You learn so much about a business in the months before launch, but your education really begins on the day that you open the doors to customers.
Since we opened our first Virgin Hotel earlier this year, our team has learned a lot more about what our customers want, what works and what doesn’t, and how we can improve. Crucially, we have also had an absolute blast developing and running the hotel!
Most of the media coverage has focused on how our hotel serves women business travelers. Hotels have been run in the same way for the past century, and we see an opportunity to do something not just different, but better.
From the beginning, our main goal was to create a better hotel for everyone - it just happened that along the way we started adding elements that women appreciated. While we didn’t set out to appeal to women travelers exclusively, we are more than happy with where we ended up, and we will always continue to improve the experience for all our guests.
Throughout my career, I have always looked for areas in which customers are getting a raw deal. Female business travelers certainly fit into that category. So many hotels have the same macho, gray, unwelcoming façades that they have had for decades, though it’s widely known that nearly half of business travelers are now women.
Many businesswomen I spoke with pointed out that if they aren’t invited on such trips, they miss out on bonding time and the opportunity to get their views across in different settings, which will ultimately hold them back in their careers. But often senior men only invite other men on these excursions. One person said to me that a reluctance to invite women was partly due to worries about awkwardness on overnight trips, and even concerns about litigation, particularly in the United States.
That made our team think hard. In this case, we realised that business travelers need different kinds of rooms, now that the market isn’t limited to men. So we threw out the old-school hotel setup. We don’t have rooms per se - we have chambers that are divided by sliding doors. This creates more private space for people.
Outside the chamber, our hallways are well lit, which helps to give women a sense of security. While hotel restaurants usually serve heavy fare, there are numerous healthy options in our Commons Club for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Of course, focusing on women doesn’t mean our hotels don’t cater to men - Virgin Hotels are all about being inclusive. As is the case for any company, serving all groups is a good path to success. Something that makes our hotel stand out is that we don’t nickel and dime - room service costs street prices, there are no Wi-Fi fees, no cancellation fees when you call before midnight and no early check-in/late check-out fees. These are innovations that will appeal to all travelers.
The process of refining our ideas will continue for a long time - we’re encouraging everyone who stays at the hotel to share their views with us. You can never have enough feedback, and you can never stop learning.
In January, my wife, Joan, went to stay at the new hotel in Chicago, and I decided to fly there and surprise her. Like me, Joan is an avid note taker, and when I arrived, I noticed that she already had a fair number of scribbles to share with the staff.
Although her comments were overwhelmingly positive, Joan travels a lot, and her feedback will be very useful for improving our services.
On a larger scale, we all need to do more to combat the problem of gender inequality. It is up to everyone, at every business, to ensure that the unique contributions of all individuals are valued. This attitude is certainly reflected in our Virgin Hotels team.
Recently I attended an event where 30 chief executives, including Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, discussed how business leaders could close the gender gap.
I took a lot of notes and learned lots about how diversity can be a competitive advantage for any company. Some shocking statistics stood out at me, namely that women represent a tiny fraction of Fortune 500 CEOs (only 5 per cent), and that they hold only 19 per cent of seats on corporate boards and 25 per cent of senior positions at companies.
With those sorts of gender gaps, is it any wonder that it has taken so long for hotels to start serving women business travelers? That’s precisely why this market is ready for disruption.
Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: RichardBranson@nytimes.com.