Richard Branson, Virgin Hotels

The man with a wry smile and an edgy rep who shook up mobile phone service, railroad and airline industries by offering premium service is setting his sights on the hospitality sector. Doug Carrillo, vice president of sales and marketing for Virgin Hotels, says that is a good thing for travelers. “One of the reasons Richard Branson enters an industry is because he thinks it is lagging, that the consumer is being cheated or ripped off. He sees room for improvement in the way hotels are run.”

After Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America in 2016, hotels were a natural progression for Sir Richard (he was knighted in 2000 for services to entrepreneurship). He once said, “There’s no point in starting a business unless you’re going to make a dramatic difference to other people’s lives.”

Virgin Group’s plan is to open 20 properties globally in 10 years. It all began in Chicago, in 2015, where he quipped at the opening, “We wanted to try Virgin Hotels on you Americans first.”

A 196-guest room hotel in San Francisco’s SOMA (South of Market) will open in this month with a rooftop deck ideal for gathering to watch the fog come on little cat feet. Groundbreaking happened in September for a 240-guest room hotel on Music Row in Nashville with 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a Shag Room. Outlets in New York, Nashville, New Orleans, Dallas, Palm Springs and Silicon Valley are on the drawing board over the next two years. The locations largely mirror the cities served by Virgin Airlines. “Some cities have vibrancy and energy that personifies what Virgin is about,” Carrillo says.

Carrillo defines the definitive Virgin experience as being consumer-focused and accuses some hotels of surviving the recession on the backs of consumers by charging for everything from high speed Wi-Fi to overpriced potato chips and draconian cancellation fees. “We are disrupting the hotel industry by removing pain points,” he says. The free Wi-Fi is the strongest available. Cancellation policies are flexible. “Consumer needs are changing. We designed our hotels to compete in the lifestyle space with great design, entertainment, food and beverages.”

Exceptional Travels

Branson is known for being extreme. The author of the new biography, Finding My Virginity, says, “I love traveling full stop—so while I’ve had some harrowing instances, I never look at them negatively. Memories are made when you’re traveling—not when you’re chained to your desk.”

The attitude that comes with anything Branson undertakes is one of the differentiators of the new hotel properties. “The cheekiness of our approach to design and messaging is unique to Virgin,” Carrillo says. Thus the mini-bar at a Virgin hotel is no more expensive than a grocery store and is free of any type of restocking fee—a differentiator proclaimed in room signage that reads, “Small price to pay for hunger.”

Virgin’s irreverent messaging philosophy is even evident on every phone. Each one has all the regular numbered buttons plus one big “yes” button with an exclamation point. Push it, and do anything from ordering a car to chicken and waffles. There is one simple reason for this labelling quirk. “Richard says, ‘It is a lot funner to say yes than no,’” Carrillo explains.

Meetings of Like Minds

Group business is an important part of Virgin’s business plan. Carrillo brings 30 years of experience at Morgans Hotel Group and Desires Hotels. He knows meetings are essential to the success of a property. “Unless you are in a city running 95 percent occupancy, you have to have adequate meeting space to be successful. In building our hotels, whether it is from the ground up or a repurposed, historic 1928 building like Chicago, we have worked hard to incorporate adequate meeting space,” Carrillo notes. In one property, designers converted the spa on the first floor to meeting space. The company is also making the commitment to install premium audiovisual technology to compete with larger brands.

Still, Carillo is fully aware his product appeals to a specific demographic. “We attract brands who share the Virgin culture and we also appeal to those who aspire to the Virgin brand. A lot of companies want their constituents to experience Virgin Hotel to demonstrate where they want to go with their brand’s culture,” he says.

Carrillo has seen firsthand as the internet has changed the relationship between professional event planners and hotel properties. But some things have stayed the same. “Fact-finding through web sites and third parties doesn’t take away from the fact that it is still about building relationships. At its core, a successful relationship is about understanding who a person is, their preferences and their values.”

A Place of Sense

The hotel veteran has also seen hotels physically change. “Spaces are more fluid and not as rigid. There are a lot more open spaces.” Particularly in historic buildings that take advantage of historic sense of place, designers have to be smart about how they use the spaces to accommodate meeting planners. “That can mean moving meetings to rooftop bars or restaurants rather than boxing people into conference areas, something that has worked well to make the attendee experiences richer,” Carrillo says.

