Ryan Lowry
January 20, 2015

Sir Richard Branson just wants a damn cup of tea. Is that so hard to find?

When the 64-year-old tycoon is on the road, the answer, apparently, is yes. “Most hotels don’t serve a decent cup of tea at any hour, let alone after breakfast,” he says. How apt, then, that Branson’s new hotel serves breakfast—and properly made tea—23 hours a day.

The 250-room Virgin Hotels Chicago, which opened Thursday, occupies the Old Dearborn Bank Building, a 1928 Deco tower in the Loop. It’s the first property from the new Virgin Hotels brand—or, rather, the opening salvo. Hotels are a natural next move for the conglomerate three decades after its first foray into travel. It’s easy to forget what an outlier Virgin Atlantic was in 1984: a cheeky interloper in a room full of staid grown-ups. As Branson puts it, Virgin’s knack is for “entering stale markets where customers are being ripped off.” (Of note: the company just announced plans to launch a cruise line, too.)

In that case, Virgin Hotels couldn’t have come at a better (or is that worse?) time. Like airlines, hotels have been nickel-and-diming guests for things they once got for free: optimized Wi-Fi, late checkout, even printing theater tickets. Virgin is doing away with those charges as well as other annoyances. Instead of $8 Cokes, mini-bar prices are set at “street level,” and there’s no fee for room-service delivery.

Design-wise, the aim is to restore user-friendliness and common sense. “There are such simple steps that few lifestyle hotels consider but that mean so much to the guest,” Branson says. Power outlets by the bed, say, or intuitive lighting controls. Or a clever sliding door that divides rooms into two distinct spaces: the “dressing room,” with a bathroom, closets, a vanity, and a makeup desk, and the “lounge,” with a bed and dining table. “A sliding door is a small detail,” Branson says. “But it allows some privacy, blocks out hallway noise, and lets you stay behind closed doors while room service is delivered.”

Virgin’s philosophy bodes well for today’s consumers, who often choose lodgings based less on thread count and square footage than on a hotel’s “personality”—which this brand has in spades. We’ll see if it adds up to a winning formula—there are plans for properties in Nashville and New York City—and whether travelers will follow Virgin’s lead.

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.

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