FIRST VIRGIN HOTEL JUST OPENED, THE BRITISH BILLIONAIRE TALKS ABOUT AMBITION, IRREVERENCE AND HIS ULTIMATE SECRET TO SUCCESS.
With hotels now in his remit, the mogul tells us his secret to success.
From the get-go, Sir Richard Branson has set the framework for a new breed of famboyant billionaire. An unapologetic self-promoter and party boy – Branson’s also an astute leader, one who craves creativity and personal enjoyment. Cue the perma-smile he sports alongside those sandy teenage locks; cue the simple fact he remains eager to take risk in the hope of achieving success; cue a track record that shows his unique approach to business, with its win/loss ratio, proves he knows exactly what he’s doing. See, Branson is aware of what he likes – always has. And it’s an approach that’s served him well, across the many different sectors he’s informed – music, fnance, transportation, communications and beyond. Here, today, hotels are on his mind – having recently opened the world’s frst Virgin Hotel in Chicago – and what he doesn’t like. “Overcharging on minibars for one,” the 65-year-old tells GQ, energetically ticking items from his fngers. “Paying extra for the same dish on room service; hidden fees for late check-out; paying extra for wi-f. Oh, don’t get me started on the bloody wi-f.” With four more properties scheduled, and a number of other new ideas in the pipeline, the Brit isn’t about to take a step back anytime soon. But how exactly does he do it, and what are the keys to his maintained drive and incredible achievements?
GQ: Why have you waited so long to open the first Virgin Hotel?
Richard Branson: Good question. I suspect we should have launched Virgin Hotels 30 years ago, because we’ve had business people fying all over the world – on Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America and Virgin Australia – and loving the experience. But then at the end of it, they’re dumped into hotels that aren’t very Virgin-esque at all, like the Hilton. Now we’re looking to complete their journey properly.
GQ: And why Chicago for the first property? The location is surprising.
RB: We identifed a number of cities that interested us, then went looking for potential sites. In Chicago, we found this beautiful, iconic 1930s building [the Old Dearborn Bank] pretty much immediately. So that’s why Chicago was frst – often the decision comes down to whether you can fnd the right building to convert, and how soon you can get into it.
GQ: What’s the plan in regards to the rollout – global domination?
RB: I was asked a similar question when we started Virgin Atlantic and I said, you know, maybe four, fve planes? And now Virgin has nearly 300 aircraft. So it’s hard to say. We’ll try to grow steadily – we already have New York, Nashville, New Orleans and San Francisco underway, and London will happen too, so there’s a lot going on. But the key is also to watch the Chicago hotel, to see what people like and don’t like, and to understand if we’ve got the formula right.
GQ: Is an Australian hotel in the works?
RB: Absolutely. I love Australia, and Sydney in particular, so any excuse to get down there and throw a party. The whole city is just such a refreshing, exhilarating place to visit. I love the Australian people, they’re so much fun and we’ve built some tremendous businesses out there. So yeah, that is defnitely on the cards.
GQ: There’s never just one thing on the go with you – so what other Virgin ventures are on the cards?
RB: Virgin Cruises. The idea is to do something completely different – to tap into the millions of people who would never have dreamed of going on a cruise before. Our boats are being built at the moment and they will be bigger than normal cruise ships. It will take three years to fnish them, and in that time we want to create a cruise ship company that is not only affordable but fun; where people will genuinely not want to get off at the end. I imagine we’ll start with the Caribbean.
GQ: Talking generally – after 50 years of business, what keeps you motivated to continually try new things and adopt risk when you needn’t?
RB: It might sound trite, but I see it as one long learning process. I love creating things – I love enabling other people around me to fulfil their dreams of creating things. And we all get a kick when we’re praised, we all fourish with that. I’m lucky because every day is different and that keeps you interested. You have to throw yourself into anything you do in life – if you throw yourself in and try to make people smile, then somehow you can do pretty much anything. I’ve done a lot of mad, fun things to put Virgin on the map – occasionally I’ve nearly killed myself in the process, but it’s been a lot of fun.
GQ: There must be some regrets?
RB: I honestly don’t think so. Generally speaking, we’ve been extraordinarily lucky, and the majority of things have worked out. I wouldn’t change anything, I’ve had an absolute blast. Admittedly, not everything we’ve started has been a success. I mean, we found with Virgin Brides that we had to move on. I guess there weren’t enough of them out there.
GQ: What would be your top pieces of advice when it comes to commercial business?
RB: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Or, as I often say, ‘Screw it, let’s do it.’ I’m nicknamed ‘Doctor Yes’ in the offce and as a general rule, I do fnd saying ‘yes’ is a lot more fun than ‘no’. There are always going to be tough moments, especially when you push the boundaries, but you learn to pick yourself up, brush yourself down and move forward.
GQ: How would you describe yourself as a boss?
RB: I’ve been fortunate to hire intelligent, talented experts to run our Virgin businesses. Like me, they know what they don’t know and get the job done right by surrounding themselves with capable people. My trust in them is why I feel strongly that employees should have the freedom to decide where and when to work. If you show trust, they’ll return it in dedication and hard work.
GQ: You turned 65 earlier this year. Got any retirement plans?
RB: No, I don’t. To be honest, I’ve never really thought of myself as working in the frst place. I love what I do – and I’ll continue doing it ’til the day I drop. virginhotels.com n
“I’M NICKNAMED ‘DOCTOR YES’ IN THE OFFICE AND AS A GENERAL RULE, I DO FIND SAYING ‘YES’ IS A LOT MORE FUN THAN ‘NO’.”
VIRGIN HOTELS BRANSON AT THE OPENING OF VIRGIN’S FIRST HOTEL IN CHICAGO; THE COMMONS CLUB; CITY VIEWS FROM THE BAR; A ROOM IN THE NEW HOTEL.