CHICAGO — Airline mogul Richard Branson has cast his jet-set eye toward ground-level creature comforts with the launch of Virgin Hotels.
Set to open Jan. 15 in the landmark Old Dearborn Bank Building in the Loop, the hotel, which will feature amenities geared toward female travelers such as a make-up desk and oversize vanity, as well as an app that controls the room’s temperature and can order room service, is the launchpad for several upcoming hotels including Nashville and New York. Here, Branson, 64, founder of Virgin Group, talks about everything from his go-to traveling outfit to his definition of the perfect hotel.
WWD: Why did you pick Chicago as the first city have a Virgin Hotel?
Richard Branson: We had been looking at a number of properties for our first location but what truly excited us about Chicago were the friendly people and also the building. The Old Dearborn Bank really captured our attention with its 1920s architecture, and gave us the challenge to restore many of its existing features and give it a second life. Not too long ago, I got to see the interior, and the juxtaposition between old and new is fantastic.
WWD: What defines the perfect hotel to you? What can guests expect at every Virgin Hotel?
R.B.: The perfect hotel to me is a place that feels like home — it’s personal, warm and has all the amenities of home, but better. It offers a combination of functionality and style, one not overpowering the other. Our guest rooms, we call them Chambers, are two separate spaces divided by a sliding door that provides privacy and room to spread out. There are many restaurants in our hotels, including the Commons Club, a multipurpose socializing space welcoming guests and locals. And we will have fair pricing for everything, including minibar items.
WWD: What does luxury mean to you while traveling?
R.B.: Five stars don’t necessarily mean a great experience. Great experiences come when all your comforts are met — a friendly and genuine chat with staff, an intuitive and private guest room and a kitchen that’s open for business at any hour. It’s the simple things that add up to a great experience and mean luxury to me.
WWD: What cities are next for Virgin Hotels?
R.B.: Next up is Nashville in 2016, followed by New York in 2017. And we hope to announce a couple more properties in the U.S. soon. We are looking at cities like Miami, Austin, San Francisco, San Diego and others. It’s a very exciting time.
WWD: Is it true you wear the same outfit while traveling? What’s your travel uniform?
R.B.: You won’t catch me in a tie. I like comfortable clothes such as my Mavi jeans, Belstaff jacket and Armani button-down shirt. They are comfortable enough for flights and nice enough for meetings.
WWD: In light of the unfortunate test-flight crash in the Mojave Desert, are you still going forward with plans to take people into space?
R.B.: The flight test accident was a terribly tragedy and as anything in the test program, it will help make us even more ready for commercial service. I was with the team twice in the two weeks after the accident: The second spaceship is two-thirds complete and the team is working through the loss of their brave test pilot and spaceship with admirable strength and commitment. We have been fortunate to have a founding astronaut community that is very supportive and remains committed to realizing their dreams of going to space with us.