PHOTO: The Grand Chamber King accommodation at Virgin Hotel, Chicago. (Photo by Scott Laird)
Virgin Hotels is shaking up the hospitality business. With only one relatively small property open in Chicago’s Loop, it’s not in a steal-your-business kind of way, but in a rather more important way: the brand’s innovation in guest service questions the status quo on many old lodging industry assumptions that had, over the years, grown rather stale.
Speaking of stale, it’s often a complaint lodged against “refreshment centers” or mini bars—the baskets of convenience store snacks and beverages priced at significant market and left to languish in many hotel rooms which have fallen out of vogue over the years due to lack of use and frequent guest disputes.
Virgin Hotels has addressed this by putting the items in and on top of their stylish mini Smeg fridges priced similarly to what one might pay at a convenience store. Guests pay less for an actual convenience, instead of a waste of space, and the hotel makes up the difference on volume. There’s whimsy, too—Swedish Fish and champagne gummy bears are on offer in addition to the standard fare.
The target guest is clear from the design of the rooms: a tech-savvy, style-conscious traveler who may or may not travel with their pet, who is generally familiar with and/or appreciative of the Virgin brand of Cool Britannia meets friendly-casual service delivered with a wink and a nudge. It’s different, but it’s the kind of different one could easily get used to.
Fast, free WiFi is also a given at Virgin Hotels, with the understanding that the next generation of guests regards Internet access as a standard amenity. Guest rooms are wired so that guests can control the thermostat or send requests to hotel staff via their mobile phone, while televisions are wired to the hotel system and greet guests to their rooms by name.
During my recent visit, I was booked in a Grand Chamber King, which is split into two distinct “chambers”—one for sleeping, and one for vanity, separated by a sliding door with a cheeky peephole. There’s a large sink one one side surrounded by thoughtfully designed open closets (which along with the sink can be curtained shut for privacy when welcoming visitors) with slide out shoe racks and recessed lighting.
Opposite the closet and sink in the vanity area was the shower, tiled in retro glossy red and white. Yet, the rainfall shower head is a modern touch along with signature bath products in the hotel’s bespoke scent, Palo Santo, created exclusively for Virgin Hotels by Red Flower. It has the intoxicating fragrance of its namesake tree (a relative of frankincense) “mountain grasses, eucalyptus leaves, white birch, sandalwood and copaiba oil.” The sandalwood was the most forward note I noticed, and the fragrance also wafts through the hotel’s public areas. Betwixt the shower and the W.C. is a mirrored dressing table with a short stool.
Keeping watch over the bath products in the shower is the hotel’s mascot Snoozy The Sheep, who reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously and have some fun. That’s Virgin’s take, which I certainly agree with, but more importantly, I think there’s something utterly humanizing about adding cutesy elements to a hotel room. It’s almost like a declaration by the hotel that they haven’t forgotten your humanity, and they’ve thoughtfully and playfully done their best to put a smile on your face as your explore your space.
There’s no shortage of outlets for charging devices, and road warriors needn’t lug a set of speakers along with them; the rooms are also equipped with the Bluetooth-connected Stellé Audio Pillar for smooth “tuneage.”
It’s almost as though every pain point has been meticulously researched in the design of the rooms. The bedside clock radio projects the time onto the hanging orb lamp above the bedside table so it’s not necessary to roll over to check the hour.
The bed itself is more like a chair, with a sleigh back and a guest nook for seating at the foot, so it’s easier to share as a face-to-face co-working space. Shelves opposite hold a curated selection of books, below which awaits a room safe that’s large enough to hold a laptop. Housekeeping and do-not-disturb controls are also electronic, and the large white ceramic doggie sitting outside my room door that I thought was just decorative was later explained to designate the room as “dog-friendly.”
In-room coffee is another win, with Bow Truss coffee, a local roaster, on offer via a pour over from the provided electric kettle. Although, lovers of espresso drinks should definitely head downstairs to Two Zero Three for an independent coffee shop experience complete with lovely foam art.
There’s a lot packed into this building, which is a former bank building with much of the heritage architecture kept intact: the staircase, elevator faces, ceiling and floor tile in the lobby.
In addition to Two Zero Three, which is a comfortable corner coffee shop with cushy furniture and plenty of outlets, there’s Miss Ricky’s, named for Sir Richard Branson’s drag alter-ego, serving up generously portioned diner favorites beyond a room decorated with shorn-off neckties.
A floor above is The Commons Club, a multi-use space with an imposing two-story convex bar. It is part lounge, part restaurant, part bar—all rather high energy with low lighting and lounge music and overseen by the Woman in Red who circulates in a red dress as a sort of ambassador/cruise director/supreme hostess.
There’s a nightly social hour from six to seven each evening, which offers complimentary beer, wine, and cocktails from a pre-set but surprisingly comprehensive menu.
Atop the tower is Cerise, an indoor-outdoor bar and lounge which offers drinks and bites with soaring views of the Loop Area. It’s definitely for heartier souls during the winter months, but it’s imaginably rather sublime during the summer.
Room service is 24 hours and available via the mobile app. It includes selections from each of the in-house dining establishments and is touted not to have a delivery fee, but pricing is noticeably elevated when compared with heading down (or up) stairs yourself. Should guests wish to venture outside the hotel, a red Tesla house car is available to whisk guests away on a first-come, first-served basis.
You know a hotel has done right when guests checking out are already looking for excuses to come back. To be quite honest, after experiencing the complete package, I can safely say the only real drawback to Virgin Hotels is that there aren’t more of them. Properties in Nashville, New York, Dallas, Palm Springs, Silicon Valley, and New Orleans are on tap, and they can’t open soon enough.
The Takeaway: Virgin Hotels is the product of exhaustive research to remove the pain points in the modern hotel experience, and they’ve done a splendid job.
Instagrammable Moment: The doggie outside my room got lots of photographic attention.
The Damage: I’ve seen rates as low as $145 per night during the depths of the Chicago winter.
Good To Know: The hotel is close to the L, which is noisy, but earplugs are provided. The Tesla House Car charges from 2-4 PM every day. If you love the Palo Santo lotions and soaps, ask the staff for extra: it’s exclusive to the hotel and not available anywhere else. Turndown service is available on request, and the sweet is cotton candy instead of the standard issue chocolate square.
Accommodations were furnished by Virgin Hotels in preparation for this story. http://www.travelpulse.com/