Q&A With Hotelier Robin Staten

A woman in red smiling
A woman in red smiling
Tiny Urban Escapes founder Robin Staten

How did you decide on Haughville to build your hotel?

I had been searching for a property for over a year. It was really important to me that I would be 100 percent owner of not only the land, but also the brand of Tiny Urban Escapes. I came across a property on the near west side, and just by happenstance, it had recently become available. I had to pitch the concept to the Westside Community Development Corporation, which owned the land—how the use of the property would have economic benefits to the community and how the brand would impact the residents of the near west side. I’m thankful for that because it forced me to dive deeper into the community. I grew up on the west side, so I was familiar with the area, but not with its current residents, resources, and needs.

An all-female design team from Chicago, Siren Betty Design, designed the glass-walled rooms. What about that team made you want to work with them?

Prior to the groundbreaking, Tiny Urban Escapes had been featured in The New York Times and Architectural Digest for its innovative concept. So the idea was out there. I came across Siren Betty three or four years ago, and they were a group of amazing, dynamic women who drove down from Chicago to meet. I’m intentional about partnering not only with women, but with women of color. And I loved the work that they do. Their energy matched mine. They were immediately inspired by the shipping container idea.

A few years ago, you were working at IUPUI. How did you figure out that your purpose in life was to create this hotel?

I may not be the most religious person, but I am very spiritual. I think that individuals can have a calling that we either choose to ignore or don’t have the confidence to pursue. Sometimes, life pulls us in different directions. But I will say that I was inspired by my office at IUPUI, which had mostly glass walls and was in the heart of campus. There was something tugging at me, this fire in my gut. My family has a natural affinity for hospitality because they’re from the South. I came up in that environment and had a true love for hospitality very early on. I just had no idea initially that it would be as a hotelier. Less than 1 percent of hoteliers in the industry are female, and even less than that are African-American women. I decided to chart a more challenging course. I don’t think I would have spent the amount of time that I have on this if I didn’t wholeheartedly believe not only in myself, but in Tiny Urban Escapes’ vision and its benefit to the community.

How do you plan to overcome the challenges of being located in a struggling neighborhood like Haughville?

I built my first container on my grandmother’s property, just five minutes from where Tiny Urban Escapes will be located. When I completed the build for The Blossom suite, I did a sip and see without any media or city officials. I invited the community for their opinion, which sometimes can be blunt and brutal. But the reception was very positive. There’s such rich history in Haughville. So how do we bring people back into this space? How do we get our community members to fall back in love with it? I could have picked any location for this hotel, but in my opinion, I could not have chosen a more vibrant location than where we are on Michigan Street.

The suites are named The Blossom, The Bold, The Lux, and The Naturalist. How did you come up with those themed rooms for your hotel?

In most of the hotels you go to, the rooms are the same unless you’re doing a premium upgrade. Working with Siren Betty Design, we wanted to be a little bit more strategic and thoughtful in our approach. We thought of individuals like a naturalist who would appreciate things that had a more natural feel and undertone to them. We thought of individuals who are bold, or more zen and relaxed. The Ira Jean, or The Blossom suite, is named after my grandmother. I wanted to pay homage to her and her legacy because her home was such a warm and inviting place.

What challenges have you faced being new to this industry?

The hospitality industry is no different than many other industries. Females—especially females of color—face additional challenges. There’s a lack of access to resources. In the African-American community, we have been longstanding contributors to economic development as entrepreneurs, but that information has not always been shared with others. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by some goodhearted people who openly shared information that guided a lot of my decisions.

Who is mentoring you through this?

I like to chart my own course, but there have definitely been some key players who I’ve been able to lean on. Aaron Laramore, from LISC Indianapolis, was our funding source for the project. The Indy Black Chamber of Commerce has been an amazing resource. And I leaned heavily on my family as well. When I came home and said, ‘I think this is what I want to do,’ my husband didn’t pack up and leave, so that was a good sign.

What surprises have come up so far?

There are multiple layers to being a developer and a hotelier, and the construction world is something I’m still learning. Most of us walk past buildings and don’t think about how they got there. Working with contractors has definitely been a learning curve, but it’s one that I embrace. While I was doing research on the conversion of containers, I went to one of the Marriott hotels in downtown Indianapolis. I shadowed their general contractor, and I ended up with the assistant controller position, so I did a year in a 374-bed hotel that had two restaurants and a Starbucks. That “baptism by fire” experience was very beneficial.

You describe your business as “female developed.” Are all the members of your staff women?

They are right now. It’s a male-dominated industry, but I’ve been very intentional about women’s empowerment. Hopefully, I can provide an opportunity for women who want to become hoteliers that didn’t exist for me when I decided to enter into this arena.

What kind of customers do you expect to attract when the hotel opens this summer?

People who have a love for wellness. But when I talk about wellness, I mean collective wellness, not just our physical selves. We’re designing these rooms so that people can find true serenity and a place to thrive versus just a place to stay overnight. I also see the adventure traveler, so those individuals who want to try something completely new, innovative, and move away from the traditional hospitality experience that most of us have become bored with. Definitely the locals, because we focus heavily on the staycation experience and day retreats. Then those individuals who are taking charge of their life and saying, ‘I’m overwhelmed and I need a break.’ We created Tiny Urban Escapes as a place you can come to prepare yourself to thrive in the world.