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Jet set for blast off…

Jet set for blast off…

The global economy may be plummeting, but Virgin Galactic’s space program is counting down to take-off. And this region is proving profitable.

November 11, 2008 10:32 by

Kareem Shaheen

Just as, in the “Deep Space Homer” episode of The Simpsons, NASA sent a blue-collar, average guy into space, Virgin Galactic intends to rekindle the dreams of the more sober masses (or at least the better-off among them for now) of boldly going where few have gone before.

On track to becoming the world’s first commercial spaceline, the company is launching a consumer space travel program whose first flight is scheduled to take off in late 2009. And they have an office in the UAE.

The reason is obvious. In 2007, the Middle East saw a 15 percent increase – the highest in the world – in the number of high net worth individuals, according to consulting firm Capgemini Group. In addition, global market turmoil does not traditionally quell the appetite of your typical Dubai luxury consumer. “Even as financial market turmoil made an impact on the United States during the second half of 2007, luxury goods makers, high-end services providers and auction houses all found ready clients in the emerging markets of the world,” says Capgemini and Merrill Lynch’s 2008 World Wealth Report.

“The Middle East is known to be one of the key markets generating luxury goods spend, so it made sense to have an office in Dubai,” says Carolyn Wincer, head of astronaut sales at Virgin Galactic.

The burgeoning UAE operation has already found a willing customer: celebrated Emirati traveler and chairman of the Sharaf Group, Ibrahim Sharaf has forked up the $200,000 necessary for a spot among the Founders, a clique of 100 people who will be the first to travel to space with Virgin Galactic. You’re out of luck if you want to be a part of the Founders club, though – reservations for the company’s inaugural flight are closed. The plan is for an ambitious one flight per week after the service’s launch, culminating in two flights a day within five years of operation, and reduced fees.

Marketing such a novel luxury service comes with its own challenges, says Wincer. A major tenet of wooing the wealthy is personalization, which led to the birth of the Accredited Space Agent program. “We knew that travel agents would be key to distributing Virgin Galactic seats,” says Wincer. “But we also recognized that it is a complex product to sell and that customers need a high degree of expert personalized service.” The selection process and agency training programs should allow the company to achieve this level of interaction, she adds.

The company puts great emphasis on this personal relationship with its customers, publicizing the project’s development milestones with events that the passengers are invited to, and are hosted by Virgin’s enigmatic creator Sir Richard Branson. A recent event was the unveiling of the White Knight Two carrier aircraft in California, which will eventually propel Space Ship Two, aboard which the Founders will officially become astronauts, into the atmosphere.

Direct advertising of the product is a no-no, as it cheapens the exclusivity of what’s on offer. “Instead we opt to work with our media partners on story angles and features,” says Sharon Garrett, Virgin Galactic’s head of space marketing and PR. “We compliment these activities with client direct opportunities and guest speaking arrangements.” A seven-page feature in [Gulf News’s] Friday magazine netted two ticket sales, she points out.

While press coverage might bring in customers, inaccurate media reporting is Virgin Galactic’s most nagging problem in the region, Garrett says. “The most difficult challenge to overcome is misleading and untruthful reports by media, particularly with regard to spaceports. The UAE media shares an amazing fascination with spaceports,” she says. False rumors of an Emirati spaceport recently made the rounds, prompting a slew of customer inquiries into whether Virgin Galactic would shift its planned take-off from the US to the UAE.

Bizarre stories are inevitable, with US news giant MSNBC recently picking up a story which claimed that Virgin Galactic rejected an offer from an unidentified party to film a zero-g sex video in exchange for $1 million.

But the slightly unreal, borderline sci-fi qualities of space tourism that is within reach of – albeit wealthy – consumers presents an interesting dynamic, forcing the company to ground the project in reality. “In our case, the provision of detailed information is important to reassure that the project is real, safe and so forth,” says Wincer. The focus on safety means astronauts are unlikely to find floating potato chips in the cabin a la Homer Simpson.

You can’t help but wonder if space exploration even needs promotion. It’s almost too easy for Virgin. “You really just need to talk about the experience in personal terms so people can visualize it,” says Wincer.

Garrett agrees. “When these people phone, it is the experience and the detail that they are most interested in. Cost plays a secondary role. Most sales are converted in 72 hours.”

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