James Ransom

September 29, 2021

Concierges and wine cellars: universities are not the only anchors in town

Hotel Viru in Tallinn, Estonia has a museum on the top floor. There are rows of tape recorders on little desks: KGB listening posts to spy on the international guests staying downstairs. The hidden microphone in a hotel room features in countless spy novels and thriller films; the private space rendered public.

We have a fascination with big hotels. There is a BBC television series looking at the world’s most luxurious hotels. The Grand Budapest Hotel won four Oscars and A Gentleman in Moscow was a worldwide bestseller.

Universities, museums and hospitals are often described as anchor institutions, a term meaning a large organisation rooted in a place and which coordinates economic and social activity. We can easily apply this definition to large hotels. Hotels are a very different form of anchor institution to a university. But they can play an outsized role in national and city development.

In tourist destinations, the hotel bed is the primary unit on which an entire industry, sometimes an entire economy, is built. In war zones, the hotel bar is often the meeting place for reporters and diplomats, a place for gossip, negotiations and deal-making. Hotels boast of the world leaders that have visited; conferences held in hotels have led to peace and failed to prevent war. The conversations that have taken place in hotel corridors and over drinks have led to scientists, artists and businesspeople working together for the first time, with Nobel prizes or IPOs following a decade later. New governments form in hotels.

Describing Uganda in a time of civil war, Michaela Wrong writes:

with their emergency generators, satellite dishes, wine cellars, and stocks of tinned food, big hotels are natural magnets for invading guerrilla forces, offering services that have collapsed in looted government offices and private residences.

A leader from a private university in Africa recently told me how he views the five star hotels in his city as ‘nexuses of power’, part of the government’s well-oiled machine to attract investment by bringing important people together. 

Of course, there’s more to the anchor role than providing a bed for a prime minister. But even on these points, universities can tell a powerful story. They can boast of their presidential graduates. They can be centres of peace and reconciliation: I remember vividly a Sri Lankan Vice Chancellor speaking over a decade ago at a conference (held not at a hotel, but the University of Cape Town) about how his university campus was a sanctuary for people fleeing violence during the civil war. But it would be a mistake to think that universities are the only important anchor institution in town.

Two other short pieces of mine have also been published today: an article for Science and Engineering South on the role of universities in the south of England in economic recovery (drawing on my work for Universities UK), and a blog for Yorkshire Universities on why we need more inward investment to meet our R&D targets.