Sir Richard Branson has been dubbed a “multipreneur.” It is a fitting title since he has been recognized as everything from a music mogul to an innovative aviator. He has achieved celebrity status as a free-spirited daredevil and pioneered several world record-breaking pursuits.
Branson started Virgin as a mail-order record store. And, over the years, the Virgin Group has expanded to include international music stores, air travel, mobile, financial, retail, music, internet, drinks, rail, hotels and leisure, with around 200 companies in more than 30 countries.
Branson’s first foray into air travel was Virgin Atlantic. In 1984, the airline was founded on a unique concept — that an air carrier could offer a high-value, competitive yet quality air service. Thirty days after Branson announced its formation, the airline launched with a star-studded takeoff. And before the end of the decade, more than 1 million passengers had flown with Virgin. It wasn’t just Virgin’s excellent service and celebrity status that attracted passengers. By the ’90s, the airline was showing itself to be a true innovator, launching the first in-seat video service in business class, and later, to all classes of service.
Recently, Branson’s Virgin group hopped the pond, making a footprint here in the West.
Virgin first became a household name in California with Branson’s involvement in a surprising venture. A contest in California’s High Desert, the Ansari X Prize, was going to award $10 million to the first non-governmental organization to launch a reusable, manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.
The contest took place near Mojave, Calif., and from it, the seeds of Virgin Galactic were planted and the idea that civilians would one day travel into space was born.
Virgin Galactic’s aim is to become the first space tourism company. Flights are scheduled to begin in 2009 and more than 65,000 people have registered with Virgin Galactic as potential astronauts. Each flight will allow for six passengers and two pilots. Astronauts will undergo three days of pre-flight training — called the Virgin Galactic Experience — for the 2½-hour flight, which climbs to nearly 50,000 feet before returning to Earth.
The first flights are priced around $200,000, with subsequent flights becoming cheaper, allowing more people to fly.
Flights are scheduled to leave from Spaceport America in Upham, N.M, and Virgin Galactic is working with Virtuoso to train accredited space agents on the ins and outs of what booking clients to space will require.
After announcing plans to go into space, Virgin ventured into something almost as unfathomable — a fun, innovative, tech-savvy domestic airline … in the U.S.
“The Richard Branson strategy for all of his businesses is to enter into categories where he feels that guests deserve more,” said Porter Gale, vice president of marketing for Virgin America. “We came into the market to stand up for customers and give them a better flying experience.”
And so began a three-year journey to launch Virgin America in San Francisco. But, unlike the space launch, not everything has come easy for the fledgling airline. Idling on the West Coast, Virgin America waited for approval to fly. Despite adhering to U.S. guidelines, a campaign lead by larger, legacy carriers persuaded the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to reject Virgin’s application. Eventually, the DOT came around and Virgin America was ready for takeoff in August 2007.
While the airline waited for permission to fly, they had time to develop their approach. According to CEO C. David Cush, Virgin America was started with a blank sheet of paper.
“[We asked] the question: What do travelers really want? How can we make flying good again?” he said.
Virgin America’s goal was to bring a fresh approach to the struggling U.S. air market.
“The Virgin brand is famous for breathing new life into tired industries — and we think the public is responding. Since the launch, we’ve seen an overwhelmingly positive guest response,” said Cush.
Offering the next generation in air travel, Virgin America enhances the experience as a whole, according to Gale. While Virgin America currently doesn’t offer agent commission, its fresh, innovative approach is a draw for clients.
“We have tried to look at every guest touchpoint,” she said. “Our Web site is user-friendly and stress-free. At check-in, we have red carpets and flowers. And, the interiors of the planes have been designed like an iPod, with every attention to detail.”
The airline is dedicated to changing the way people fly, and its new Airbus A319 and A320 aircraft provide a glimpse of what that means to passengers. Each brand-new plane undergoes a $2 million customization. Onboard, there are 12 phases of mood lighting, leather seats and the in-flight entertainment is completely interactive according to Gale.
“It comes down to guest control,” she explained. “In the typical model, you have to wait for the cart. In [Virgin’s] model, you can use the touch screen or touch pad to order food and drinks. There is also seat-to-seat and community chat. And we are starting ‘Super Fly Wednesdays’ which will add a social-networking component to our flights on the ground.”
And somehow, the airline manages to keep e prices low.
“As a new airline, we’ve got a much lower cost structure and a streamlined, tech-savvy, efficiency-driven business model. We had a chance to build our systems and processes from scratch — instead of doing costly upgrades to existing, legacy systems,” said Cush. “So, we can do things more efficiently, with a better product at less cost and pass along to customers a high-end experience at attractive fares.”
