The billionaire’s Virgin America airlines finally launched its Los Angeles to Las Vegas route on April 22, and with it, a new “seat-to-seat” feature dedicated to inter-customer mingling. Yes, Sir Richard is playing matchmaker in the sky.
Travelers on this particular route – from the City of Angels to Sin City – can now use the airline’s Red touch-screen seatback entertainment system to send a cocktail to fellow travelers on one of its three daily round-trip nonstop flights. Bottoms up!
Virgin already flies from San Francisco to Las Vegas, and in Branson’s eyes, it was inevitable that he would one day create a route connecting such universally “friendly people”. “Vegas is a fun city and Virgin is a fun airline. Our roots are in entertainment, as are Vegas’ roots. It’s almost strange that we hadn’t done LA to Vegas yet. We’re making up for lost time. Start your holiday on the plane rather than having to wait until you’re actually in Vegas, I say!” he laughs.
The 62-year-old business magnate has taken his cheekiness to a new level with the creation of “Sir Richard Branson’s Guide to Getting Lucky”, a hilarious video promoting his new “Get Lucky” program that revolves around the concept of in-air dating.
Say you’re going to Las Vegas on your own, and you see an attractive guy or girl in another row. You send them a drink. You never know what could happen,” he explains, continuing, “You’ve got an empty seat next to you, so you suggest they come and join you for the drink. It’s Virgin dating!”
So why should you trust Sir Branson? That’s a no-brainer. In addition to his keen eye for promising mergers, as well as the fact that he’s been married to wife Joan for over twenty years, he was (in a roundabout way) responsible for setting up Kate Winslet with her current husband – his nephew, Ned Rocknroll.
The Oscar-winning actress was among the guests vacationing on Necker Island, Branson’s own personal retreat in the Caribbean, back in 2011. Unfortunately for all, their holiday came to an abrupt halt when Hurricane Irene blustered her way through the tropics, causing the isle’s multi-million dollar Great House to catch fire. Winslet bravely rescued Branson’s mother, Eve – age 89 – from the flames, and in the midst of disaster found true love. The two were married in a secret wedding ceremony last December.
Branson is self-deprecating about his involvement in the relationship, laughing that he was not, in fact, trying to play matchmaker at the time. “It was less me and more of the great fire that swept through our house that got the two of them together,” he explains. “Through all the trauma of that, the fire and Kate rescuing my mother, Ned and Kate somehow fell madly in love and got married and are incredibly happy together. It’s a whirlwind romance that took place on a windswept, fiery day. It all worked out pretty well in the end, I’d say.”
Branson is clearly a romantic at heart, but don’t forget that he’s also a strategic businessman. He recognizes a consumer’s need and capitalizes on it. He currently owns over 400 companies, investing in everything from mobile phones to aircrafts, comics and animation, healthcare and even space travel.
In addition to the new LA X-LA S service, he’s intent on launching Virgin Galactic, a venture that will take paying passengers into suborbital space with the hefty introductory price tag of $250,000 a head. A takeoff date, so to speak, hasn’t been finalized yet, though Branson hopes to have the program up and running by the beginning of 2014.
“We’re doing two big things at the moment which are particularly exciting to me. The first is that we’ll be taking people into space at the end of this year. We’re the only company in the world that’s doing this, so from a brand point of view, it will be a spectacular move for Virgin and will have a wonderful halo effect on all the other Virgin companies. The spaceships will have done test flights next year, and in the first quarter of the next year my family and I will be going up. That will be the start of the whole space program,” he reveals.
Another groundbreaking venture in the works is Virgin Oceanic, through which Branson will explore the virtually uncharted undersea areas of the world. “I’m also going to take people to the bottom of the ocean,” he vows. “Virgin Oceanic will enable anyone to go and explore the ocean, which is 99.9% unexplored. We found that one in three of the people that wanted to go with us into space would also love to join us in exploring the ocean. We have really exciting things going on at the moment.”
In addition to his completely out-of-the-box new business ventures, Branson also continues to focus on creating a VIP experience for travelers. In December of last year, he launched the stylish new Virgin America Loft at LA X’s Terminal 3. The new space features Frank Gehry tables, Alessi tableware, Vitra sofas and unique art installations created by photographer Dennis McGrath. Elevate Gold and Elevate Silver members of Virgin’s special frequent flyer program have access to complimentary Wi-Fi, complimentary bites from its award-wining seasonal menu of local products and artisan breads, as well as kitschy, aviation-themed cocktails from the lounge’s “Lofty Libations” menu. There is, of course, also a “social lounge” for fellow flyers to meet and mingle.
Branson’s international Virgin Atlantic flights also cater to those seeking a VIP experience in the sky on a much grander level. “We have beauty lounges on our long-distance flights which have been incredibly popular,” Branson notes. “People aren’t stuck in their seats now – they can also go to the in-air bar and meet people.” On Virgin America, there’s not as much space on the plane, which is why we started Virgin Dating. But if you want to go the long haul with Virgin Atlantic, we have shoe shine people, hairdressers and masseuses. Our lounge is one of the best in the world. We’ll pamper you, and then you’ll want to carry on with Virgin America. I think it’s the best domestic airline out there, and it’s been voted as such seven years in a row. I think that’s pretty damn good.”
In addition to providing luxury experiences for his travelers, Branson also personally enjoys a life of affluence. “My own greatest luxury is having my own island, where I can pull up the drawbridge and bring family and friends,” he admits, explaining, “I can keep them happy. We have family time, time to ourselves: I love that. The other extreme, the other greatest luxury to me is meeting people and being in the real world. It’s one extreme to another.”
Branson is definitely a people person. He is down-to-earth, freely speaks to anyone and everyone who comes to wish him well, and is candid about the ever-expanding company he created. He is the kind of man who doesn’t hesitate to wear a leather jacket to a fancy function, who describes his style as “screw it, let’s do it!” and who laughs easily, and often. Though these elements of his personality seem to be the secrets of his success, he believes otherwise.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but the secret to being successful is people, people, people!” he affirms. “If you get the right group of people around you who 100% believe in what you’re trying to do and you give them the tools to do it, then you’ll have a successful company. You can go in and really shake up a market or a business with the right team of people behind you. That means making sure to praise and not criticize, and making sure to give them the chance to make mistakes as well as make good things happen.”
He also admits when he’s wrong — and always, always makes good on his word. On May 12, he gamely served as a flight attendant in fishnet stockings, a figure-hugging red pencil skirt and candy apple red lipstick on board Malaysia’s AirAsia X after making good on a bet he made with AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes; his Marussia Virgin Racing team lost to Fernandes’ Team Lotus during a Formula One event in 2010.
“I lost a bet I thought I was going to win. Tony Fernandes had a team in the Grand Prix, as did we. His team beat us and the loser had to dress up as a stewardess on the other person’s airline,” he explains.
But Branson doesn’t blink an eye — this kind of situation plays in to his cheeky sense of fun. “I think if you look back at pictures, you’ll see that I’ve been quite foolish over the years,” he says with a smile. “When we launched Virgin Brides, I dressed up as a beautiful bride. But I had a lot of fun, and hopefully I made people smile.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the real secret to Sir Richard Branson’s success.