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Richard Branson launches Virgin Hotels

Sir Richard Branson officially launched his latest venture, Virgin Hotels Chicago, earlier this month. We caught up with him to find out more...

Richard Branson launches Virgin Hotels
Sir Richard Branson

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Given that you’ve been in the travel business since 1984, why has it taken so long to launch a hotel?

“We should’ve launched Virgin Hotels 30 years ago when we launched Virgin Atlantic, because we’ve got people on Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia travelling all over the world — they love the experience. And then we dump them into hotels that are not always very Virgin-esque.

“We have had experience of running boutique places like Necker Island and Ulusaba in Africa but we decided to look for hotel properties — the first one we found was in Chicago.”

The 250-room hotel in the historic Old Dearborn Bank Building at 203 N. Wabash Ave features many of the property’s original features as well as facilities that are expected to become the brand’s trademark — free wi-fi, minibar at ‘street prices’, no early check-in or late check-out fees, and rooms with a two-chamber room layout.

How much input did you have into the hotel?

“We had a number of meetings with my wife and my kids, Holly and Sam, and came up with a list of things we don’t like about hotels, things we do like about hotels and things we definitely don’t want to see in a hotel.

“Things like going into a hotel room and the muzak is blaring and you’ve had a few too many drinks and all you want to do is go to sleep — and you can’t turn the muzak off, you can’t turn the lights off, you end up pulling everything out of the plugs, you need to ring reception, they don’t even have any water and if they do you have to pay for it, the lighting’s terrible, there’s only one place to hang clothes, nowhere to charge your equipment…”

And has it lived up to your expectations?

“I travel a lot and I always have done, I suspect I’m on the road about six months a year. And it is genuinely lovely to have a hotel in a city that feels like home. What we try to do is create things that feels like home for us and hopefully other people will also find that it feels like home for them. That’s what we did when we set up Virgin Atlantic 30 years ago and I think it’s done well and survived as a result. I think the team have just got everything right about this hotel.”

Expansion is obviously on the horizon, with new additions already announced in Nashville (2016) and New York (2017), but is there a target for the number of hotels you’d like?

“Well, I was once asked that question when we started Virgin Atlantic and I said maybe four or five planes. And now, between the three airlines, we’ve got nearly 300 planes so we’ll grow steadily — we’ve got New York, Nashville, San Francisco, New Orleans… so there’s a lot going on.

“The key was to see whether people liked the first hotel, whether we got the formula right and I think the reaction’s been fantastic. Every new one will have new innovations but I think we know it works.”

The official line is that 20 hotels are planned by 2025, but it sounds like there are plenty of destinations being targeted — Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Austin, Seattle, Washington DC, Bogota, Mexico City, Paris, Madrid, London…

And what of his next project, Virgin Cruises?

“We’re not going into massive detail because it’s going to take us three years to build the cruise ships so we don’t want other cruise companies to convert theirs and take any of our ideas. I think, in the same way people seem to like what we’ve done with hotels, our idea with cruises is there are millions of people who would never dream of going on a cruise ship and we want to tap in to those people.

“I mean I’ve never been on a cruise ship, actually I don’t normally spend a few days in a hotel either. So we’ll try to create a cruise company that’s going to be great fun and that people will genuinely not want to get off, rather than it just being the advert that says they don’t want to get off.”

One thing you can be sure of, despite his 65th birthday coming up in July, is that Branson has no plans of putting his feet up.

“I don’t think I’ll ever retire because I don’t think of myself as working, I just love existing and doing what I’m doing. Eighty per cent of my time is spent on not-for-profit ventures and the business side is less now. And there are so many things in the world that need sorting, that takes a lot of time and energy which I find fascinating and interesting. So I will definitely continue until I drop.”

Chambers at Virgin Hotels Chicago cost from £129 per night. T: 00 1 855 946 6600. virginhotels.com

Virgin Holidays offers three nights’ B&B at Virgin Hotels Chicago from £1,249 per person, including direct flights with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow. The price is based on two adults sharing a Chamber room and includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges. virginholidays.co.uk