Sir Richard Branson embarked on his first entrepreneurial ventures when he was just a teenager, and five decades later, his company the Virgin Group controls more than 400 businesses. Along the way, Branson invested in a number of unique hotels around the world and became an advocate for sustainable travel. Indagare spoke with the globe-trotting business magnate and philanthropist about responsible tourism, his collection of hotels and his favorite memories at Necker Island.
What inspired you to enter the hospitality business?
It’s quite a funny story. I never considered what purchasing one retreat could eventually lead to in terms of a collection. I guess it all started back in 1978 when I heard that an island was for sale and that the property developers would offer hotel accommodation, flights and a helicopter for those showing an interest in buying the island. So in my quest to impress Joan, who is now my wife of over 20 years, I took her to see Necker. We both immediately fell in love with the island but nevertheless the asking price was too high. However, some months later, I was approached as the price had reduced, and so I became the very proud owner of my own island. Over the years [my company has] invested in other properties and now comprises a small, but eclectic and wonderful collection of retreats in some of the most beautiful spots in the world.
You are a philanthropist and an advocate of social responsibility in tourism. Can you tell us more about this?
Seeing the world has been so enriching for me that I would encourage everyone to see as much of it as they can in their lifetime. From my own travels I have been inspired to set up not-for-profit organizations to help tackle issues such as conflict, global warming and to help species in peril. Luxury doesn’t have to come at the expense of sustainability, and at Virgin Limited Edition, our teams around the world have been working hard to make sure one doesn’t compromise the other. Each retreat has implemented their own initiatives specific to their surroundings, as well as providing support for Virgin Unite, the Virgin Group’s entrepreneurial and charitable arm, to work towards achieving their goals.
At Indagare, we believe travel has the power to expand minds and promote global tolerance. What can we do as travelers to foster social responsibility?
I’m a firm believer that in order to understand the world, we must first experience it. Traveling allows us to make connections with people and understand their viewpoints. Now, more than ever I think, it is important to understand each other and break down barriers—not create division. Seeing more of the world gives you a sense of pride for this place that we live in, and will get people wanting to take better care of it. Traveling makes people more compassionate and respectful of each other, and that kind of understanding makes for more sensible solutions to the problems of the world.
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How has VLE evolved since its founding?
In 1984 my dream was to set up an airline that was better than the competition and provided a better quality and value of service. This has not only been fun but it has also been very satisfying. The same theory applies to purchasing retreats under the Virgin Limited Edition arm of Virgin (our properties are situated in fabulous locations ranging from the Caribbean, Morocco, South Africa, Mallorca, Kenya, London and Switzerland). We always look to provide an amazing experience for the customer, be it on the ground or in the air.
Distinction, soul and character are three very important qualities that define our retreats. We have been fortunate in finding these hidden gems, each having a fun story behind the inspiration. Many factors are important when we consider adding to the collection; for one, the location of the property, and second, successfully blending local and indigenous style/culture with luxury and comfort. Unique is often overplayed, but these properties are truly unique. We believe in making a difference and going the extra mile; our teams genuinely enjoy delivering memorable experiences and we always strive to look for opportunities where we can offer something better, fresher and more valuable.
What are your business mantras?
Screw it, let’s do it. Be ready to adapt. Branding is everything. Risks can make or break a business. Perfection does not exist.
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What destination has surprised you?
The first time I went to Kenya I was still a teenager and had the privilege of visiting the Mara when there were almost no vehicles. It was absolutely magical. I also flew in the first balloon that had been introduced to Kenya. It truly felt like how Africa must have felt hundreds of years ago. This is exactly the feeling we try to recreate at Mahali Mzuri.
Do you have a favorite memory of traveling with your family?
I think our best family holiday ever was a trip to Botswana, traveling by canoe and land rover around the Okavango Delta. [The region] has fantastic game in one of the last great unspoiled areas of the world. You have to travel light to get there and I would not recommend it for younger children, but it was certainly the experience of a lifetime and gave me the African travel bug in a major way. I’m a firm believer that memories are made more when you’re traveling and experiencing new places and cultures. For me, the essential element of a trip with the family is a sense of adventure. You can still do it even when you have a young family. The properties in our Virgin Limited Edition collection cater for families really well. I think every family should go on a safari at least once in their life if they can.
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Where did your love of adventure come from?
I thank my Mum for my sense of adventure; she would intentionally push me out of the car and tell me to find my own way to my grandmother’s house! It’s my sense of adventure though that has led me to discover some of the wonderful properties in the Virgin Limited Edition collection. Take Kasbah Tamadot for instance. I have my Mum to thank for spotting the divine house from the side of the road whilst I was attempting a world record on a hot air balloon. Necker Island…well, that was a ploy to win over Joan, now my loving wife. We aspire to inspire our guests and strive to keep our collection eclectic and tempting!
What destinations are on your bucket list?
There are still so many places to see and not enough time to see them in! I’ve been lucky enough to visit many wonderful countries around the globe. But I’m very excited about the future of space tourism and what our team at Virgin Galactic are putting together for our future astronauts.
Do you have a favorite destination that you return to again and again?
It would have to be Necker Island; I have so many wonderful memories of the times I’ve spent there with family and friends over the years. There are two occasions that stand out. One was my own wedding over 25 years ago and the other was my daughter Holly’s wedding that took place in 2011. Joan and I were thrilled that not only did she choose to have her wedding on Necker but that she chose to get married on the same day as us, which now makes our wedding anniversary even more special.
Editor’s Note: Necker Island sustained significant damage during Hurricane Irma and is currently closed for reconstruction. To learn more, click here.
Contact Indagare to learn more about the Virgin Limited Edition properties and plan a trip today.