It’s exciting news for Las Vegas: There’s a new man in town, and it’s Richard Branson.
“I’m still pinching myself,” said the barefoot billionaire while popping a bottle of champagne poolside where he announced he is the new owner of the iconic Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which opened in Las Vegas in 1995.
It’s just one more acquisition for him to add to his venture capital conglomerate, The Virgin Group, which has more than 400 entities that include a comic and animation company; a chain of gyms; retail shops; a health company; an aerospace company; a high-speed rail; banking services; and the Virgin Hotels.
It’s quite astounding that the man, whom Forbes estimates to be worth $5.1 billion, grew up dyslexic and had poor academic grades. In fact, on his last day of school, the headmaster told Branson he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire.
He actually did both. But Branson always has done things differently than most people. By the age of 16, he began building his empire by publishing a magazine that he’d named Student.
By the time he was 27, he had a chain of record stores called Virgin Records. The name was chosen because he and his partner, Nik Powell, were novices in business. The brand rapidly grew during the 1980s with the addition of Virgin Atlantic Airlines.
In 2000, Branson arrived in Las Vegas, dressed as Elvis Presley, on the first Virgin Atlantic nonstop flight from London.
There have been a couple of other memorable “Branson moments” in the “entertainment capital of the world,” which is why he says Las Vegas has long held a special place in his heart. One of those was riding a Jet Ski with a flight attendant behind him across Bellagio’s lake to a podium, where, soaking wet, he conducted the orchestrated fountains.
I recall being on a plane with him in 2007, when he flew to Las Vegas from Los Angeles to promote domestic travel on the now-defunct Virgin America. He got a little banged up rappelling on a windy day off the tower of the Palms Casino Resort, but that is nothing compared to some of the dangerous adventures on which Branson has embarked, including trying to break the transatlantic sailing record in his high-performance sailing yacht, Virgin Money.
It was Branson’s mom, Eve, who taught her son to squash negative emotions, such as fear, anger and jealousy, and think of other people. His childhood was filled with unconventional experiences.
“We weren’t allowed to watch TV. My parents preferred that we were outside climbing trees and rescuing cats. They would push us out of the car and tell us to make our way to our grandmother’s house,” Branson remembers.
“Or they’d put us on bikes in the pouring rain and make us ride a couple hundred miles to the seashore. They wanted us to do things, rather than watching other people do things.”
The 2016 film Don’t Look Down captures Branson’s daredevil nature and documents his life-threatening attempt to across the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon.
The dangers Branson faced, whether in business or in his personal life, taught him to stay calm under fire.
“If you’re facing death, you’ve got two choices: curl up and give up, or fight to survive. You’ve got to do everything you can to think, think, think, and give yourself the best chance to get out of a precarious situation.”
Branson says an entrepreneur is a bit of an adventurer who’s trying to create something nobody’s ever done before — or better than anyone’s ever done. As an entrepreneur, you’re fighting to prevent your company from going bust, and as an adventurer, you’re fighting to physically survive. There are differences, but mostly similarities.
Though hardly a dangerous adventure, it’s no secret that Branson has been looking to purchase a hotel in Las Vegas for quite a while, and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which he says has been his favorite for many years, is the perfect property for someone who comes from the world of rock ’n’ roll.
Branson is willing to spend a lot of money to revitalize and refurbish the property, which he says has gotten a bit tired throughout the years. It will continue to operate as the Hard Rock Hotel until late 2019, when the extensive renovations will be complete, and the giant, neon-lit guitar out front likely will be replaced with a giant “V.”
Branson definitely is looking forward to painting Las Vegas Virgin red. He has joked that he’s going to extend the runway so people can go straight from the plane to the hotel. He plans to add some tasteful touches and eliminate the slot machines seen as soon as you walk into the property.
The hotel comes with its collection of music memorabilia, and Branson says he and Raul Leal, Virgin Hotels chief executive officer, may be fighting over who gets to wear Elton John’s sequin Dodgers uniform from his 1976 concert at Dodger Stadium.
A lot has happened in the nearly 20 years since his book Losing My Virginity came out.
As Branson says, “You can only lose your virginity once; but in every aspect of my life, I try to do things for the first time every day.”
In his new autobiography, Finding My Virginity (October 2017), Branson continues to share the saga.