When looking for customers, how do you find the spaceflight enthusiasts among the world's 10 million or thereabouts US dollar millionaires?
Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn is not entirely sure: "I don't think we have yet cracked it. We're learning as we go along. We have Sir Richard Branson, who is constantly travelling, doing public speaking, he meets people, they are fascinated."
One of his first 100 customers-or "founders" in Virgin speak -is Danish-born London-based financier Per Wimmer, who agrees the sales challenge is significant: "It will take good marketing and efforts to identify the right high net-worth [individuals]."
Another customer is US actress Victoria Principal, one of four celebrities known to have signed up, including Stephen Hawking and film director Brian Singer. To date the spaceline has found about 300 customers and they have deposited $40 million.
© Wimmer Space
Danish financier Per Wimmer and US actress Victoria Principal
"Most of the saleshave been in the last 11 months. We are now selling at least three or four a month. We got from 100 to 300 in the last 11 months and we are reasonably confident [of reaching 700],"adds Whitehorn.
He says that 40% of his customers are pilots: male and female, qualified leisure pilots, single engine or twin, and some have jet ratings. And that gives the company one easy point of reference, the Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture annual event, which is held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
"I've got what I call the Oshkosh factor," Whitehorn says."[it is] an interesting group of potential customers. They say...when we see it flying into Oshkosh we'll buy." So this year Virgin Galactic is flying its carrier aircraft prototype WhiteKnight Two into Oshkosh on the air show's first day, 27 July.
Another reason for the caution, Whitehorn makes clear, is that previous space travel promises have been broken and customers lost money. Whitehorn's solution for that is to put "a big brand [like Virgin] behind it" and fund it independently of deposits, so "people know they're getting their money back if we don't succeed".
For those customers not at Oshkosh, Virgin Galactic is setting up a global travel agents network, including recent appointments in Scandinavia. The agents routinely deal with high net-worth individuals. Ramped up over the past four months. they are delivering half of all ticket sales and 50agents have experienced the SS2 flightprofile in a centrifuge. "We give them a lot of training on the safety. We are particularly concerned there is no misselling," says Whitehorn - because if customers want their money back, the agents lose their commission.