Exclusive: Sir Richard Branson Eyes Detroit for a Virgin Hotel

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Following a whirlwind two-day trip in Detroit last week to debut daily, non-stop passenger air service between Detroit and London via Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, says, “Detroit could do with a really good hotel.” Earlier this year, Branson opened the first Virgin Hotel in Chicago, and has plans to add sites in New York City, New Orleans, and Nashville. In a one-on-one interview, the billionaire says Virgin’s passenger air service and marketing prowess provide a foundation to open a hotel in Detroit that caters to business people and travelers alike.

DDN: Why Detroit for nonstop service to London?

Our brand (Virgin Atlantic) is an underdog brand, and Detroit is the underdog city, and I think our brand over the years has become collectively a bit of a Goliath, though in the individual sectors we’re in, we’re a David vs. Goliath battling away. Detroit needs companies like Virgin Atlantic and the other Virgin companies to come and work with it in getting Detroit back on its feet again. We think we can make ends meet in doing so. We’ve got to persuade a lot of people from Europe to come to Detroit. We’re quite good at that. We’re good at marketing. We have to persuade people from Detroit to come and visit Europe, and I think they will have a delightful experience with Virgin Atlantic when they do. We’re famous for entertaining people and making sure they genuinely have a lovely time when they fly with us. We do have a relationship with Delta Airlines, which is good for those kinds of people who not only want to fly to Detroit but also want to fly on to other cities (via Delta).

DDN: Do you plan to add more flights between Detroit and elsewhere?

That would be up to Virgin America and Delta. Virgin America and Delta actually compete with each other. Delta definitely has more routes from Detroit, and my instinct would be it’s more likely we’ll work with Delta than Virgin America out of Detroit since we have a close working relationship with them.

DDN: What are your impressions of Detroit's creative community, and where it is going?

I’ve been very lucky in a short period of time to have a lot of insight into artists in Detroit. I just had lunch with a whole lot of musicians, painters, and writers. I’ve been on the famous bike ride (Slow Roll Detroit), and been along the railroad line (Dequindre Cut) and seen the art on the walls there. I’ve met a number of entrepreneurs this afternoon in a discussion at the College for Creative Studies and saw some of the wonderful furniture that’s being made here (Floyd Design), and the wonderful watches being made here (Shinola), and some of the innovative ideas with people making clothing to help people go to college and the universities (Merit). Out of adversity come some of the best creative things possible. When people are too comfortable they’re generally not creative, and I think that’s one of the reasons why people from Detroit are creating such wonderful things.

DDN: Do you see other opportunities here, especially with the region's world-class industrial and manufacturing sectors?

We just opened a hotel in Chicago (Virgin Hotel). I’ve looked at a few hotels in Detroit, and I think Detroit could do with a really good hotel. We’ve got one of the best hotels in America in Chicago, and we’re looking to go into New York and New Orleans, and Nashville. I’m leaving someone behind to look for sites (in Detroit on Saturday) and we’ll see if they can find something. Obviously, we have an advantage with Virgin Atlantic and our relationship with Delta in filling a hotel. It will be a really good, fun hotel that doesn’t seem to exist yet in Detroit. I think there will definitely be other things we can do here in the future. We just launched a company called Virgin Sport that puts on sporting events, and now we’re talking about one or two sporting events in Detroit. We’d love to work with more entrepreneurs in Detroit in helping them get on their feet. We have something called Virgin Start Up that helps entrepreneurs (get started) and we’re looking at perhaps introducing that here as well. 

DDN: We have autonomous cars under development, and autonomous rockets, what do you foresee for autonomous air travel, and how can Detroit play a role with its history of launching modern air travel and Michigan’s prominence today in aerospace manufacturing?

There will come a time when planes will be pilotless. Whether it happens in my lifetime or not, I’m not sure. But I'd be surprised if 25 years from now that the new planes being built can be pilotless, but the Federal Aviation Administration may want to keep one pilot on board to take over. But I suspect pilotless planes will be something that 25 years from now will be the norm. Autonomous planes will actually be easier than autonomous cars, which will be the norm in 10 years. As far as Detroit’s role in pilotless planes, it has proven over time that it can build wonderful technology that moves the world, and I think it will definitely play a role in the future of pilotless planes.

Editor’s Note: Branson’s two-day trip to Detroit last week was orchestrated by his Virgin Group along with Delta Airlines Inc. and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, a creative industries advocacy group based at the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit’s Midtown district. Matthew Clayson, director of DC3, says Branson’s trip was an opportunity to market Detroit’s creative community on a global level.

DDN: How did Branson’s visit come about?

We’ve been working with Delta for some time now, and they’ve been looking at, participating in, and supporting some the events going on here in the creative scene. Knowing Detroit is a destination for cultural tours, it was only natural that Virgin Atlantic would do business here. But when they debut the first of daily nonstop flights between Detroit and London, Virgin wanted to do more than cut a ribbon. They wanted to get involved in the community, especially the creative community.

Since Virgin knows a lot about (business) pitch competitions, they needed someone to introduce them to the creative opinion leaders and help them navigate the various partners, the various competitions, and what's going on here in maker manufacturing, design, music, and the arts. So we helped coordinate the visit and tour of Detroit. We helped them figure out which ventures were ready to pitch and who could use the resources.

We’re about jobs, and jobs for Detroiters, preferably creative industry jobs. So we planned activities that would highlight the intersection of Detroit’s creative and industrial sectors. It was fun to partner with other organizations and bring what we have been doing for four years outside to the rest of the world. We are very supportive of (Virgin’s) direct daily flights, and we are working to identify other opportunities between Detroit, DC3, London, and the UK.

Our vision is to be a globally recognized center of design, creativity, and innovation. Just look at the level of interest for the business pitch competition (last Friday with Branson; Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc.; Bridget Russo, chief marketing officer of Shinola; and Adriel Thornton, founder of Digital Laundre). We had 450 people at the College for Creative Studies. It was amazing, and a great opportunity for the organizations making the pitches (Floyd Design, Original Stix, Merit, and Ali Standifer Studio).

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