Rob McGibbon sits down with James Bermingham, CEO of Virgin Hotels, to discuss competition, growth strategy, fashion’s role in hotel design and the faint possibility of a Dublin arrival…
Virgin Hotels is starting to hit its stride, with eight hotels now open and many more in the pipeline. Leading this expansion is its dynamic, Dublin-born CEO James Bermingham.
Appointed in March 2021, Bermingham was tasked by Sir Richard Branson with firmly establishing the Virgin brand upon the global hotel landscape, as well its culture and, most significantly, its customer experience. Well, so far, he’s not doing too badly in what is a congested arena.
One of its most recent openings – and the group’s first hotel outside of the US – was in Edinburgh. The ambitious project required the company to convert the historic India Buildings on Victoria Street into a colourful and stylish boutique hotel. It has 222 rooms – or ‘chambers’ as they are known – including ‘Sir Richard’s Flat’ and ‘Eve Branson Suite’.
Opening last year in the industry’s spotlight, the hotel scooped a plethora of awards, including Kerry Acheson, Associate at Ica, winning Architect of the Year at The Brit List Awards 2022.
As you would expect, there are many Virgin-style twists to the tried and tested hotel themes. This is very much in keeping with Virgin’s groove to shake things up when it enters a market. Just look what it has done to air travel and cruising.
Bermingham began his hospitality career more than 35 years ago in Dublin, followed by 10 years in London, including executive roles with Sheraton. In America, he held General Manager roles at the St. Regis in Houston and the Montage Laguna Beach in California.
Since 2008, he was EVP operations for Montage International, where he oversaw all aspects of operations for the Montage and Pendry Hotel brand’s seven hotels and resorts.
Soon after the exuberant and headline-grabbing Edinburgh opening, interviewer Rob McGibbon checked in with Bermingham to peak inside the Virgin Hotels brand and find out what makes it tick and what plans are in store…
Rob McGibbon: Talk us through what makes a Virgin Hotel, and how it sets itself apart from the competition…
James Bermingham: Virgin Hotels are contemporary by design, yet grounded in the local community. The aim is to be welcoming to all, with a thoughtful approach that is comfortable and playful, even daring at times, but never stuffy or over the top. We try to strike a perfect balance of form and function, but never style over substance.
RM: Why Edinburgh, and why now?
JB: Edinburgh is a vibrant city and the opportunity to partner with the Flemyn Group to reimagine the landmark India Buildings in Edinburgh’s Old Town was too good of an opportunity to pass up. The hotel’s design incorporates key elements of Edinburgh’s history and culture, such as traditional artwork and architectural details, keeping the heritage of the India Buildings alive. This is the perfect opportunity to introduce the brand to the UK and to Europe and we hope that people can see that Virgin Hotels really want to be hyperlocal. We want every hotel that we do to reflect the history, the culture, and the people of the destination.
RM: What were the major challenges bringing the Virgin Hotels brands outside of the US – entering the hospitality market in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
JB: Virgin is such a global brand, which makes any introduction to a new market easier. The UK was an obvious choice for the first location outside of the US, given Virgin’s roots in the UK and history. I have long admired Virgin Hotels’ ability to seamlessly blend smart and innovative design with elevated service and – maybe most importantly – fun. Watching the brand grow into itself as a reliable haven for both leisure and business travellers, without sacrificing its inherent ‘cool factor’, has been exciting.
RM: The Virgin Atlantic uniform is iconic. There are lots of conversations at Hotel Designs around fashion’s role in hotel design. What role does fashion have in the Virgin Hotels brand?
JB: We support all creative entrepreneurs and take special care on the design of our uniforms to reflect the local culture and hotel spaces. One unique thing we do is work with the interior designers to concept uniforms so it’s a cohesive experience.
RM: Can you tell us a bit about your career background and what in your past jobs has prepared you best for the challenges of running Virgin Hotels?
JB: I fell in love with hospitality when I got my start working for my brother in his kitchen as a dishwasher. My career progressed from there in a number of roles in sales and marketing in London with ITT Sheraton and The Luxury Collection, eventually coming to the US and working with various luxury brands, including St. Regis and Montage International. Virgin is such a disruptive brand and delivers hospitality so uniquely in a differentiated way, that after an extensive career in the hotel business, I feel like I’m starting all over again.
RM: What has it been like working with Richard Branson? What has he taught you and what does he bring to the hotels brand?
JB: Richard has taught me how to have fun and truly make the business fun for everyone. Fun is at the core of what we do and something that resonates with our guests – we love what we do. Richard has also taught me how important it is to take care of our people and our planet, and how that in turn is good for business. Virgin has a unique way of seeing things that challenges the creative process every step of the way, and that makes work exciting and fulfilling.
RM: What does Virgin Hotels look for in their interior designers and architects? What is the core brief they get?
JB: We look for a design firm that’s in the market so we get an inside-perspective on what resonates with locals as well as in-bound guests. We often use first-time hotel designers for a fresh take on the hotel experience.
RM: If you could choose one iconic hotel location and property anywhere in the world that you could acquire and transform into a Virgin Hotel, which would it be?
JB: I would personally love to open a Virgin Hotel in Dublin. It’s my hometown and the Virgin brand would really resonate with the Irish culture, where the ‘craic is 90’. I would target a hotel that has played a significant part in Irish history.
RM: Which hotel do you always look forward to staying in yourself – other than a Virgin Hotels?
JB: When I’m in Japan I love staying in a traditional Japanese Ryokan – it’s inspiring to see how they deliver traditional Japanese service and cuisine, and they are often built around hot springs.
RM: The worst hotel experience in your younger years?
JB: Thinking back, really any hotel that was overtly stuffy and boring, or hotels that felt very exclusive instead of inclusive.
RM: What, from a design perspective, makes this hotel special in the portfolio?
JB: Being a Grade 1 listed building and the historic nature of the building, coupled with its location in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, make it unique and like no other hotel in our portfolio.
RM: One of the pitfalls brands fall into when ‘scaling up’ is for their hotels in the portfolio start to look uniformed. How do you inject individual personality into the hotels while also keeping the brand identity strong?
JB: We work with local design firms and much of the inspiration comes from the destination, so the hotels always have a local point-of-view… not only informing design, but also informing our culinary direction, partnering with local chefs, etc… all with the ‘red thread’ of Virgin woven through.
RM: Where’s next for Virgin Hotels?
JB: Miami and Denver are next in our pipeline, with additional locations that we are excited to formally announce soon. This feels very much like just the beginning for Virgin Hotels…
Main image credit: Professional Images