In Chicago, next to the grand staircase, is a pet bed with a union Jack. Chambers (what other hotels call guest rooms) feature inner dressing rooms with deluxe shower and vanity mirrors. “It is like a pimped-out, walk-in closet with privacy doors separating it from sleeping lounge,” he says. Even the bed was created based on the needs of today’s traveler with headboards and cushions designed for propping. “People don’t sit at big desks with big, clunky computers in stiff chairs; they lay in bed and work with their laptop on their chest. It works for the way people live and work today.” Another networking feature is the Commons Club. “It feels like an exclusive, members-only club without the membership fee; it is high-end curation feel without a charge,” says Carrillo.

Rooms come equipped with Lucy, a mobile comfort concierge that allows guests to change the room temperature without getting out of bed. They can also order extra towels or toothpaste without ever talking to anyone, but that doesn’t mean robots are taking over the registration desk. “Guests can control their own experience,” Carrillo says.

Supporting Communities

Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Richard Branson and Miami-based Virgin Hotel employees personally. Branson owns a home in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Branson’s son, Sam, rode out the storm there.

When hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean, crippling infrastructure and stranding people on remote islands without food or power, the company responded quickly. He put the weight of his foundation behind a Unite BVI to launch a BVI Community Support Appeal to raise money for the long-term reconstruction of the islands. “We want to help build a better, cleaner, stronger and more sustainable Caribbean region, including a thriving tourism industry,” the web site explains.

“While many expats have left, the local people have nowhere to go. They need the world’s attention now,” Branson said in his blog, which was shared by 10.9 million people.

“Richard understands that what is good for business is what is good for people—and should be good for the planet,” Doug Carrillo says. “We are an extension of Richard’s philosophy. That is why we support our teammates where tragedies occur. They give so much to us and our customers.”


Steve Wynn, Wynn Resorts

If the definition of a visionary is someone on the spectrum of innovators who has the unique ability to see things that aren’t there yet and make them reality, luxury casino developer Steve Wynn is at the extreme end of that continuum. When he arrived in Las Vegas in 1967 at the age of 25, he had a vision for The Strip inspired by Fontainebleau Miami Beach, Disneyland and Caesars Palace. Now CEO of Wynn Resorts—which owns and operates Wynn and Encore Las Vegas and Wynn and Encore Macau—his intense focus on conjuring more luxurious, upscale experiences is expanding again with the announcement of a $1.5 billion Paradise Park in Las Vegas. The new attraction adjacent to Wynn Las Vegas, like all of Wynn’s developments, will include a focus on elevated event spaces.

Glittering Roots

From the early days at The Golden Nugget, Wynn had his sights squarely set on the visitor experience. In a 2015 interview in Billionaire, he said, “What we know about the destination resort business is clearly established. But it’s all about one thing, and one thing only. All of the razzmatazz and jazz we hear about facilities and everything else doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It’s customer experience that determines the longevity and endurance of these enterprises.”

And the key to delivering those experiences he has consistently said was the ability to surround himself with passionate, devoted people. “We recruit our people for personality. We look for the people person, with innate warmth, sweetness and intelligence. These are the people who are sending your message out to the customers and potential customers, so we recruit for personality first and foremost,” he said.

One of those longtime team members is Chris Flatt, executive vice president of sales and marketing. She started as a sales coordinator, working with Wynn at the Golden Nugget in 1987 as Wynn was turning the original Las Vegas Strip casino into a luxury destination with suites, an upscale restaurant and—strategically important—meeting space.

When Wynn opened The Mirage in 1989 at a cost of $630 million—one of the most expensive casinos built up to that time—on the former site of Castaways, Flatt followed as a sales manager. The innovative property with an exotic Polynesian theme was the first new hotel built on the street in 16 years. “It revitalized The Strip,” Flatt recalls.

The emotional impact of Wynn’s properties went beyond the monumental scale of the casino, marbled lobby, sweeping guest rooms, even the dolphin habitat. He embedded superior service and excitement in every detail from the fish tank at the front desk to bring calm to the registration experience to the beautiful rooms and world-class culinary options.

Wynn’s secret for offering hyper-personal service is to treat employees with a sincere human touch. “He believed that happy employees would be proud to be in uniform and would offer better service,” Flatt says, explaining that the focus on treating employees well so they would pass that sense of concern on to guests dates back to the very beginning. “He always pushed us to really listen to the customer and find ways to meet their goals.”

