On just about anyone’s shortlist of companies that deliver unique, high-quality experiences, you’ll be sure to find Virgin. And this year, the iconic brand opened its first hotel in the US — a 250-room property located in the Chicago Loop. How does Virgin Hotel live up to the high standards set by other Virgin businesses? At Forrester’s Forum for Customer Experience Professionals in New York, June 16th and 17th, Raul Leal, CEO, Virgin Hotel Group, will explain. In the meantime, he shared with us a few thoughts about CX, the hospitality industry, and what it’s like to work for a knight. Enjoy! And I look forward to seeing you in NYC . . .
Q: In your industry, switching costs are pretty low. Indeed, one of the things that impresses me about the first Virgin Hotel in Chicago is how reasonably priced the rooms are! Is that why CX is so important to Virgin?
A: Absolutely, customer experience is probably the No. 1 area where we want to exceed. You’ll see we thought about every touchpoint in guests’ journey, from the lobby where they can complete a DIY check-in at the kiosk to the grand staircase where it looks like a can of red paint has been spilt down the stairs and the second-floor Commons Club where there are endless nooks to settle in for a cocktail or a day of working. We aimed to eliminate as many pain points of the travel experience as possible. No longer will guests have to hunt for a plug; they are found at every seat. Wi-Fi is free and without bandwidth restrictions, minibar offerings are priced at street level, and the guest chamber has a sliding privacy door, closing off evening hallway noise or allowing room service to be delivered without the guest ever having to interact with the server. All these small measures add up to a great experience.
Q: The Virgin brand is immediately recognizable. What role does your culture play in making sure that brand feeling lives up to customer expectations?
A: Branson and the Virgin companies have spent over 30 years building a culture that thrives on pushing the boundaries, challenging convention, and doing it all with a wink and a smile. Many of the companies have won awards and earned millions of fans, so we had big footsteps to follow in, but we also had world-class research, data, and examples to model our product after.
Like Virgin America, when it entered its industry, it introduced a new way to fly, and we feel we’ve done something similar in the hotel industry. We’ve eliminated fees, provided transparent pricing, built a product that feels more like a pied-à-terre than a hotel room, added numerous dining and drinking options, and topped it off with unforgettable customer service. Guests find there’s only one button on the room phone: the "YES!" button. It leads to a team of YES! agents, who are ready and willing to take your request. We’ve had a wish for a singing wake-up call, which we of course fulfilled.
Q: Your boss, Sir Richard Branson, is as iconic as the Virgin brand itself. What leadership lessons have you learned from him that you think CX pros specifically should adopt?
A: Richard has so many attributes as a leader that I respect and want to replicate at Virgin Hotels, but what I commend the most about him is his listening skills. Given his success, you might think he would want to run all meetings, but he prefers to sit back and listen, take notes, and participate when he has something valuable to share. He’d rather be the listener than the talker, and I think this is one of the main reasons why he’s so successful. If you ever get a chance to be around him, you’ll see he travels with a small notepad where he collects feedback from staff and guests. He’ll ping the people around him for their comments on the hotel, the food, the rooms, and he sometimes will turn that feedback into action to better the company.
Q: What will success look like for Virgin Hotels in five years?
Our long term goal is to have 20 properties either up and running or in the works by 2025, so if we can have 10 properties in five years, that will be a tremendous success. We’re on our way to announcing five in 2015, so we’re halfway there.
Hear more from Raul next month at Forrester's Forum For Customer Experience Professionals.