Ever wondered what it’s like to be a guest on a Virgin press trip with Sir Richard Branson? Or to travel around the world in eight days?
Well here’s my behind the scenes take on Virgin’s ’round the world in eight days’ tour which started in London on Saturday 21 February, bound for Hong Kong, Sydney and Los Angeles. You can also follow my progress on Twitter.
Taking to the skies: London Heathrow to Sydney (Saturday 21 February – Monday 23 February)
At 17:15 the limo arrives and my adventure, which I’m sharing with Stefan the pilot, begins.
After a brief limo photoshoot with Stefan, my now-bamboozled driver whisks me away to Heathrow against the backdrop of a stunning London sunset. Security is tight as we drive up to Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class Wing in Terminal 3, but the driver expertly navigates his way through the maze of cordons, automated bollards and radio check points. He’s done this before.
After sweeping into a grand turning circle, our car is met by a Virgin Atlantic host who escorts us into the very swish dedicated Upper Class check-in area. Virgin Atlantic’s PR director, Paul Charles, greets me and I introduce him to Stefan, who wasn’t exactly on the invite list.
Stefan’s allowed to stay, so he settles in by grabbing a few snaps in the check-in area. We’re soon joined by another reporter and excitement levels run high as the reality of our trip begins to kick in. There’s a brief opportunity to chat before we’re swiftly ushered through Heathrow’s fast track lanes to Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse executive lounge.
The lounge is vast. It boasts a spa, hair salon, Heathrow’s only roof garden, a games area (complete with pool table), a retro sweet shop, an entertainment area, a 14 metre cocktail bar, a children’s play area, a brasserie, deli and office facilities – basically you name it and it’s probably there.
My fellow journo describes the lounge as “the land the credit crunch forgot” and I can’t help but agree. We head upstairs to the cordoned off, raised VIP area to meet the rest of our group. There are nine of us travelling: six from the media, Paul, Richard and his son, Sam. A few of us assemble, but there’s no sign of the Virgin entrepreneur or his offspring just yet.
Our glass table is positioned over the games room and we have a clear view of the pool table below. One of the other journalists spots The Hoff (actor David Hasselhoff) and ’the guy from Gavin and Stacey’. Celebrity spotting is not my forte, to say the least, so I take their word for it. As we relax into the huge cream leather chairs, we’re offered cocktails and the signature Virgin Red Head is the tipple of choice. We’re reliably informed that this powerful blend of gin and muddled raspberries contains anti-oxidants. I’m not sure it strictly classifies as a health drink.
When we return there’s a cardboard cut out of Branson in a pilot’s uniform waiting to greet us. Never one to miss a photo opportunity, Stefan pulls out his camera.
A little later the cardboard executive is replaced by the living, breathing version. I’ve met Richard before, but it’s still quite a surreal experience. He joins our group and we chat about Australia, his place at Noosa and weddings on Necker Island.
The flight is called and we turn left on boarding our aircraft, an Airbus A340-600 (G-VFOX). Heads turn as Richard gets on board and takes up his sleeper seat at the front of the cabin; big smiles all round. The champagne is served and gradually the Blackberries are stowed away, ready for flight VS200 to Hong Kong. We push back at 21:30 and take to the sky at 21:50. Peter, our steward, is charming and we quickly get chatting about Virgin’s 25th anniversary advert and a spoof which had been aired that morning with men in drag replacing Virgin’s head-turning hostesses. We also talk about alternative uses for Virgin’s on-board treatment area which is now disused. I promise to put his ideas to the boss.
It’s my turn for a one-to-one interview with Richard, so I head up the aircraft to his seat. Very soon we’re discussing Virgin’s new round the world fares, Richard’s views on aviation profitability and his desire to integrate with BMI. I can’t give too much away here – you’ll have to wait for April’s Airline Business – but his sentiment was: “Having money in the bank is very dull. He died with £X million in his bank account doesn’t make for a very exciting achievement.” Richard quizzes me about my career, he’s keen to see the spoof ad and he loves Peter’s idea of air hockey or table football as a new use for the treatment area.
The rest of the flight passes by with ease. I spend the time writing up my interview notes, watching a film and grabbing a bit of sleep. Richard stays awake throughout and gives a quick address over the onboard tannoy before landing, thanking the passengers and crew. It’s 17:30 local time when we touch down in Hong Kong and we arrive on chocks at 17:39. Our surreal adventure gets slightly more surreal when we’re met by a long line of Chinese Branson look-a-likes, all sporting his trademark blonde beard and moustache. It emerges that Virgin has launched a Facebook competition to find a younger Branson substitute, apparently to be used as a double to ease up his hectic schedule. Either that or it’s just a bit of fun to mark Virgin’s 25th anniversary.
After passing through security, we’re introduced to Sam Branson before following along in Richard’s wake, a sea of cameras aimed at him throughout. Richard arrives at the media briefing in characteristic style, arm-in-arm with a couple of female staff, and the Branson look-a-likes line up infront of the Virgin-branded backdrop. Camera jostle for position as Richard responds to a flurry of questions, including the importance of social media and the general economic climate. We quickly make use of the lounge before being called to re-board.
Stefan takes the chance to relax in my seat and the camera comes out again, drawing some very odd looks from the other Upper Class passengers. Richard is among the last to board, after getting caught up with some filming.
Soon we’re underway again, pushing back at 19:10 local time and getting airborne at 19:27. Back home it’s 11:27 on Sunday morning, but our concept of time is long-gone.
During the flight I do a three-minute video interview with Richard, filmed at the Upper Class bar, covering some light material such as the people who have influenced him and who he’d invite to a virtual dinner party. He’s very approachable and we laugh together as a tannoy announcement forces us to do a second take.
All too soon, we’re on the descent and I do a second piece to camera, updating Flightglobal users on my progress so far. The follow-up takes are interrupted by announcements, providing live entertainment for the surrounding passengers, and we’re forced to return to our seats through a haze of chemical disinfectant.
We touch down in Sydney at 07:07 on Monday morning and finally reach our stopping point at 07:12. It’s been an eventful weekend and the adventure’s only just beginning.
(See video clip below for Richard’s take on events so far.)