Bob Papworth reports on Business Travel Direct and Virgin Galactic, who are working together to ensure an out-of-this-world experience
IN THE EARLY HOURS of Monday, April 29 this year, Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury successfully landed back at base after what must rank as one of the modern world’s shortest flights – all ten minutes of it.
So far, so mundane – until one discovers that their trip actually began 8.9 miles above the Mojave desert, piggybacking a carrier craft, peeling off to climb 1.6 miles at Mach 1.2 before making the 10.5-mile descent to the runway, landing without a hitch.
Stucky and Alsbury are no ordinary pilots, you see: they were flying Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two.
Sir Richard Branson, who reportedly watched from the ground (although he can’t have seen very much), was moved to predict that Space Ship Two’s successful test flight would pave the way for a “full space flight” by the end of this year. That will involve climbing to an altitude of 328,000 feet, or 62 miles, the point commonly recognised as where earth’s atmosphere ends and outer space begins.
That much, and more, is in the public domain. When it comes to the company’s more down-to-earth travel arrangements, however, details are few and far between.
Michelle Jackley, Galactic’s marketing, production and logistics executive, carefully skirts around questions about traveller numbers, trip volumes, travel budgets and the like.
“As a global business, with customers in 52 countries and an investor in the Middle East, Virgin Galactic requires responsive and experienced travel consultants,” she concedes.
“Business Travel Direct has grown with us and our business, so instinctively knows how best to cater for our team, and in particular our sales representatives, who often have both complex and last-minute travel requirements.”
Like Jackley, the Uxbridge-based TMC’s senior business travel consultant, Nicola Sharp, and her boss, director of account management, Vanessa Bailey, are models of professional discretion.
PAYING THE PRICE
Bailey explains: “There are two parts to their travel – getting people to the space station in the US, where we’re dealing with Virgin Galactic staff; and what they call their ‘astronauts’, the people who have paid the deposit on their tickets for the first commercial space flights.”
With those tickets costing $250,000 apiece, those ‘astronauts’ are clearly very high net-worth individuals, and very high net-worth individuals tend to be publicity-shy when they haven’t got something to promote – although American actor and producer Ashton Kutcher did allow Virgin Galactic to reveal him to be their 500th customer (it is not reported how this extravagance went down with Mrs Kutcher, aka actress Demi Moore, who filed for divorce in March this year and is seeking spousal support and money for legal fees).
Nevertheless, these would-be space travellers – others who’ve signed up include Justin Bieber and, reportedly, Leonardo DiCaprio and Stephen Hawking – have to be courted. “We do sometimes get involved in getting these ‘astronauts’ over to Virgin Galactic in the US,” says Bailey, “and of course the company has to do promotional events around the world, so the travel requirement is very varied.”
It wasn’t always that way. “Nicola [Sharp] became our main account handler at Business Travel Direct after taking the very first call from Susan Newsam, head of marketing and production, eight years ago,” says Galactic’s Jackley.
“Susan recalls there being just three people in the business at the time, but in the last eight years the company has grown to more than 240 employees, predominantly based in Mojave, California, where the Virgin Galactic vehicles are being built and test-flown.
“Although many of the UK operations team have since relocated to the US, several of our team would previously travel over to the Mojave desert, flying into Los Angeles International and driving the 200 miles up to Mojave for meetings.”
There was also a need to fly either to El Paso or to Albuquerque, to check out the 27-square-mile site – east of a small town by the delightful name of Truth or Consequences – of the future spaceport, for which the State of New Mexico is stumping up a whopping US$200 million.
FEET ON THE GROUND
Awash with money and celebrities, and with a demand for high-end, high-touch worldwide travel, it all sounds like a dream account – but both Bailey and Sharp, unlike Space Ship Two, remain firmly grounded.
“It’s interesting,” Sharp admits. “They’re not your normal account, but it’s not like we’re getting requests to put somebody into space. They fly to the US a lot, which is very similar to many of our other clients. And when they do go to the States, 90 per cent of the time it is with Virgin Atlantic.”
“We do a bit of hotel business with them, but not much,” says Bailey. “There’s not a lot of choice out there because it really is in the middle of nowhere, and anyway they have some of their own accommodation on site.
“In many ways, they are like every other client, in that some of their travel we know about way ahead, and some of it is last-minute, but that doesn’t make them awkward – that’s just normal.
“It is exciting working with them, and they keep us updated with progress on a regular basis – they’re very encouraging like that. We work with other Virgin companies, and you’re not seen as a supplier, you’re treated as a partner in their business.”
So, I ask them, if you had the chance to go into space, would you take it? “Oh, yes,” says Sharp, “that’s a real once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
“Not me,” says Bailey. “I’m scared of heights.”
VIRGIN GALACTIC, jointly owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments, is on track to become the world’s first ‘spaceline’. To date, the company has banked more than US$70 million in deposits from nearly 600 would-be space tourists.
Virgin Galactic’s commercial rocket ships, which will be based on the design of Space Ship Two and its precursor, Space Ship One, will carry up to six passengers at a time – or the equivalent scientific research payload. Galactic’s promotional literature promises “an out-of-seat, zero-gravity experience with astounding views of the planet from the black sky of space”.
No date has yet been set for the first commercial flight.