Financial institutions around the world have been racing each other to see who can roll out the most slick, sleek, high-tech branch to they are “more digital” than the competition. And they are shrinking them down to the size of storage containers, based on the assumption is that mobile banking tools have made branches largely irrelevant.
Virgin Money, on the other hand, has decided to go in a radically different direction.
By the industry’s standards today, their Sheffield Lounge, is huge, spread over three floors, with the lower ground floor featuring our very own full-size, two-lane bowling alley. What’s more, in the games area you’ll find air hockey, a foosball table, a billiards table, a jukebox, a cinema screen and a Wii games console. There’s a kids play area in the shape of a bowling ball, and a café with American diner-style booths where you can chill out while you enjoy snacks and other refreshments… all for free.
Virgin Money customers can book the games and cinema area for a children’s party or a team-building event. Virgin Money doesn’t provide any catering for such functions, but customers are welcome to use their own outside caterer or bring in food for parties.
The top floor of the lounge is more sophisticated. There are comfy tweed sofas, a majestic chess set, a long table for working and window seats. You’ll find lots of plug sockets around so you can charge your phone or laptop with ease. The shelves are filled with board games and books. A meeting room accommodating up to a dozen guests is also available.
To use the bowling lanes or the games area, customers need to make a booking with a host in the Lounge. Reservations can also be made via phone or email. All Virgin Money asks that you make a voluntary donation to one of three chosen charities in the Sheffield community, or to the designated Virgin Money “Charity of the Year.” They recommend the following donations:
- £10 per lane for 1 hour of bowling (USD $13)
- £20 per hour for use of the games area for a party (USD $25)
- £50 per hour for use of bowling and games area for a party (USD $65)
- £20 per hour for the Community Room (USD $25)
Donations can be conveniently made via a not-for-profit fundraising website virginmoneygiving.com — something Lounge Hosts can help with when you arrive for your booking.
Each floor offers an assortment of teas, coffee, juices, fruits and biscuits.
If the whole concept sounds more like a Family Fun Center or YMCA to you than a bank branch, that’s not a mistake. You can’t even conduct transactions in a Virgin Money Lounge.
Designed exclusively as places for customers (and their guests) to relax and unwind, Virgin Money Lounges offer everything from complimentary refreshments and free Wi-Fi, to newspapers, magazines, TVs, Macintosh computers and iPads.
Each of the seven Virgin Money Lounges offers something different. A theater cinema, a bowling alley, or an airplane cabin (a nod to the bank’s sister division, Virgin Airlines). This is definitely not your typical banking experience.
Membership is completely free for Virgin Money customers, and most Lounges — including Sheffield — have a kids area so all the family can enjoy what’s on offer.
Charitable organizations can host events in the Lounges for free, and they can also be reserved for community events and corporate meetings.
“We believe in banking that not only benefits our business, but also our customers and the community,” say Virgin Money. “Our Lounges are the perfect example.”
Some banking providers have taken a similar approach, but this Virgin Money Lounge takes that strategy to a whole new level.
ING Direct (now known as Tangerine in Canada and Capital One 360 in the U.S.) pioneered the concept of tellerless, transactionless cafés in the banking industry, but these locations offer the same amenities and entertainment value as a standard coffee shop. They are cool, no doubt, and sport a smart sense of design seldom seen from a financial institution. But they are not something most people would describe as “fun.”
Umpqua Bank has been using its branches — what they like to call “stores” — as community hubs open to the public for unconventional purposes like morning yoga classes and kids’ movie nights for the better part of two decades.
The Virgin Money Lounge in Sheffield melds these two concepts — café + community hangout — and then multiplies the strategy. By a factor of six.
Some pundits and banking industry observers poo poo the notion that banking providers should try to turn their branches into something with retail appeal. “Why bother?” the argument goes, “when branches are doomed to face the same fate as Borders and Blockbuster.” But they probably never envisioned something like the Sheffield lounge. Only the most serious fun-hater wouldn’t want to spend time in this Virgin Money location.
Virgin Money says they spend about £3 million (roughly USD $4 million) supporting their seven lounges. They cost about £750,000 (USD $1 million) each to set up and about half of that in annual running costs, according to the bank.
Just considering how much free publicity the lounges yield, the investment seems like a bargain. Just like any standard bank branch, there’s the “billboard value” they represent in each community they serve, but Virgin’s lounges help differentiate their brand in ways that are virtually priceless in a financial industry rife with me-too look-alikes. And then there is the value these lounges create through interpersonal, face-to-face interactions as first-time visitors turn into loyal, regular users.
And then of course there is the goodwill these lounges generate. A location like the Virgin Money Lounge in Sheffield stimulates the kind of affinity consumers rarely feel for a financial institution. It’s the kind of love that should make other competitors jealous.
It’s so awesome that you could be forgiven for wanting to work there. Heck, some people would probably like to live there.