Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways has flown in turbulent skies in recent years, posting losses (albeit shrinking ones) since 2011. Just as the company was inching its way back into the black, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave Desert on Oct. 31. Galactic is a separate company—one of roughly 80 that use the Virgin name—but public associations between it and VAA probably don’t help. It adds to the pressure on Reuben Arnold, Virgin Atlantic’s brand and customer engagement director (who operates like a CMO), who’s tasked with helping the carrier regain the youthful, maverick reputation it enjoyed in past years. Fortunately, he’s got a character as colorful as Branson to front the brand in the media. We caught up with Arnold—fittingly, between cities—to ask him what’s on his marketing runway.
When it first flew in 1984, Virgin Atlantic was the swaggering newcomer that took on British Airways. Now that it’s an established carrier, is it hard to regain the mojo?
We say we’ve grown up, but we’ve not grown old. We have always been about innovating for the sake of the customer, not innovating and using new tech just for its own sake. For instance, our new 787 Dreamliners allow us to have more technical control of the in-flight lighting. So we mapped out the moments in time on a flight when people want to feel relaxed. We then programmed the lighting to enhance those emotional needs.
Has the coming of social media changed the behavior of fliers in the cabin? Do you have to cater to them differently?
Previously, the idea was to give flyers more privacy, and many airlines are still thinking that way. But modern travelers, especially business flyers, are gregarious and see a flight as a time to connect. Our research shows one in five flyers has done business with someone they met on a flight.
So what do you do?
For starters, we designed our upper class bar as a place to drink, work or meet new business associates. And on the 787 planes we offer economy premium customers the Wander Wall [a snack counter] where they can hang out, stretch their legs and interact.
Virgin Hotels are slated to open in Chicago next year and New York in 2016. Any tie-ins planned?
Since we are part of the Virgin family, we are definitely talking with them about ways to create unique experiences. Nothing is settled yet.
Virgin Atlantic has about 370,000 Facebook fans, but Emirates has 10 times that. What gives?
That’s an area where we have to do more. We are working to find the kind of content that people care about and that allows us to have a dialogue with them. We had a big success last year when Richard Branson posted a hoax tweet about a new glass-bottom plane flying from London to Scotland, which generated several thousand retweets.
Frequent flyers often say that one simple thing can make the difference between an ordinary flight and a happy one. Do you have a "one simple thing"?
Being able to have a genuine conversation with any of the crew. These encounters happen when crew members are intuitive enough to recognize when to leave me alone and when I might need something. It’s subtle, but it really matters.
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