Billionaire Sir Richard Branson was in New Orleans Thursday (May 23) to break ground on a new $80 million Virgin Hotel, which will go up on a former surface parking lot in the Warehouse District. The hotel is expected to open in 2021.
Branson, who had flown in from Ethiopia Thursday morning, stood alongside Mayor LaToya Cantrell and project leaders in a parking lot at the corner of Baronne and Lafayette streets to announce the 14-story, 225-room project, which will start construction in coming weeks. In a last-minute shift, a press conference was moved to a shaded part of the lot as the hot May sun moved closed in.
“I don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth,” Branson joked. “It’s been a long journey from Ethiopia to get here.”
“But very excited to be standing in a parking lot,” Branson added to laughter.
The project, which will be developed by The Buccini/Pollin Group out of Maryland, will join seven other properties in or planned for the Virgin Hotel portfolio. The brand opened its first hotel in Chicago followed by San Francisco in February. Hotels are also in the works in Dallas, Nashville, New York, Las Vegas and Edinburgh, Scotland.
Virgin Hotel New Orleans will have a rooftop bar and pool deck as well as multiple dining options, including a ground-floor common area called the Commons Club. Plans also include a bar, combined coffee shop library space and lounge area. The Commons Club will be open to the public and have a secondary entrance fronting Lafayette Street.
The plans also include a 2,049-square-foot ballroom and flexible meeting space on the second floor. They do not include parking. Hotel leaders expect to provide curbside valet service for guests arriving in cars, though they expect most will arrive via rideshare.
The hotel has been years in the making. On Thursday, Allie Hope, chief development officer for Virgin Hotels, described walking through the Warehouse District in 2015 and coming across the parking lot site. It was “perfect.”
They year the New Orleans City Council agreed to allow Virgin to build up to 148 feet and 14 stories. Without the waiver, the hotel would have been capped at 10 stories. The development team would later seek approval to build up to the property line on the corner site, which edges up to buildings on two sides.
“There’s always give and take when you’re trying to build a building. Sometimes if one doesn’t have those give and takes it just never happens,” Branson said. “You managed to guide it through in an environmentally friendly way, in a friendly way for New Orleans and also a way that we could justify actually building it.”
Construction will begin in coming weeks.
“It has been a long time coming and guess what Sir Branson? You’re worth waiting for,” Cantrell said, adding that she hopes Virgin Air will follow the hotel investment. Cantrell noted the new $1 billion airport terminal, which is set to open this fall.
Branson demurred on whether Virgin Air would consider adding flights into Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in the near future.
“Maybe one day we will fly here. It will be a lovely thing if we can make the figures stack up,” he said.
He added that New Orleans will be one of the Virgin Hotel destinations the company can promote through its new cruise line, which will debut its first ship out of Miami in 2020.
For now, Virgin Hotels is focused on bringing what it thinks will be a different hotel product to New Orleans, which has seen a recent burst in hotel investment, both among traditional properties and smaller, boutique investments.
Branson noted he’s spent a lot of his life in hotels “and the experience is pretty bad usually.” He said Virgin Hotels bring more than the rockstar party vibe the brand is known for all over the world. The hotel group also aims to solve the small annoyances, from problematic key cards to having to walk around the room turning off lights to having to pay for WiFi.
“The team at Virgin Hotels has gotten rid of all those sort of nickley nasties that happen when you go into hotels,” Branson said.
Cantrell said Virgin’s presence opens New Orleans up to a whole network of travelers who follow the brand worldwide.
“We’re wanting to grow our industry,” Cantrell said. “We’re wanting to play to our strengths.”
Virgin Hotels New Orleans is designed by Mathes Brierre Architects and CallisonRTKL Architects. Broadmoor Construction is the general contractor. Logan Killen Interiors, a New Orleans-based design firm, is designing the hotel.