Understanding the Virgin Hotels approach to creativity

Creativity can be messy at times, which isn’t always helpful when you’re trying to run a hotel. Creativity can splatter paint all over your entrance, it can leave graffiti in your corridors and deposit used baseball mitts in your cocktails. So why exactly do Virgin Hotels Chicago embrace it so warmly?

We spoke with Blake Smith, Executive Director of Entertainment, to learn a little more about how Virgin Hotels encourage creative thinking across the business and why they believe it’s so important that their properties are used to showcase the best in music and the arts.

Hey Blake. First off, tell us a little about what you do and your role in the business.

I oversee our entertainment, I am responsible for programming and producing our larger events, and I steward many of our brand partnerships. I also help out creating concepts for our outlets and designing our A/V systems. Half of the role involves detailed strategic planning, but the other half can get extremely improvisational. I frequently find myself at 11PM grappling with complex problems on the fly that I could never have anticipated while gazing soulfully into my Wheaties at 7AM that morning.

Why is it important for Virgin Hotels to have strong connections with musicians and artists across their properties?

There are a handful of tattered clichés in our industry that make me cringe when people trot them out. "It’s in our DNA," is one such phrase (I am looking at you too, "surprise and delight"). But, you know, Sir Richard Branson founded an incredibly important and influential record label and the spirit with which he grew that has informed all of his subsequent ventures to a degree. So... it’s in our DNA (pardon me a moment, I just made myself gag a little). But seriously, I feel strongly that music is the most emotionally resonant and universal form of art there is. It can be a profoundly powerful tool. Which is why every brand tries to get into the music space at some point, though it is usually comes across as awkward and contrived for them. We are lucky to be the kind of brand that has always done it elegantly and naturally and artists recognise that.

Read: How social media has changed art activism

What do you look for in a musician or an artist when you’re planning on booking them to play or feature their work?

We like to work with artists that are on the verge, but have not broken yet. We have been very fortunate to be able to identify these types of artists many months before the rest of the industry. We always consider what we can do for the artist to be as important as what they can do for us, so we tend to form strong relationships early on. As for the more established artists we work with, we always look at their mission to see how it lines up with our own. In essence, we try to look at every performance as a brand partnership.

The get-out-the vote event with Chance the Rapper garnered a lot of attention, do you think it’s important for artists to use their platform to highlight political and social issues?

Primum Non Nocere. I feel like the artist’s primary responsibility is to do no harm with their power. If you come across someone like Chance who is really invested in his community and is willing to put his talent, time, and money behind it, that’s ideal. He is having a tremendous positive impact. But sometimes people are just entertainers, and that should be okay too.

Read: The man who made Virgin's murals

How tricky was it to organise the event with Chance?

How much time do you have? He and his team at Social Works were amazing to work with, but it was extremely complicated and the city did not make it easy on us. They switched sites on us six hours before the event was to take place. We were literally daisy-chaining bicycle racks together to create a perimeter 45 minutes before it started. Random people walking by the park were coming up to me asking if this was the Chance event and if they could help. We were working side-by-side with hip hop kids, grandmothers, cryptozoologists, tourists, ventriloquists, politicians, narwhal jockeys, the cast of Hamilton and the local police.

At one point the band Twin Peaks (who were on the bill) pulled up in their van and started handing water and food out to volunteers. There is a lot of nasty bipartisanship in American politics these days, but you just had to look around the park that afternoon to be reminded that most people are essentially good and want to help each other.

The Never Quit cocktail is great example of creative thinking in a part of the hotel where you might not expect it - how did it all come about and how is creative thinking encouraged across the business?

The head of our cocktail program at the time was steeping leather in bourbon for a couple of drinks on our menu. I nervously used to nibble on my baseball glove when I stood out in centerfield as a kid, so I know the taste well and kidded that the cocktails were "earthy with a hint of mitt".  Jon Lester’s people approached us about assisting with his NVRQT pediatric cancer charity and I jokingly suggested creating a cocktail featuring Jon’s glove that recreated the tastes of Wrigley Field, proceeds to go to NVRQT. To our shock, they liked the idea. The drink ended up having beer, grass, and sunflower seed among other flavors and was quite successful. It was astonishing that our mixologist could pull that off and make it palatable. What an artist.

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