This was an unusual business model for a town that hyperfocused on keeping high rollers at the gambling table as long as possible with cheap food and little natural light. “The level of detail and thought was above and beyond what anyone else was doing,” Flatt says. “He built everything based on the perspective of the guest.”

Wynn also understood that he was in the entertainment business. He brought boxing matches, including Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran in 1989 and Evander Holyfield vs. Buster Douglas in 1990. Siegfried & Roy’s magic and jungle cat show and Cirque du Soleil followed. He had the audacity to create a massive volcano that “erupted” on the hour. When he opened Treasure Island Hotel & Casino and connected the two with a tram.

In 1998, Bellagio upped the ante with an unheard of price tag of $1.6 billion and lured superstar chefs Todd English, Jean Georges Vongerichten and Michael Mina to open signature eateries in refined spaces.

“Wynn understood that visitors wanted more than just gambling. He was the first one to incorporate high-end non-gaming experiences, including lots of meeting space,” Flatt says. He built award-winning golf courses, destination spas and designer retail outlets.

“I felt lucky to be part of that,” she says. “He has been a mentor, like a family member,” she says of the 30 years they have worked together.

Meetings at the Center

Flatt explained that Wynn understood the massive properties he was building couldn’t rely on transient and casino business alone. “Meetings and events were an essential part of his business plan,” she says. That focus on bringing events to Las Vegas generally, and his properties specifically, showed in the design of his resorts. “Wynn didn’t put attendees in the basement under the slot machines and poker tables and serve them rubber chicken.” He built meeting rooms with expansive views, patios and courtyards. Attendees have access to some of the finest restaurants and lounge spaces in the world. “He created beautiful ballrooms with sophisticated decor. This was far from what you saw anywhere else at the time,” Flatt says.

A 75,000-square-foot expansion of Wynn Plaza Las Vegas designed to house luxury retail, restaurant and bar space is wrapping up now. However, a massive planned addition that will start construction next year will include a 40-acre lake and beach boardwalk area for paddleboarding and outdoor events on the boardwalk. At an investor meeting in April Wynn indicated that it could be the site of an ongoing show bigger than anything currently produced by his old inspiration, Disneyland. It will also include meeting space and a new, 85,000 sq. ft. pillarless ballroom, putting events at the center of the action.

“We don’t just build meeting rooms, we build creative spaces,” Flatt says.

Already, Wynn Resorts caters to meetings as small as a gathering of 25 people to a 3,000-person convention—and Flatt says they all get equal attention.

Wynn and Encore are separate hotels that connect, allowing Flatt to combine the meeting space for large groups. Different levels of guest-room products at the two properties allow attendees to choose anything from a standard room up to the penthouse for a CEO-level guest.

Flatt is more focused than ever on adding value to events. She says that the recession made all of us rethink how we do business. She describes the sales relationship today as a comfortable, trusting partnership. “We work collaboratively. Planners are more professional now than ever before.”

That ability to personalize experiences includes new technology offerings. Wynn Las Vegas will be installing Amazon Alexas to change room temperatures, order up a sandwich or fulfill a whole menu of other tasks with a few words. Flatt stresses that the team put a lot of work into making sure it is done right and doesn’t raise concerns about privacy.

“It is important that people can choose the level of technology and/or human interaction that makes them comfortable,” Flatt says. Those who would rather check in on a kiosk should be able to do that and those who prefer to talk to someone can always go to the registration desk. “We are always happy to walk a guest to the room and explain the amenities,” Flatt says. “We are very high touch.”

Infinite Vision

That focus on going beyond continues to this day. “Convention business is a big part of our focus, but all of our visitors receive a luxury experience,” Flatt says.

Wynn measures success based on repeat business, which has continued to grow every year, according to Flatt. “He is always looking for ways to go further and improve the guest experience whether that is through nicer fabrics, better flowers or better attitude,” Flatt says.


