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On a recent trip to the Windy City, TPG Editorial Intern Kevin Song stayed at the new — and highly anticipated — Virgin Hotels Chicago. Here’s his take on the experience.
Hip mood lighting, edgy music and a certain flair for eccentricity are what flyers on the Virgin Group’s airlines — including Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America and Virgin Australia — have come to expect. Its equally eccentric leader, Sir Richard Branson, has now added another brand to his laundry list of portfolio companies: Virgin Hotels.
It’s first location? The heart of downtown Chicago, set in the former Old Dearborn Bank Building. Designated as a Chicago Landmark in 2003, this gilded Art Deco skyscraper isn’t the first place you’d expect a smashing, hip, vibrant, Richard Branson-owned hotel, with a brand-new, bright-red Tesla Model S P85D parked out front.
However, Branson and his crew spent two years renovating the space to be a stylish, modern, technology-filled 250-room hotel that still pays homage to the Old Dearborn’s beauty and history. Virgin Hotels Chicago opened on January 15, 2015, and the brand plans to eventually open 20 more properties around the world.
Virgin Hotels prides itself on being different from the rest, and on its smart design. Rooms are larger than an average inner-city hotel room, and they just make sense; Wi-Fi is free (and speedy!), you can sit on the bed like a couch, there’s a separate vanity area to get ready and a mini-bar that charges street prices, not insanely inflated hotel prices. The star of the show is Lucy, an app companion that can set the temperature in your room, order room service, request any items you might have forgotten and request a late check-out.
The hotel’s cuisine is designed by locally famous executive chef Rick Gresh, so when I saw that the hotel was offering a special room rate package called “Get Your Bite On” that included tastings from all four on-site restaurants, I jumped at the opportunity to book a staycation for myself and my girlfriend. Using the Chase Sapphire Preferred card to earn 2x points for my travel spend, I paid $230 (plus tax) for a base-level Chamber King room and food-tasting package, which was about $20 more expensive than just the room itself.
Other special packages include “Spoiled at the Spa,” which includes spa treatments for two, several packages that include room-service breakfast or parking. There’s also a “Cocktail Connoisseur” for a more “liquid” version of my food tour package, and a “Music and Mayhem” package for those that really want to get into the rooftop club, Cerise.
Notably, all rates at this hotel are fully refundable, as long as you cancel in advance and avoid no-showing.
The hotel itself is beautifully decorated, keeping with the historic nature of the Old Dearborn Bank Building. The entrance isn’t particularly grand, but it felt like an escape from the busy world outside (especially from the “TRUMP” sign proudly blaring just a few blocks away). The lighting was kept to a dim, cozy level, and everything was preserved, yet fresh.
Unfortunately, the check-in line was often quite long. Prior to your stay, you’re given the option to check in online and get a barcode to scan at one of the hotel’s automated check-in machines to receive your key. However, I didn’t see anyone use that option, and my barcode was ignored as a member of the staff checked me in manually, using a tablet. Throughout my stay, the tiny front desk was kept stocked with candies and treats for the taking, like those big, ridiculous, circular lollipops.
The rooms here aren’t the epitome of luxury, nor do they pretend to be. Instead, they’re functional, chic and beautiful in their own way. The hallways are bright with dashes of red — and reflect the rooms inside: airy and inviting.
Even though my room wasn’t incredibly large, it felt like it was. As soon as you walk in, you’re greeted by a dressing area, set apart from the bedroom area by a sliding wooden door. If you wake up at a different time than your travel companion, this is a fantastic perk — and one that I truly appreciated.
In the dressing area, there’s the standard sink, walk-in shower and bathroom, and for the makeup-wearers out there, a vanity table. There’s plenty of luggage storage behind a cloth curtain, but unless this curtain is completely closed, the motion-activated light behind it would activate every time we walked past it.
The shower was equipped with Red Flower bath amenities, and the room itself had a fair-sized TV, a cylindrical Stellé Pillar Bluetooth speaker, a serviceable if not comfortable swiveling table, a chair and a bright-red mini-fridge.
The star of the show, however, was the mini-bar. The claim to fame here is the market pricing, a welcome departure from the hugely inflated prices you’ll see at most hotels. Snacks aren’t cheap by any means, but they’re not much more expensive than you’d get if you went to the CVS down the street. A bag of chips ran $1.50, while a can of Coke cost $1. I didn’t take advantage of the mini-bar at all, but it’s a good option for when you’re just plain hungry.
