After a hectic morning of working while traveling, I checked into the Virgin Hotel in Chicago this week in typical business traveler fashion: sleep deprived, cranky, and on a deadline.
Six hours later, I was relaxed, dolled up, and cackling with the hotel restaurant staff over a rude game of Cards Against Humanity.
And that’s exactly how Richard Branson wants me. When his very first hotel opened last month in Chicago's business district, he dubbed it “female friendly” and especially equipped to pamper professional women. “We’re taking into consideration the rise of female business travelers and appreciate what it means to our success as a brand,” said Branson.
As cheeky (or patronizing) as it sounds, it’s not a terrible business strategy. Women represent about half of all business travelers, according to the Center for Hospitality Research—and Virgin Hotel’s main competitors (W hotels, Thompson, Kimpton, Hyatt) are already adapting.
“Female business travelers are very relevant today and continue to grow as a customer base. It’s the premise for the creation of our hotel room,” said Raul Leal, chief executive officer of Virgin Hotels.
Before building this 26-story, 250-room hotel, Leal hired marketing consultants from Communispace to go to a secret model-hotel room in Larchmont, N.Y., to focus-group their way into learning what women want.
What Women (Really) Want
Did they succeed? Naturally, I got on a plane to find out.
Upon arrival, two vest-suited bellboys with disturbingly large pompadour hairdos graciously carried my suitcase and escorted me from a taxi into the black and Virgin-signature-red lobby, where a twentysomething blonde stood waiting with my room key.
“You’re all checked in, Ms. Parker. Please let us know if you need anything at all,” she said, her smile suggesting I had entered a den of mischief.
Co-designed by the Rockwell Group Europe and Virgin Hotel’s in-house design team, this hotel is very tech-forward. For starters, it does not have a front desk. Rather, there are two computer screens sitting atop a former cigar bar (the prior tenant was a 1920s bank) at which you can access your reservation profile and check in. Being a busy woman and all, I had already done this, using the handy Virgin Hotels mobile app.
So far, so good, though nothing feels gender-specific. That is, until Mike the bellboy opens the door to my standard king bed chamber—a $209 per night, two-room pied-à-terre.
Cheeky and Irreverent
Tip sorted out, and sweet privacy now mine, I realize suddenly that I’m starving. I go straight for the mini-bar (actually an open-tray snack stash atop the fridge.) There, tucked not-so-secretly between a Cliff Bar and deluxe mixed nuts is a “Lover’s Intimacy Kit.”
The contents of this $20 tin of temptation includes two condoms, personal lubricant and a vibrator. A VIBRATOR. Amused rather than offended, I remember that this is Branson’s hotel. You know, that winking Brit billionaire who, among other things, trots the globe posing for pictures with blonde, busty flight attendants.
Having scarfed down the $5 can of nuts (Virgin is admirably offering street-level prices for minibar products), I check out the room’s other “feminine” features—which most men I know would like.
Vanity: The spacious glass-topped silver vanity table with upholstered chair and back-lit magnifying mirror gets it right. Leisurely powdering, glossing, and penciling your extreme close-up reflection is so much more enjoyable without having to stand leaning over a sink.
Closet: There are sliding shoe racks at the base of each closet (bonus for neatness!), and there are extra lingerie hangers for your delicates. (What do Virgin executives imagine women are doing all day?)
Peep Holes: In the sliding wooden doors that separate the bedroom and dressing room are two eye-level peep holes. The idea, which Branson demonstrates in this video, is that ladies can modestly witness hotel staff deliver room service and leave without revealing themselves (gasp!) in various states of undress. (This is either a male fantasy-based design feature, or just an excuse for Virgin to use the words “peep hole.”)
Shower: A spacious (two person), gleaning white and red tiled shower boasts a rainfall shower head, handheld shower head, and a bench designed to make shaving legs a more comfortable experience. (No more leg up the wall gymnastics! Thank you, people of Virgin.)
Hairdryer: I tend to go for maximum 80s poof, and this powerful Andis-brand hairdryer with attached diffuser did the trick. (Note to all hotels everywhere: There is nothing worse than a weak hairdryer.)
