When Virgin Hotels opened its first property in Chicago, it was widely praised for bringing something new to the industry and offering guests an alternative to the traditional hotel experience. But where did the ideas for the hotel come from? We caught up with CEO Raul Leal to find out more about how their ideas were conceived and developed...
"This has been a long process," admits Raul. "There was always a concept in mind that the room should not feel like a traditional guest experience that people were tired of: the cookie cutter room where you walk in through a tiny hallway and you have a bathroom to the left, a small closet to the right and then you walk into the bedroom. So the thought process was that it should feel more like a small pied-a-terre in the city, like a small apartment in the city, rather than just another guest room."
And that’s exactly what they created - a hotel room that looks different, that feels different to anything that anyone else is offering. But it wasn't an easy road.
"The challenge was could we do what we wanted within the confines of a 300 square foot room?" Raul says. "As we thought about the product I think the most important thing was comfort first, it had to be comfortable. The problem in the lifestyle industry is that hotels can be very buzzy and cool but sometimes when you go back to your room, even though the design is very cool, it doesn't work. So our two guiding principles were comfort and then it had to work. It's more about flow than it is about the actual aesthetics of the room."
The next thing that the team did was come up with a list of things that people didn’t like about existing hotels: dark rooms, not enough vanity space, small showers, uncomfortable beds, not enough plugs. And they decided that they would fix these problems.
But the real moment of inspiration came after Raul had a bad experience at a well-known hotel in New York that had recently opened.
"They’d given me a suite but it was awkward," he says. "The bathroom was an open bathroom but it actually opened into the living room. It had no privacy so you jump out of the shower and you're standing in the middle of the living room. It's a typical lifestyle hotel trying to be too cool for school. It inspired me to come up with a solution. I actually brought our designer at the time over to the hotel to show him the dysfunctionality of that room."
That was when Raul came up with the idea of dividing their chambers to provide privacy for guests when dressing.
At the same time, there were a number of articles that started to appear about how the female business traveller population was increasing fairly dramatically. "We took note of this," Raul explains, "and we said 'what if we designed the room not necessarily for the female business traveller but through her eyes? What would that room be like?' That began to guide our design thoughts a bit more. We not only began to think of the way it should work and the way it should feel but also what other amenities would a lady like in the room? So then we added the vanity desk with the lit mirror, we enlarged the shower and made it feel a bit more like a spa shower with a big bench. We added drawers to the vanities. We added the additional closet module, where you can hang long dresses in one side and also have a place for your shoes at the bottom, instead of just having one closet module."
One of the major designs of the rooms at Virgin Hotels is the bed, which offers so much more than most hotel beds. "We thought about the bed more in terms of how people work and play today because the lines of work and play have been blurred," he says. "In most hotels what they do is put in a very comfortable mattress and they add a bunch of pillows on top of the bed. What ends up happening is you wind up throwing all the pillows on the floor because you're only going to use one or two.
"So we said the bed, the headboard, no-one's ever thought about the headboard being ergonomic, most hotel headboards when you lie back against them the natural reaction is to put a pillow on your lower back, the headboard is straight but you back is not. It's uncomfortable.
"So we said what if we create a bed where the ergonomics of it mean that the headboard works without the pillows? Then as we continued that thought process we thought one of the things that sometimes ladies particularly like to do is when they go away for a girls’ weekend, they all want to hang out in the same room. The bed should be able to accommodate two or three people to work and play in; hence we came up with the second headboard on the end and the curves on the back."
For more on the design of the Chicago hotel, and to book a stay to check it out for yourself, head to the Virgin Hotels website.