in society coming together."