Mood Music: Is this female-friendly, or hook-up friendly? Never mind. You can plug into a USB port and stream your own music, using the room’s “Stelle Audio Couture” cylinder speaker. Or simply turn on the TV and get free access to countless albums from Lufthansa Systems’ collection, curated specially for Virgin Hotels. (Maybe I danced around my room to Katy Perry’s greatest hits. Maybe.)
Free, Fast Wi-Fi: Arguably this is most important feature for working women. (And men, too.) Upon check-in, you’re automatically signed in to free, high-speed internet—avoiding that great pet peeve of nice hotels: nickel-and-diming on the Wi-Fi. And the room’s oval shaped wooden desk, Virgin-red lamp, and saddle leather chair provide a comfortable work space.
Just a Marketing Gimmick?
OK, so most of that stuff above is just as “male-friendly” as anything; critics say there’s not much substance behind being “female friendly” in the hotel business today. Their central argument is that these features address basic design functionality and aren’t gender specific.
“I’m skeptical whether targeting women travelers is really going to mean anything. Why wouldn’t a man want a beautifully lit vanity?” asks Donna Olshan, president of New York residential real-estate company Olshan Realty. “It’s just, to me, another branding gimmicky thing. What will define them is really good reviews on Trip Advisor.”
A frequent business traveler herself, Olshan expects fast Wi-Fi, a beautiful room, excellent coffee, and a great gym out of any high-end hotel. “Hello! Business women work out. If your gym isn’t good, forget it,” she says, the brassy voice of a pure-bred New Yorker.
On this point, the Virgin Hotel disappoints. The 25th-floor gym consists of little more than 10 cardio machines, yoga mats, and hand weights on a concrete floor. For two mornings, I had the treadmills to myself.
And the toiletries (hand-held Red Flower bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel) leave something to be desired. Take a page from spa bathrooms, folks—and provide hairspray, face cream, and eye makeup remover. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to be there because it means I can leave mine at home and travel with liquid-free hand luggage.
What’s more, the hotel’s subterranean spa isn’t open yet. (A big no-no, in my high-maintenance traveling book.) It’s due to make its debut this spring, when two other hotly anticipated selling points—a 2,500-square-foot rooftop bar, restaurant, and terrace, and “Miss Ricky’s,” a street-level American diner with a flatscreen TV appealing to sports lovers will also open.
That said, the hotel’s social space, the “Commons Club,” already includes a full-service restaurant, bar, library work-space, and a cocktail lounge called the “Shag Room.” (Natch.)
Would I rather have the “Dirty Pretty Lover” or the “Broad Shoulder”—asks Tony, the lanky, suave bartender who’s taking time to gauge my tolerance for bourbon amid his crowd of thirsty clients.
“The Broad Shoulder’s pretty strong,” he warns, sneakily giving me a taste of both $13 cocktails. The bar, which serves two free cocktails for guests from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., makes happy hour immediately happy. I take the lover, whose frothy mix of bourbon, quince, raspberry and sparkling Moët, has me at "hello."
To my left, it seems the thirtysomething group of after-work revelers in the Shag Room lounge (where a massive half-circle couch, encircled by velvet curtains sits on a shag carpet) are equally entertained by their stiff drinks. That, or they just really like the indie pop music beats. (Think Drake cover remixes at vibrating volume.)
“They can't be having more fun than we are. I’ll go get Cards Against Humanity,” says Sam Pierce, the woman sitting next to me at the bar. She’s the Commons Club’s 28-year-old manager, who takes pride in the fact that her “library” lounge offers candy, comic books, and games called “Smart Ass” along with general digital connectedness.
One and a half cocktails later, a crowd has gathered round us to see who’s winning the popularly perverse game. Fill in the blank: “White people like _______.” My card reads: “The Make-A-Wish Foundation.”
With that, I had won ... another cocktail. And Branson’s hotel had officially showed me—and the working women around me—a good time.
Virgin Hotels Chicago is now open. Its 250 rooms start at $209 per night and include 38 Grand Chamber Suites ($345) and two Penthouse Suites (opening in April.) Sister hotels in Nashville and New York are slated to open in 2016 and 2017, respectively.