Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Travel: NYT - Richard Branson on his US hotel ambitions

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The bar at the Commons Club in the new 250-room Virgin Hotel in Chicago. Credit Virgin Hotels
Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire British entrepreneur, has created hundreds of enterprises, from airlines to mobile phone businesses to a cruise line, and oversees more than 50,000 employees. One of his most recent ventures, the space tourism company Virgin Galactic, had a significant setback in November: a pilot was killed in a flight test accident just months before commercial service was to begin. (“We continue to be excited by the challenge of space — and make no mistake it is a huge challenge,” Mr. Branson said. “I am extremely proud of the team in Mojave who are driving our program forward.”)

His next big project is introducing Virgin Hotels in the United States. He already has Virgin Limited Edition, luxury boutique properties around the world; the Virgin Hotels will be in cities. On Jan. 15 the first was set to open in Chicago, in the 1928 Old Dearborn Bank Building. The 250-room property includes the Commons Club: a bar, lounge, relaxed work zone and restaurant with the vibe of a private club but open to all.
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Sir Richard Branson.
Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Branson.
Q. The first time I stayed at one of your boutique properties, Makepeace Island in Australia, I slept in what I’m told was your bedroom. There was a Kama Sutra book on the night stand.
A. Yes! Was your husband inspired by it? That’s good then. We are going to have those in our hotels too, maybe! It’s all about guests having fun.

You started Virgin Limited Edition with Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands in 2001, and other properties include the Kasbah Tamadot near Marrakesh and a chalet in Switzerland. What have you learned as a hotelier?
­Well, a lot of hotels play games and it annoys people understandably, and so Virgin’s whole philosophy is built on what you see is what you get.

What games do you think hotels play?
­Our guests won’t pay for Wi-Fi. There won’t be hidden charges, and you won’t get charged $10 for a chocolate bar you know you can buy at a store for $2. And you’ll get great service.

How many Virgin Hotels will there be?
­Anywhere we fly. We’ve built up, over 30 years, really loyal travelers on Virgin, and I think if they enjoy the experience of Virgin Atlantic, or Virgin America, then they might well enjoy the experience of a Virgin Hotel. People are too often bored by their hotel rooms and we will give them something to do.

Who do you perceive Virgin Hotels’ competitors to be?
­I think we are a four-star hotel (Chicago rates will start at $209), which is the way we normally try to offer people more than they’d expect on the price. The hotels will have between 150 and 400 bedrooms.

How involved will you be?
­Very, but most of my time now is not-for-profit ventures, like campaigning on global drug issues, or climate issues, or campaigning on conflict issues. I find that fascinating and interesting.

How about spas? Will your hotels have them?
­I think people like to be pampered. There will be a spa (opening in spring) which features a rustic design and a bar counter for manicures, chairs for pedicures and five treatment rooms. The specialty on Necker Island is a four-handed massage, and I’m sure we’ll have four-handed massages in our spas as well.

Why Chicago?
­Chicago is a beautiful site. We’ll work it out with Chicago, and then expand on it. There’ll be New York and New Orleans, Nashville, and we’re working on other cities we fly to, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Dallas. Some ideas will be the same, but each hotel will be unique to the city.

How will your hotels be different?
­I share a frustration with travelers. I hate going into a hotel room and the music is blaring, or not being able to easily turn off the lights when you are tired and just want to go to sleep. I was at a hotel in New York and the TV didn’t work. I couldn’t get a cup of tea at 6.30 a.m. because breakfast was served from 7 a.m. Our team has gone through one thousand things that people like and don’t like. A bed is very important — an incredibly comfortable bed and there will be an element to it that no one else has. You’ll be able to sit in bed and work, watch TV, relax. It is going to be a playpen and a traditional bed. We’re calling it the Lounge Bed.