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Inside Virgin America's "Stay Golden" launch event (photos)
I looked around and tried to absorb what was unfolding before me.
And in a sense, it wasn't reality; but merely a splash of Richard Branson's reality.
Then, somewhere between the gold-suited synchronized swimmers, the beverages sprinkled with gold, and the musical performance from Santigold, it hit me: Virgin America is dedicated to (and very good at) one thing. They design brilliant experiences... and in their world, there's no such thing as overindulgence.
Stylish mood lighting. Glossy white plastic seatbacks. Bright touchscreens. AC outlets at every seat. Fast (and temporarily free) wifi. I think I even overheard someone say "It's like flying inside of an iPod!".
Even the safety video was creative and entertaining; and apparently so different from the standard that the FAA had a hard time approving it. To me, that says it all. Virgin America knew from the beginning what type of experience they wanted to offer, and has executed that vision despite strict regulations and an unfavorable market.
As the day went on, it soon became clear that the favorite buzzword was "startup". Anybody from the company speaking about the airline referred to it as a startup, because it's truly their advantage over the competition. They've been able to execute this vision by being nimble, building from the ground up, and yet staying in line with the ethos of the Virgin brand.
Many other airlines have fallen short with the in-flight experience because of a lack of vision or a reluctance to invest in overhauling their cabins. VX has done it right, and offers fares at the right price. Which is fine until you go wild with your credit card on the in-flight payment system; all on demand movies, food, and snacks cost a small fee, though live satellite TV and gaming is free.
Upon landing in Fort Lauderdale, our plane was met by Richard Branson and his billion dollar smile, calmly waving from the top of a water-spraying fire truck. It was a completely appropriate reception - why wouldn't Richard Branson be on top of a fire truck to kick off the launch of two new routes?
The disembarking was followed by speeches from the CEO, Branson, and FLL Airport authorities expressing their pleasure with Virgin America's arrival. The tarmac was lined with music, models, press, a large crowd of spectators... and enough Patron for everyone. Nothing but fun.
The energy from the tarmac eventually transferred to the main event, where I had my moment of realization about Virgin America's brilliance. I almost laughed at the thought of it. Had I ever heard of Jet Blue throwing elaborate parties to celebrate the launch of a new route? No. Is there anyone that could even try to pull this off like Branson could? Not with the same style.
Virgin has the sex appeal that few other corporations can match, and has certainly succeeded at bringing a unique and enjoyable experience to the low-cost domestic market.