In 2018, Houston set a new tourism record with 22.3 million visitors to the city. That same year, Sébastien Long was finishing his Cambridge thesis on home-sharing companies like Airbnb and falling in love with a classmate. When the couple moved to Houston after graduation, Long brought his ideas with him, and that's how Lodgeur was born.
Lodgeur works as an upscale home-sharing startup that offers luxury apartments in midtown and downtown Houston for nightly rent. It doesn't replace Airbnb; customers can browse through and book the properties through the familiar website. Guests can also book short or extended stays directly with Lodgeur's website.
In short, Long's research found that most Airbnb's have high guest experience ratings, but those user reviews don't work to inspire the 90 percent of Americans who haven't used a homestay service. Those people have worries — mostly about what to expect, about safety, and about having to interact with homeowners. Long believes he can calm those fears by building a trusted brand that customers recognize on Airbnb, and Houston turned out to be the perfect place to do that: his main inspiration, Conrad Hilton, did the same with hotels over the last century.
"Houston has been a city that's been overlooked. Most companies didn't come here first," Long says. "Actually, people are coming to Houston every week of the year, prices don't fluctuate too much, and you're probably going to be running at a high occupancy every week of the year."
So Long drove around the city, looking for apartment buildings he liked and hoped his guests would, too. Having grown up working at the campground-turned-resort started by his parents in the French Mediterranean, he had an eye for what tourists found attractive — buildings with character, high-end aesthetics and clean designs like a hotel, but with modern kitchen appliances and more space.
"We're roughly split between leisure guests and business travelers," Long says. "They want to feel like they're staying in a home away from home."
Getting that experience is about the same price as a hotel. The properties range from $90 per night to a $200 apartment with 50 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown. The apartments have not just attracted outside visitors; people have come from around Houston to stay during home renovations or when their houses have flooded, Long says.
The first guests arrived in mid-April. Long wanted to open by managing just a few properties, to make sure the company could ensure great guest experiences.
Last week, he hired his first full-time employee — an ex-marine who graduated from the University of Houston's Conrad Hilton College of Hospitality — and has contracted a marketing agency to turn up Lodgeur's social media presence. For now, Lodgeur relies on a freelance interior designer to fashion the apartments and a local housekeeping company to keep them clean.
Long — who is a Station Houston and WeWork Labs member — says he is looking to expand, but he wants to do so organically: Many of the owners of properties he's already renting own other apartment complexes, and he plans to work with them to move Lodgeur out of inner Houston, and then to other cities. Lodgeur isn't raising funds yet, but Long says he'll be looking for investors this summer.
Recently, Long stayed at Hilton in Austin — his first time at a hotel since launching Lodgeur. He booked a room with a king-sized bed, but it felt small. Business requires him to carry a tape measure, so he measured the mattress: it was six inches smaller than the mattresses Lodgeur uses. He laughed, thinking of how much more comfortable guests would be in an apartment with bigger beds and more space.
"I don't know how people would go back (to hotels)," he says.