Q&A with Alex Andjel, Virgin Hotels

Stepping into his new role as Virgin Hotels’ VP of development, Alex Andjel is optimistic about the brand’s future. With one hotel open in Chicago, and several others slated to open in the next couple of years—specifically, a property in Nashville in 2017 and hotels in New York, Palm Springs and Dallas in 2018—the London-based executive is charged with overseeing Virgin Hotels’ expansion into Europe.

Prior to this role, Andjel most recently served as VP of development for YOTEL, focusing on Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He has also served as director of Montpelier Hotels Ltd., a hospitality investment and corporate finance advisory firm, and director of development for Bridgehouse Capital, a private equity company with total assets in excess of $1 billion. More recently, he spent five years with Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. where he managed more than $500 million of acquisition, financing and dispositions of non-core assets.

Hotel Business caught up with Andjel to learn more about the burgeoning hotel brand’s European plans.

You recently joined the Virgin Hotels team. Why did this position and this company appeal to you? Being asked to join such a global brand was always going to be a difficult opportunity to pass up on. Then, after visiting the first hotel in Chicago—the conversion of the historic Dearborn Bank Building—it was very apparent that, once again, the Virgin Group had managed to intelligently enter a very crowded hotel market with a defined vision that sets itself apart from the competitors. Immediately I could see how successful Virgin Hotels would be in Europe and thought, ‘Why hasn’t this happened already?’ and then, shortly thereafter, lucky me!

What are your major short-term objectives in this role? To leverage the positive momentum in the United States, with multiple additional projects under development, and get the message out that Virgin Hotels is 100% committed to establishing a presence in key European gateway cities.

Do you have any long-term objectives you can share? My long-term objective is to ensure this is another business vertical that the Virgin Group can be proud of, and one that offers the consumer something different.

How are you parlaying your previous experience to be successful in this position? I’ve been fortunate to lead development for both an ultra-luxury company and an affordable lifestyle hotel brand, and therefore have had the benefit of experiencing a wide range of real estate transactions. This has prepared me to know how to extract value out of some of the more complicated real estate sites.

What has surprised you thus far about being part of this company? What has surprised me is the sincere excitement everyone I meet has for wanting to see the brand flourish in Europe. People have been almost American with their enthusiasm!

How would you describe your plans when it comes to development—opportunistic, strategic, etc.? Opportunities do not line up obediently.  We have a core set of target cities that our board has already approved, but maintaining a flexible approach and being able to react quickly to the right opportunity should stand us in good stead. We are happy to launch the brand in top cities such as Rome, Barcelona, Manchester or Edinburgh—although I am sure Sir Richard Branson would be delighted with a flagship hotel in London.

Overall, what’s your opinion on the development landscape in Europe right now? What are the major challenges or opportunities? The most common challenges typically are the disconnect between owners’ price expectations of their existing assets versus the required return thresholds of investors; having to deal with both historic and protected buildings as well as space constraints; and adapting our product to meet these challenges whilst still retaining the core brand standards.

What do you look for in a site/location/building? Overall, do you see more opportunity when it comes to new-builds or conversions? Keep it simple—accessibility, authenticity and appeal. In Europe, almost all opportunities are likely to be conversions of either existing hotels, offices or another commercial space.

The company is still in the nascent stages of building the brand. How important would you say the first few European properties will be to introducing the hotel brand to guests and investors? It’s vital we don’t ever compromise on delivering properties that get rid of everything guests hate about hotels. Our intention is to deliver a personalized experience that meets the demands of the modern consumer.

Should we expect anything different from Virgin Hotels in Europe as compared to its offerings in the U.S.? The product offering will retain the essence of what Virgin Hotels is all about—functionality, efficiency and intelligent technology—but by default we will be looking at a more boutique product (circa 150-200 keys) given the space constraints. HB

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