The airline has an aggressive growth strategy with the intent to fly to 30 cities in the next five years. “We recently announced plans to fly to Chicago and have a short list of cities we would like to add, including Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Boston; Dallas; Houston; Miami; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.,” said Cush. “We look for markets where there is demand and that are likely to embrace the product.”
Next in Virgin’s air arsenal: Virgin Charter. The recent launch of the private charter marketplace opened the door for agents looking to book clients simply and easily on charter flights. According to CEO Scott Duffy, both he and Branson had an interest in the private air market. And, after researching the idea of a private fleet, it became clear there wasn’t a lack of planes. In fact, there was an abundance of charter services. The problem was the length of time it took to book a flight. What the market needed, said Duffy, was a simple, one-stop shop for charter service.
“What [Branson] and I were hearing was that the biggest problem with private aviation wasn’t a lack of aircraft,” said Duffy. “The biggest problem was that it was too hard to buy and sell charter on the existing fleet.”
So, rather than build its own fleet of planes, Virgin Charter became an online marketplace, designed to simplify the booking process.
“What people were looking for was a way to shift the process of flying charter from a completely manual, time-consuming process, where, on average, agents were telling us it would take three to five hours to get one quote on one jet to do a charter, to making this a simple process where [agents] can go online and type in a trip request, similar to GDS systems or Expedia and Travelocity,” said Duffy.
The key to the new product was simplicity.
“Travel agents kept saying to us, ‘We’re looking for a solution that is simple, that’s fast, that’s easy to use and intuitive,’” he added.
Virgin’s simplified process now allows users to “Click. Buy. Fly.” First, agents submit their trip request online via Virgin Charter.com to providers who meet a specific set of criteria set up by J.D. Power and Associates.
“We are constantly evaluating, and what we do is rely on independent, internationally recognized third parties to go out and evaluate and audit companies and operators for safety and quality,” said Duffy.
The second step: compare quotes. After submitting a trip request, agents receive a list of charters that meet their criteria. They can review offers by price, look up information on an operator or plane type, view quality ratings and check out previous flyer reviews. Then, flights can be purchased securely online.
Once purchased, agents can further manage their clients’ trip details and itinerary online, as well. And, there is 24-hour customer service available by telephone for any requests that cannot be handled via the Internet.
“What we’ve done is a first in the market,” said Duffy. “We’ve defined the market and obviously, Virgin is the leading brand.”
After tackling the U.S. domestic market, the Virgin Blue Group is riding on the coattails of a recent open skies agreement signed between Australia and the U.S., announcing plans to launch a new international airline flying from Los Angeles to Sydney. V Australia, which will be the first airline to compete on the trans-Pacific route between the U.S. and Australia, is scheduled to take to the skies on Dec. 15.
“The trans-Pacific route is in dire need of competition and a good shake-up, and that’s a challenge we are always keen to take on,” Branson said in a statement.
He added that not only is this a new route and a new airline for Australia, but it is the first time that the Virgin Group will offer a global network of airlines allowing travelers to fly around the world on Virgin airlines.
The three-class plane will have all the amenities expected on a long-haul carrier, but with Virgin’s innovative boutique twist. V Australia’s new Boeing 777s will include full-service complimentary meals and beverages and generous seating. Adhering to its quest to be one of the most innovative airline’s around, V Australia will be the first trans-Pacific airline operating to offer the latest in-flight technology connectivity throughout all cabins allowing guests to send and receive SMS text messages, as well as send and receive e-mails using GPRS devices such as BlackBerrys and mobile phones exactly as they are used on the ground.
Clients clamoring to get onboard can already save a seat. Tickets for travel are on sale and clients can take advantage of a “go live” rate of $777 roundtrip. Regular economy fares will start at $2,019.
So, as Virgin takes flying to new heights — whether it be an orbit of the Earth or buying food on-demand from your seat in coach — the Virgin brand continues to stand for innovation in the skies.
FUELING THE FUTURE
After pledging $3 billion to fight global warming, Branson also announced the creation of Virgin Fuels, in which he plans to invest $400 million in green energy projects. And, on Feb. 24, Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to complete a flight powered by biofuel. The 20 percent mix of coconut and babassu oil was carried in one of four fuel tanks on a flight from London to Amsterdam. Branson said the “historic” flight marks the first step toward reducing the airline industry’s carbon footprint.
Many environmentalists said the flight was merely a publicity stunt; however, Branson told Time magazine that it was proving the impossible.
“What we’re proving today is that biofuel can be used for a plane,” he said. “Two years ago, people said it was absolutely impossible.”
Virgin is also trying to offset carbon emissions in other ways, such as investing in more efficient aircraft, lightening the load onboard their planes and embracing innovative new techniques when it comes to transforming the aviation industry in a sustainable way.