Aug 30, 2023

Curb Appeal is Not Hospitality

The following feature article was written by Dr. Gary Daynes, ISA Strategic Partner and leader of Back Porch Consulting.

If you have sold a house recently your realtor has instructed you about curb appeal.  To sell it quickly, and for the highest price, you must heighten its curb appeal, you will have heard.  This means uniformity in the yard–cut grass, trimmed bushes, discreet flowers–and simplicity inside.  You will have been told to reduce clutter, remove quirky things, and eliminate any evidence of your specific presence there: no family photos, outre book choices, or colors that fall outside of this year’s palette.

The purpose of curb appeal is to invite people to buy your house by imagining that it can serve whatever purpose they bring to it.  To do so, they must feel like the house is attractive but bland.   Stylish without being trendy. Upscale but (just barely) affordable. The aesthetic is “nice hotel lobby.” 

Colleges and universities have been focused on curb appeal for years, with the same goal: getting people to purchase their product, the same approach: making people feel like the school meets whatever desire they have, and the same style: upscale blandness, that realtors and hotel chains prefer. 

Improving the attractiveness of a campus is a good thing. But the implications of curb appeal are problematic, both for students, who cannot actually do whatever they want at your school, and for schools, for whom the cost of keeping up curb appeal is ever increasing and hardly affordable. The commitment to ever better curb appeal risks conflating fancy lobbies and well-cut grass with things of actual meaning.

A week ago we visited a winery in rural North Carolina. It was a family-owned producer, the tasting room was in the basement of a house.  The wine was decent, but what made the experience meaningful was hospitality.  The owners made the wine themselves. We learned their particular story. The wine had the quirks of place and time. You couldn’t buy it anywhere. They did not invite us to imagine that we were wherever we wanted: Napa or Bordeaux.  Instead, they invited us to join them briefly in their project–making decent wine with family and friends from the fruits of western North Carolina.  They welcomed us with hospitality, not curb appeal. We bought a case of wine.  We will go back.

My point is not to tell schools to abandon curb appeal. Don’t stop cutting the lawn, updating buildings, and staying up on higher education trends.  It is to say that those things, alone, do very little of real importance.  They indicate that your school is a possibility. But they do not convey what makes your school meaningful.  Nor do they offer hospitality.  That comes from welcoming students to join you and your school in a shared, personal, particular project.  

If you face tension between spending on curb appeal, or spending on the things that make you distinct, pick the latter.  Choose hospitality over curb appeal every time.

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