With Virgin Atlantic launching Dreamliners on its Hong Kong and Shanghai routes, and upgrading its Hong Kong Clubhouse this month, the airline’s CEO, Craig Kreeger, visited Hong Kong and sat down with Gayatri Bhaumik to talk business travel, state-of-the-art aircraft, what Asia can expect from the Airline, and Virgin’s Clubhouse experience.
What does the Asia market mean to Virgin Atlantic?
Virgin Atlantic has been here for a long time. We’ve been in Hong Kong for 21 years and Shanghai for 16. If you look at Virgin Atlantic’s raison d’etre, its purpose, it is to bring British customers to the important cities of the world, and to bring customers from those cities to the United Kingdom. Obviously, with the amount of growth that we see – particularly in business – in this part of the world, Asia is a critical part of our network. We’ve just gone through a thorough assessment of what our long-term network should be, and feel very confident that both Hong Kong and Shanghai in particular are critical markets, so we’re putting our best aeroplanes on these routes this summer.
Speaking of launching Dreamliners on the Hong Kong and Shanghai routes, what can customers expect from this?
The aeroplane by itself is a great one. While every airline’s 787s have a number of unusual features, all Dreamliners offer things like better air quality on board – because it is able to fly at both a higher humidity and a lower ceiling altitude, which means you feel much more rested on arrival – and even bigger windows, which make the cabin feel more spacious, and can be tinted to any level, so it’s not just fully bright or fully dark. The air quality is an important point because you feel more energised when you get off the plane – your feet aren’t swollen and you don’t have that feeling of dehydration.
For Virgin Atlantic specifically, of course, we now have our best Upper Class [business class] seat on the Dreamliner. It’s got great spacing, and continues the Virgin Atlantic bed experience, which is much better because it doesn’t have any seat contours on it because it uses the back of the seat as a mattress.
Another great product we have is a really neat space that is a feature in Upper Class, which is a bar. People can use it to meet other people, or do a business meeting, or obviously, just have a drink at the bar. But it’s at the back of the cabin, so if you want to be quiet and work, or sleep, or watch a movie, you can do that. You can choose to either be by yourself and have a great, quiet experience, or you can choose to have a very social experience. We think that’s a very unique Virgin Atlantic set of choices.
Our Premium Economy cabin – we were the first airline to create a real premium economy cabin, not just a few extra inches of legroom, but an actual different seat – has a brand new seat, and we’ve also created something called the ‘wonderwall.’ It’s a destination feature where customers can get up and get a drink or a snack, and have some place to go and actually interact with our people or other customers, and we’re getting great feedback onthat.
In Economy, I think that as the industry is getting smarter and smarter we’re able to utilise more and more of the space effectively. By using very comfortable materials that are a little thinner, we’ve created more actual room inour 787.
Virgin Atlantic is opening a new Clubhouse in Hong Kong. What can customers expect?
We’re opening the new Clubhouse at the same time as we start the 787 service. The truth is our lounges around the world do offer different services. [London] Heathrow is unique in all the things that it offers, but I don’t think there’s anything offered at our Los Angeles lounge that won’t be at the lounge here, because they’re comparably sized.
Like in all our lounges, the Hong Kong lounge will have a number of different areas where people can choose what they want to do, whether they want to sit and watch the football, or eat in the dining area, for example. We design Clubhouses with the local market in mind, so for example [New York’s] JKF [airport] is focused on the New York market, and the Los Angeles team has been working with the theme of health, because a lot of people in LA are very into their organic food and juices. Wherever we are in the world we try and incorporate the local market so you still feel like you’re in the city. So for example in Hong Kong we have some amazing wontons!
Looking forward, what might Asian customers expect from Virgin Atlantic in the coming months?
We’ve set aside about GBP300 million (US$424 million) to spend on improved customer features over the next four years, and some of those things include WiFi onbaord every aircraft – the 787s for Hong Kong and Shanghai will have this – and refurbishing our clubhouses, and we’ll just continue investing in steady improvements.
This year we’ve already invested in improving Economy Class food and wine – and even started offering individual bottles of water – to try and create more of a dining experience. We’ve really recognised that as an airline that’s not the biggest network airline, we have to win by how customers feel about Virgin Atlantic, and so our focus is very much on winning customers’ hearts through great service and great experiences.
What added-value propositions does Virgin Atlantic offer business travellers?
We’ve obviously long had a focus on offering good value for business travel. Originally, our Upper Class product was designed as a first class product at a business class price, and we added some amenities that other airlines simply didn’t offer, like limo pick-up and drop-off. I think we have a strong focus on creating a good proposition for business travellers that recognises both the value of their time, and that when they get on the aeroplane they might like to have a quiet space, or interaction, and they can choose either one. Obviously having WiFi onboard our Dreamliners for Hong Kong and Shanghai is great for business travellers as well.
Do you think frequent flyer programmes are useful? What does Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club offer?
Frequent flyer programmes have three fundamental values. One is a reward value, so miles that can be used to purchase products and services – and I think we have a great frequent flyer proposition. But the other two things that are equally important are recognition and engagement. If you are a tip-tier frequent flyer with Virgin Atlantic and you’re interacting with one of our people or partners, we want to recognise you for your relationship with us and ensure that your experiences flying with us are consistent with that relationship. We also use our frequent flyer programme as a means of engaging our customers, whether it’s inviting them to events, or to test some of the products and services that we’re considering, to figure out if they like it. www.virgin-atlantic.com