Wi-Fi was exceptionally speedy for a hotel room, and I had no complaints on the connectivity. It’s free for all guests, regardless of how you book your room.
At the heart of the Virgin Hotel is an app called Lucy. There are plenty of hotels that offer a touchscreen tablet in the room to control the thermostat or request housekeeping, like the W Bangkok, but this took things to the next level. You can download the app on your own personal phone or tablet, and use it to not only control the thermostat, but also to order room service, request any toiletries, see what’s going on around you and find any information you might need on your stay.
I found that Lucy worked pretty well — thermostat changes took effect immediately and room service worked just fine. You can order what you want, specify a delivery time and whether they should leave it outside your door or bring it into your room for you.
But here’s the thing: The app is terribly designed. The functionality is pretty decent, but I wish they’d invested a bit more time (and money) into making it cleaner, prettier and easier to use. The app is littered with useless menus, navigation that could be greatly improved and unclear instructions.
It does, however, beat not having an app at all, and you’re not tied to using it — everything can still be accomplished through the traditional channels.
Even better than the ability to order from the app is the fact that there are no delivery fees, and the pricing was actually lower than at the restaurant the food came from downstairs. This part baffled me, but it’s certainly a huge improvement over delivery fees and mandatory service charges you see at many hotels these days.
In particular, many room-service menu items cost a dollar less than the identical dish when ordered at Miss Ricky’s downstairs. I took advantage of this pricing twice, for breakfast and lunch.
I pre-ordered breakfast the night before, although I did so with the traditional hanging door sign since I hadn’t yet discovered Lucy’s room service ordering features. I had a pretty delicious $13 Eggs Benedict, while my girlfriend ordered an $11 American Breakfast served with eggs, roasted potatoes and bacon, which was also tasty. If you’re sure that you will want to order breakfast, consider booking the breakfast room rate which includes the English Breakfast.
Since my stay ran into a Monday, I spent most of the day getting work done in my room. Not wanting to leave to head downstairs to grab lunch, I ordered an herb-crusted chicken, instead. The meal ran me $18, but I felt that was pretty reasonable for the large portion size and convenience of eating in your room. Again, with no extra delivery fees or charges, this was a great value.
Since I booked the “Get Your Bite On” rate, my room rate included tastings at all four eateries on the property. Included was any pasty from twozerothree, a cute, hip coffee shop; a juicy burger at Miss Ricky’s, an American-style diner; “Upside Down” Tea Party service at The Commons Club, a nice restaurant/lounge/library; and two orders of dumplings at Cerise, the rooftop bar/club.
Upon arrival at the hotel, my “Get Your Bite On” passport in hand, I headed to The Commons Club for an afternoon tea service — something my girlfriend and I love and have tried all across the globe. We were excited to see what the hotel’s “Upside-Down” take on afternoon tea would be, but soon learned that you’re simply meant to eat the platters top-down, instead of the traditional bottom-up. The food wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t mind-blowing either. I especially enjoyed the smoked salmon sandwich and the scone, but wished that they served it with the lemon curd (my favorite) that I’ve seen at every other afternoon tea. There were 10 kinds of tea offered, and I chose a Regal Earl Grey, while my girlfriend chose the Regal English Breakfast tea.
Here’s the thing: The service was downright awful. While our server was friendly, she had no clue what the food passport was, or how to treat it. After asking a few managers — none of whom seemed to know what the food passport was, either — she settled on giving us the standard tea menu and our choice of the standard teas: a total value of $34. Several times throughout the service, she came back to our table and asked to see the food passport again, to check what it said (nothing other than “Upside-Down Tea Party”).
The poor service, however, continued: We weren’t offered milk or sugar with our tea until we asked twice, and even after getting some not-so-classy sugar packets (where are the sugar cubes?), we weren’t given a spoon to stir with — another convoluted process to obtain. Our tea, served in a metal teapot, quickly cooled off and we weren’t given tea cozies to keep our tea warm while we enjoyed it. A short employee training session could have resolved this basic issue.
The Commons Club is a beautiful space, with a cool bar and library, but its middling food and poor service left a slightly sour taste in our mouth.
Later that night, we headed to Miss Ricky’s to try out the huge, juicy burger. It tasted alright and the ingredients were fresh, but unfortunately, the patty itself was pretty drenched in grease, creating a big, unhealthy mess.