Doug Carrillo, Virgin Hotels

Name: Doug Carrillo
Title: Vice President of Sales and Marketing
Company: Virgin Hotels
Affiliations: He received the Adrian Award from HSMAI for website design.
Background: Senior executive level sales, marketing and revenue management positions with Morgan’s Hotels Group, Desires Hotels, and Carnival Hotels and Casino.
Guiding philosophy: Wherever the consumer is being ripped off, that is an opportunity to make a difference.
Testimonial: “Simply stated, Doug is a leader. His marketing savvy and ability to inspire his team to achieve higher levels of performance are his greatest strengths.”–Karen Savo, data governance team lead, Lincoln Financial Group

One of the lessons Virgin Hotels Vice President of Sales and Marketing Doug Carrillo has learned in his 30 years in the hospitality industry is that travelers are looking for experiences that are radically different from what they live at home each day. That is doubly true for event attendees. This explains why he embraces Virgin Hotels’ core value of surprise and delight. “People are looking for the experiences and entertainment available at lifestyle hotels,” he says. “No one can create a product that feels, lives and breathes like a Virgin product.”

Carrillo has also been a pioneer in creating sales and marketing platforms that streamline the process of booking and delivering events. “Today, people can find details about number of rooms or size of event space online, but making things happen is still about building relationships because there are a lot more options in hotels today for using alternative spaces to get people excited about meeting,” he says.


Chris Flatt, Wynn Resorts

Name: Chris Flatt
Title: Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing
Company: Wynn Resorts
Affiliations: One of Top 50 Female Executives in the travel industry and one of HSMAI’s Top 25 Extraordinary Minds. Serves on board of Las Vegas chapter of HSMAI and Chairman’s Circle representative to U.S. Travel’s Board, participates in UNLV Mentorship program.
Background: Southern California native started her career in hospitality industry in 1984 with Hilton Corporation before joining Steve Wynn’s team in 1986.
Testimonial: “You will rarely find in business a person who measures up to her… when it comes to the combination of leadership, wisdom, experience, accomplishment and demeanor.” –Terry Epton, president, Hosts New Orleans

After working with Steve Wynn for 30 years, Wynn Resorts Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing Chris Flatt has internalized the belief that success is all about employees. “We can’t be successful if our employees aren’t happy and driven, enjoying the environment and treated well,” she says. “You can spend a lot of money to build beautiful buildings and have all these creative features people want to see and experience, but it won’t work if employees aren’t happy,” she says, echoing her mentor.

Flatt started as a sales coordinator at Golden Nugget in 1986 and worked with Wynn on the ground floor for the opening of Mirage as sales manager. Coordinating with the architectural team and management team for the mega-resort took almost five years. “It was the most amazing experience I have ever been involved in,” she recalls.

After Mirage was sold to MGM Grand in 2000, she was part of the team that opened Wynn Las Vegas in 2005, a project that once again raised the bar on the types of experiences groups could expect on The Strip. “It was an opportunity to start the company all over again,” she says. Now Flatt has a front row seat for a planned $1.5 billion expansion that could once again redefine events while staying grounded in that elevated customer service foundation.


Julie Coker Graham, Meetings Mean Business

Name: Julie Coker Graham
Title: Incoming Co-Chair
Company: Meetings Mean Business
Affiliations: Executive Committee for Destinations International. In January of 2018, she will begin serving as Secretary-Treasurer for International Association of Exhibitions and Events Executive Committee (IAEE). In Philadelphia, she is a board member of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Independence Visitor Center Corporation, Economy League of GreaterPhiladelphia, Center City District and the Global Philadelphia Association.
Background: A graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI; BS in Hospitality Management and graduated Magna Cum Laude. Coker Graham joined the PHLCVB after serving as General Manager for the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing.

Collaboration for Julie Coker Graham, president and CEO of Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB), is an all-inclusive concept. It means working with customers to meet their goals. But it also means understanding the needs of local stakeholders. “Doing so always allows us to deliver the best possible attendee experience,” she says.

During the meeting planning phase, she elicits a wide range of various points of view. “I think it’s incredibly important to have different opinions and backgrounds represented around the table. This strategy provides a more inclusive approach, which ultimately leads to valuable interactions throughout the meeting or convention experience,” she says. She oversaw the PHLCVB’s role in the 2017 NFL Draft and the 2016 Democratic National Convention, which together had a combined economic impact of $325 million for Philadelphia.
Starting in January, Coker Graham will co-chair U.S. Travel’s Meetings Mean Business Coalition, sharing her understanding of how the world changes when people meet face-to-face with a larger audience.


