Colin Nagy, head of strategy at Fred & Farid, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. “On Experience” dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. 

After being formally open for under a year, the Virgin Hotel Chicago recently won Conde Nast’s Readers Choice poll of 300,000 travelers.

The other best-of categories can be easy to game if you have a slick public relations firm and some word-of-mouth, but reader’s choice is a solid barometer of what is actually resonating with travelers in the market. For a first-year hotel to win it with a new concept is significant and its worth unpacking the elements that are working well.

I caught up with Raul Leal, CEO of Virgin Hotels, to discuss their approach, why the brand attempted to go several levels deeper than other so-called lifestyle hotels, and the importance of community.

Leal asserted that “when Virgin does its job well, it eliminates the areas of friction points in a consumer business that cause displeasure.” With the hotel, they set to re-think the entire end-to-end experience from the ground up, and also be respectful of their guests and avoid the typical “nickel and diming” that may drive revenue, but makes guest feel like prey in a spreadsheet cell.

When building out the initial concepts back in 2011, Leal cited the female business traveler as a growing segment, and important in their initial brainstorming of what the rooms would offer. They wanting to do something that would cater to them in a new way, but also work well for all travelers. The team agonized over the right lighting, hallway safety, and other nuances like double doors in the middle of the room to separate things a bit, and allow room service to be delivered outside of the living area, eliminating the sometimes awkward interactions between service and personal space. There are well designed vanities and a re-thought shower.

Even the bed was overhauled to allow for lumbar support for comfortable laptop tapping, with a small bucket seat that allows for another person to prop up in bed.

In terms of technology, Leal highlights how deep they went with the integration with the hotel. Guests use a mobile app downloaded to their device instead of in-room iPads or other cumbersome interfaces that require five or so interactions to open the drapes. Leal highlights that you can adjust your room temperature while at the bar, you can order room service from anywhere on property, as well as tell the hotel what you want in your minibar before you arrive. No booze and just healthy snacks? No problem? Something calibrated for a weekend of hedonism? No problem. Plus, prices are the same as street prices, with no insane markup.

This is a huge deal, as being chipped away for Wi-Fi, mini bar items, and even bottles of water can make travelers irate and tilt things in the direction of negative, quickly. And it is indeed a rarity to find tech integration in a hotel that works as seamlessly as other consumer-facing apps do. This class of travelers want things to be as smooth as ordering an Uber, and eliminate friction from the process as much as possible.

There’s a considered balance, though. The hotel also uses refreshingly analog elements like the light switches that require no fumbling and a reassuringly sturdy Smeg Fridge. Other details include a clock that projects the time on the roof as you sleep. And old-school diplomacy certainly played a role in creating space for the hotel in Chicago’s cultural community. Leal cites 253 nights of local music acts hosted in the hotel over the past year or so, guest-only hosted happy hours to create real-life social networking and an idea of “membership without the dues” trying to provide guests with inside access minus the Soho House-priced buy in, and a local chef and local GM. And they get bonus points for re-creating Ferris Bueller’s bedroom in the hotel. 

With many lifestyle hotels focusing on just superficial design and a focused-grouped vision of what a “creative class” lifestyle is like, it strikes me the approach to building the first Virgin Hotel seemed sincere in its intention. The concept managed to balance some different forces: the old school community engagement, deep tech integration and an obsession with soft-touches and gestures to make people comfortable — and safe and sound — while traveling on business. And judging by the reception by a discerning audience, the plan seems to be working and will scale to the west coast, New York City (directly across from Skift’s office), and Nashville in time.

Photo Credit: A promotional image of Virgin Hotels' Chicago property, which has fast become a consumer favorite. Virgin Hotels