HD Talks

Real Talk with Virgin Hotels’ Raul Leal

Posted by on June 24, 2015 in Events, People, Projects

Last week, the HD team headed to the Midwest—Chicago, to be exact—for our annual NextGen forum. The fanfare that week may have focused on the Chicago Blackhawks, but at the Renaissance Chicago Downtown, we were celebrating the next generation of designers.


HD‘s editor in chief Stacy Shoemaker Rauen with Virgin Hotels CEO Raul Leal during HD’s NextGen Forum.

While the event itself is always rewarding, one of the best aspects is when HD editor in chief Stacy Shoemaker Rauen sits down with a notable hotelier, designer, or industry expert to take a deep dive into hospitality. This year was no different. With the new Virgin Hotels Chicago only blocks away, CEO Raul Leal joined Stacy on the Renaissance rooftop to talk about his hospitality career that has spanned 30 years and the lifestyle hotel trend. Here are some highlights:

How he entered the hotel world
Leal has worked in the industry since he was 16 years old, planning to become a GM some day, which he accomplished. Seeing the Delano in Miami “changed my perception of what a hotel could be like,” showing him that they don’t have to be so cookie-cutter.

Dealing with *cough* Millennials *cough*
“Everyone talks about Millennials … but people of all ages want new experiences. If you try to pigeonhole them, they will reject your brand,” he says.

His “Virgin” Beginnings
Things started to take shape for Leal during the 2009 ALIS Conference in San Diego. It was there Virgin Hotels started to formulate. After a few career changes and shifts, Leal realized the “great responsibility” it was to roll out a new offering from an already established brand. Virgin Hotels had to mimic the cheeky, irreverent attitude of all Virgin products yet craft a new path to attract customers, both internal and external.


The exterior of the Virgin Hotels Chicago.

Virgin’s Point of View
Most people have preconceived ideas of what a Virgin product will be like. The hotels will encompass all of those but “won’t be exactly like other Virgin businesses,” he says. For example, “we wanted to make sure that the chair is cool but that you can also use it,” he says of the hotel’s philosophy. Any element in the hotel has to be interesting but it also has to work.

Guestroom philosophy
“The truth is, we took the perspective of building a room through the eyes of a female traveler,” Leal explains. Women have a more deliberate point of view, and the company took advantage of it.

Looking ahead
There’s already other Virgin Hotels locations slated for Nashville, New York, and Dallas, and Leal is looking to be in primary cities in Latin America and Europe, though “the goal is we’re not going to be the biggest,” he says.

Lessons learned
The brand, consultants, designers, owners, developers—all the moving parts in hotel development—have to rely on each other to build a successful hotel that guests are loyal to, Leal says. “Consumers want to look outside the box.” They are looking for companies that offer them a better value proposition, and “they want to be surprised” with new experiences.

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