Following the opening of Virgin Hotels Edinburgh, the brand’s first hotel outside of the US, Hospitality Interiors’ Sophie Harper caught up with Teddy Mayer and Scott McArdle to find out more about the project and hear Virgin’s plans for worldwide expansion.
Megabrand Virgin surely needs no introduction – its founder, Richard Branson, is possibly one of the most well-known entrepreneurs in the world. But unless you’re a regular visitor to the States, you mightn’t be over familiar with Virgin’s hotel arm.
All that is already changing, of course, since the opening of Virgin Hotels Edinburgh on 1st June – and, just about to open its doors, Virgin Hotels Glasgow – the brand’s first hotel openings outside of the US. And it seems a huge programme of Virgin expansion is about to hit the hospitality circuit on an even broader international scale.
Speaking to both Teddy and Scott via Zoom, it is clear how excited they both are about the new opening. “We have this amazing building that you could never replicate,” says Scott, talking about the hotel which is housed in the historic India Buildings in the heart of Edinburgh. “The feeling you have stepping into the building is like being in a time portal – the end product is something really special.”
Teddy explains that Virgin wanted the project from the off: “Scotland was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from a development standpoint. It is a Grade I listed building on one of the most well-known streets not just in Scotland, but in the world. It has such a unique character, and the development partners, Flemyn, had such a vision of what to do with the property. We saw an opportunity and developed a relationship, and really the rest is history. In the hotel world it often happens like that – things are far more opportunistic than you might imagine.”
Working with the development team, Virgin started looking at site plans for Edinburgh five years ago, after winning the bid for hotel operator. “It was certainly a competitive process,” says Teddy, “It was between us and another brand – and they were smart and chose us – then the real work began on our part, with design, and making sure we were working with the developer on-site to ensure they were delivering a project that could meet our standards and our guest expectations.”
By the time Virgin was involved, the architectural planning proposal had already achieved approval from the council, but there were plenty of hurdles to overcome. “We had to do archaeology on the site,” Teddy explains. “They had to dig for months and months. It was such a long process, but we loved it and loved hearing about it because we were interested in the history of the site.” Although nothing significant came of the dig, a lot of leatherwork and metalwork was extracted from the site from centuries-old craftsmanship that had taken place there – even a cannonball was discovered, believed to have been fired at the castle during an attempted raid.
The interiors of the Grade I listed building proved challenging as well. “A lot of things came up that were unexpected,” Teddy tells me. “We had to completely fireproof a lot of the existing structures, which meant taking down some of the original features – like the cornicing – and creating replicas to put up, which we weren’t expecting to have to do. There were a lot of things like that.”
Choosing the right interior designers for the project was top of Teddy’s priorities once Virgin had been given the go-ahead, and he tells me how important it is that the designers know and understand the locality for every Virgin project. “It’s such an important decision, so we take it very seriously. We get to go to the market and explore and see what makes the culture tick. Before working on Virgin Hotels Edinburgh, I’d never been to Edinburgh before, so I got to spend some time there and figure things out.” Teddy picked up a city guide published by a design title and said he was struck by the name of one of the contributors, which appeared throughout the guide. “That was Four-by-Two, which is the creative agency that we ended up hiring to design the hotel. I went to their studio, met with them, introduced them to the development partners, we had an interview process, and they got the job! It happens very organically in most cases, especially in markets I really don’t know that well – but then, in some markets, I know exactly who I want.”
Talking more about the design process, Teddy describes it all as very collaborative between the brand and the design studio. “We do a very extensive brand immersion where we talk about what Virgin is, because a lot of people will think they know what it is, but few people are really educated on it. The design studio gets a really good idea of what we’re about and then they get to go away and design for a month and come back and present their ideas to us.”
Guest expectations, especially for an established brand, like Virgin, moving into a new market, can sometimes be unpredictable, but Scott says the new hotel has been very well received so far, and that’s probably because the brand is so in tune with what people are looking for from a travel and hospitality experience. “Travellers are looking for more than just a material product,” he says. “The quality of the linen and the glassware is still important, but that’s just a starting point, that’s what’s expected. For us as a luxury lifestyle brand, our ethos is getting to our guests, it’s tapping into who are our guests, why are they travelling, what can we do to help our guests stay the way they want to. We want people to come, have fun, and be themselves.”
Scott explains that the majority of the staff are from the local market, which is purposeful in delivering as authentic an experience as possible: “People are travelling to a destination to experience something they can’t get anywhere else. You can travel anywhere in the world and order Champagne, but people want to know what they can see in Edinburgh that they can’t find anywhere else, so we really want to showcase the best that Edinburgh has and give them something they’re not going to experience anywhere else, and that’s as much about the team as it is anything else.”
Virgin’s blueprint for hiring, whether it’s staff at one of its hotels or a studio to design a new project, is always personality and character over resume. And if those two things align with what any one project is trying to achieve, Virgin believes that’s its winning formula. Teddy says the company has taken a similar approach to looking at hotel projects outside of the US, but that the UK market required a bit of tweaking. “It’s the same ethos, the same creative process,” he explains, “but what we did differently in Edinburgh and in Glasgow is we elevated a little bit above what we might do in the US, knowing that we had to go out and make a point that this is a luxury product. Virgin is a luxury hotel company, and we wanted that to be very clear – not to say that our US properties aren’t luxury, but there are different rating systems in the US versus the UK. Also, having a one-of-a-kind property is kind of different for us – in the US we typically have new-build hotels, not so much castles and Victorian buildings.”
It might be slight change for the Virgin Hotels brand entering the European market, but with the success of Edinburgh so far, and with Glasgow just about to open its doors, this is just the tip of the iceberg for the brand’s international expansion. I ask Teddy whether or not we can expect a Virgin Hotels London on the horizon any time soon. “London is a hot priority for us,” he confirms. “We’re really committed to growth, we have a great business development team, we have a new chief development officer and we have a bunch of folk who are really going to accelerate this effort, which is really exciting.”
He adds: “Our pipeline is pages and pages long. After Glasgow we have New York City – a 39-storey high-rise in the middle of Manhattan with 468 rooms – it’s going to be incredible, and I can’t wait for the world to experience that! Then we have Miami, which is really fun – we’ve been working on that for a number of years, it’s in the heart of Brickle, which is the urban centre for Miami. Beyond that there are certain cities we’re going to be going into for sure … London’s one of them, and then there are some local markets like Denver, Philadelphia and Seattle. We’ll be doing more resorts further afield in places like Mexico and the Caribbean and Ibiza – and who knows what other islands might pop up!”