We also ordered the cheese sticks, which were filled with feta cheese instead of mozzarella. While I love trying new things, I wouldn’t order that one again — cheese sticks just don’t work with feta cheese as well as with the traditional gooey mozzarella.
Once again, the staff at Miss Ricky’s was unfamiliar with the food passport concept, but took care of it discretely and without interrupting our meal 10 times. The restaurant was almost empty, and one of the sous chefs came over and chatted with us for a bit. That was the first (and only) time during our stay that we felt welcome and appreciated.
The next day, I headed to twozerothree to get a chocolate cupcake with a delicious cream cheese frosting. It seemed like the baristo had at least heard of the passport this time, as he took a look at my card and invited me to choose any pasty that was available. I ordered a cappuccino to go with it, and both were excellent.
Later that day, after checking out, we visited Cerise, the hip rooftop bar that becomes more of a nightclub after hours. The venue has a pretty nice view of Chicago, and while not large, had an energetic vibe. I didn’t visit after hours, but during my stay, Cerise was hosting a rowdy after-party for the Lollapalooza music festival.
Here again, service was awful. How long can it take to order some dumplings? 20 minutes? Nope, we were there for a full two hours. Servers walked around, but never seemed to be actually talking to guests or taking orders. Every time we managed to flag someone down, it took at least 15 minutes for them to return, whether it was the server figuring out what the passport was (she’d never seen it before) or returning with drinks. The dumplings weren’t too tasty, and definitely didn’t taste authentically Asian. However, our pork belly sliders were fragrant and quite delicious.
After completing all four items on the passport, the front desk staff gave me two nice Virgin Hotels glasses as a prize. I ended up getting over $70 of value and was able to try out all sorts of types of food for what amounted to a $20 increase in the room rate. It’s a great concept, and I’m glad that they provided the opportunity to do this — even if some of their staff don’t know it exists.
There are plenty of luxury hotel brands with house cars (here’s looking at you, Park Hyatt), but the house car here is a brand-new, shiny, red Tesla P85D. It’s not the most luxurious ride, but there’s something awesomely cool about knowing you can quietly go from 0 to 60 mph in just over 3 seconds.
The house Tesla is available first-come-first-served and doesn’t take reservations. For some reason, when I called down to the front desk, they wouldn’t even tell me if the car was currently available — I had to go downstairs to check (it was). I used the service twice — once to head up to Water Tower Place and down the Magnificent Mile to do some shopping, and again at the end of my stay to get home. The car will take you anywhere within a two-mile radius, which covers a good deal of the downtown Chicago area.
The hotel also features a fitness center, which was basic but completely deserted the several times I stopped by. There was also a spa, which I sadly didn’t have enough time to try out.
The Virgin Hotels brand doesn’t currently feature a traditional loyalty program. Instead, you can sign up for a program called The Know, which is more of a preferences program than a loyalty program. You won’t earn any points toward future stays — rather, you answer a questionnaire that supposedly helps hotel staff prepare for your stay.
In practice, all of the choices I made were ignored — I said that I loved White Rabbit Asian candy, which was understandably nowhere to be found. More puzzling though, is that I said under “What should never ever be found in your mini-bar?” that I hated all alcohol except wine and don’t want any hard liquor in my mini-bar. Lo and behold, I found plenty of hard liquor in my mini-fridge.
No, it’s not a deal-breaker, and I didn’t end up taking anything from the mini-bar anyway, but why pretend to have a “loyalty program” when you really don’t? Maybe others will have more luck with The Know than I did, but for now, it’s a pretty much useless program. Interestingly, they do offer the option to enter your frequent flyer number with other Virgin companies, although it doesn’t do anything (yet) and you don’t earn any frequent flyer miles.
While you can’t earn rewards from the hotel directly, you can still maximize your earnings by using a card that offers bonus points on travel, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Citi Prestige.
Despite the service failures in the restaurants, I really enjoyed my stay at the first-ever Virgin Hotel. The property embodies what I want in a hotel: a well-designed room, super-fast Wi-Fi, decent food and most importantly, no hidden fees, surprise charges or exorbitant mini-bar and room service charges. Plus, I love electric cars, so the Tesla was an especially fun treat for me.
Certainly, the hotel could use better training for its staff — I can’t fathom how not a single server the entire stay had even heard of the “Get Your Bite On” food passport rate that we were using. It often felt like the staff just didn’t care, with not so much as a smile until you acknowledged them first. Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.