How Virgin Hotels is building a brand and a commodity free culture

A year ago the famous Virgin brand opened the doors of its first hotel. EyeforTravel caught up with the company’s people person

Virgin Hotels may not be “saving babies or doing rocket science” but giving people a great experience, whether they are travelling for business or pleasure, is “actually important,” says Clio Knowles, the firms VP of People, who has been with the brand for two and a half years.

When the group’s first, and to date only, hotel opened its art-deco doors in January last year, in true Richard Branson style he was looking to shake things up a bit. There was no formal check-in desk and in-room technology - the air-con and TV for example - could be run almost entirely from the hotel’s mobile app.

According to Knowles, Branson is highly vested in the success of the hotels, and at the very heart of this is being innovative and having fun, if at times a little irreverent.

One of the brand’s first one-night launch campaigns, for example, involved parking vans outside its competitor hotels that were still charging for Wifi and offering it for free - one of Virgin’s core offerings.

More recently, followers were prompted by Richard Branson via YouTube video to tweet their favourite rumours about Virgin Hotels.

The responses, which included everything from ‘Richard Branson tucks you up in bed’ to ‘there are three taps: hot, cold and champagne’, were then painted onto the side of a building by a graffiti artist. Taking the campaign a step further, the brand’s creative agency went on to produce some red welcome mats, carrying the rumours, and placed them at various places around the city - including on the doorsteps of competitor hotels.


While, perhaps unsurprisingly, not all competitors were overjoyed, some took it in good spirits and one used the opportunity to raise their own profile on Twitter by welcoming Virgin to the neighbourhood. Another a nearby hotel returned the favour with a doormat reading: ‘Thanks for the free Wifi. We’re enjoying it.’

Culture and leadership

In her role, which is small part HR but “big part culture and leadership”, Knowles and the head office team, who like to refer to themselves as HOT, have come up with a set of adjectives and values that defines what Virgin Hotels is.

Among the catch phrases that apply: ‘we love what we do and what we do is important’ and ‘everybody leaves feeling better’. The latter is one that is used a lot, says Knowles, and it applies not just to guests, but to employees, communities, even investors. This is good business practice, says author Michael Heppell, who in his book, argues that happy employees translates to happy guests; and Knowles says she has “the greatest job in the world”.

“We want our employees to understand that what they do contributes to the greater cause of the hotel industry and really does matter,” says Knowles.

This includes everything from housekeeping to the bell-hop role or ensuring that the buildings are not an unnecessary drain on the environment.

Consolidation and commoditisation

Commenting on the recent consolidation of bigger players - Marriott-Starwood, Accor and FHRI - Knowles isn’t convinced that this is great news for the customer, and will likely just lead to more commoditisation.

In any event, Virgin Hotels is certainly not looking to be acquired. If anything, it is looking to acquire smaller lifestyle brands, which, says Knowles, “have a real opportunity to stand out from the rest in offering a more unique proposition”.

Right now Virgin has six hotels in the pipeline. Two or three will open next year and two the following year, says Knowles. The aim being: for 20 hotels in 10 years.

So, then, no intention of being a doormat!

Clio Knowles spoke at a recent EyeforTravel event. To see what's coming up check out EyeforTravel's 2016 agenda 

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