Chris Harrison, Marriott Irvine Spectrum

Name: Chris Harrison
Title: General Manager, Marriott Irvine Spectrum (California)
Company: Marriott International
Affiliations: Co-chair of Marriott Orange County Business Council in California, board member of Children’s Hospital of Orange County
Background: Earned MBA from Harvard Business School, with an emphasis on innovation and service operations.
Guiding philosophy: He is passionate about translating the needs of today’s business traveler into tomorrow’s hotel-design philosophy.
Testimonial: “Chris’ understanding of the constantly evolving needs of the inventive class coupled with a lifetime in the hospitality industry makes him a true leader for Marriott Hotels.” –Bridget Bilinski, area vice president, Marriott International

As the great-grandson of J.W. Marriott Sr., Chris Harrison, general manager of the new Marriott Irvine Spectrum, grew up in the hospitality industry. He rose through the ranks over the last 11 years in Washington, D.C., and Boston before becoming director of hotel operations at Irvine Marriott in California.

“Everything today is about localization and customization,” Harrison says. “This is true in meetings as well. If the room layout, food and beverage offering, or lighting and sound do not match the purpose of the meeting—and locale of the place—through thoughtful and careful crafting of the event, we have missed the point. Our planners must be in tune with your planners in order to get the very best of each precious minute of each meeting.”

He believes unique spaces to host meetings are critical. “Everyone has a ballroom and a boardroom. Often they are generic,” he says. “You differentiate yourself with the customer by offering a new scenescape, service or technology. The ability to tune in to your sessions from a poolside cabana or hit a cross-fit gym before a day of meetings kicks off—it’s all about making guests enjoy the journey for both work and play.”


Mike Massari, Caesars Entertainment

Name: Mike Massari
Title: Chief Sales Officer
Company: Caesars Entertainment
Affiliations: Director, MPI; board, Meetings Mean Business; Treasurer, U.S. Travel Association.
Background: Began his career in events as a bus boy at age 15, worked his way up as a waiter, houseman, cook, and has never worked outside the events business. He started at Caesars in 2000 and now oversees a team of 1,800 sales and operations professionals executing over 15,000 events each year.
Guiding philosophy: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – St. Francis of Assisi

Caesars Entertainment Chief Sales Officer Mike Massari runs the meetings business there like a start up inside a fortune 500 company. The biggest change from leading the meetings business as an entrepreneur was viewing it as an independent business rather than a supporting business of the hotel. “Nearly all the important differences between Caesars and our competitors come from this change in perspective” Massari says.

What really differentiates Caesars Entertainment from competitors is its structure. The meeting team consists of sales, catering, convention services, banquets, culinary and audiovisual. The combination of sales and operations, all under one umbrella, allows Caesars to view the customer more holistically and allows them to make quick decisions.

All of the progressive changes that Caesars Entertainment made in the business really benefit clients. For example, building its own marketing team, its unique organizational structure, putting its salespeople where customers are (rather than where their properties are), its alternative venue programs and offering one contact, contract and one F&B minimum, truly raise the bar.


Christopher Nassetta, Hilton

Name: Chris Nassetta
Title: President and CEO
Company: Hilton
Affiliations: A wide variety of industry groups, including executive committee member for the World Travel & Tourism Council
Background: Nassetta worked for seven years, ultimately serving as chief development officer, at The Oliver Carr Company, a large commercial real estate company. Then, in 1991, he co-founded Bailey Capital Corporation, where he was responsible for real estate investment and advisory firm operations. He joined Host Hotels & Resorts, Inc. in 1995 as executive vice president, was elected chief operating officer in 1997and served as president and CEO from 2000 to 2007 before assuming his same role with Hilton in 2007.
Guiding philosophy: He emphasizes a deep commitment to service to satisfy customers’ needs.

Chris Nassetta knows from personal experience the importance of front-line experience and input.

“As someone who started his career working in the back of house at a hotel, I’m a firm believer in the value that comes from learning on the front lines—and that belief still guides me today,” he says. “I spend as much time as possible in our hotels, learning from our team members and customers—and I encourage leaders across our organization to do the same. This allows us to stay up-to-date on changing customer preferences, and ensures we’re evolving and innovating in ways that will only improve their experiences with us.”

Nassetta strongly emphasizes the importance of providing outstanding customer service throughout the company.

“This deep commitment to service means we go above and beyond to understand our customers’ preferences so that we can provide truly customized meetings—from creative event spaces to thoughtful menus, and everything in between,” he says.