You don't have to fly business to get VIP treatment
Virgin Holidays is the first British tour operator to offer its customers a dedicated lounge. Kate Simon takes a look round
Sunday 08 June 2008
Todd, Will and Jack are overwhelmed – they're at risk of overdosing on fun. What first? Thrash Dad at table football? Thumb wars on PlayStation? Plane-spotting through the telescope? Or how about a romp around the soft-play area?
The three youngsters were among the first customers to test out Virgin Holidays' new V Room, which opened last Sunday at Gatwick Airport. The lounge is to be offered exclusively to Virgin Holidays customers – across the classes of travel – taking trips to Florida, Las Vegas and the Caribbean, and is the first such dedicated venue to be offered by a British tour operator.
The boys' mum, Susan Inglis, had paid £60 to gain access for her family of five – £15 per adult and £10 per child over three years – but felt it was "worth every penny". She said: "There's so much for the kids, they don't know what to do first. Plus we've got access to free food and drink and I can check my eBay."
The Inglis family were in the lounge staving off the boredom of a long delay to their flight to Barbados – they had only found out about the new facility at check in. But while passes can be obtained on the day – subject to availability – for such an eventuality, or just through sheertardiness, the purpose of the V Room is to offer added value to the Virgin Holidays product. The company hopes customers will buy into the idea at the point of booking their holidays.
Alison Smith, senior new business development manager for Virgin Holidays, sees the project, which the company has been working on for more than 18 months, as a valuable extra service that could keep customers coming back for more.
"We decided we needed to do something innovative – new and quirky – to make us stand out from our competitors and give our customers something with a loyalty factor to show them we value their custom," she said.
The V Room, which occupies a space on the fifth floor of the South Terminal that was once home to Continental Airlines' lounge, owes more than a nod to Virgin Atlantic's executive Clubhouses. The same designers, W1, have been employed to give the 7,340sq ft space, with dual-aspect views of the airfield, a characteristically funky look, with bold colours, bright murals and eyecatching decorative touches.
Up to 180 people can be hosted in the lounge, which is split into adult and child-friendly sections, with communal eating and seating available in between. At one end is the Tech Zone, equipped with table football, PlayStations and computer terminals, and the soft-play area. At the other is a quieter area with a bar, from which children are banned, where adults can browse through free magazines and access the internet in peace.
Deals with other brands have been an important part of the project, which has cost Virgin Holidays £2m. The decor of the soft-play area has a sea theme, with waves and marine creatures adorning the play furniture and Lego wall – its sponsor is the cruise line NCL. And a Twister mat in the corner forgoes the familiar brightly coloured spots for pictures of the attractions that can be enjoyed by buying access via the sponsor, Orlando FlexTicket. Even the smoothies on offer at the self-service buffet have been supplied by a brand – Innocent.
With Virgin's flights departing in the morning, the lounge is only open between 6.15am and 1pm daily – although it will remain open if a flight is delayed. So brunch foods are the order of the day, including pastries, bacon sandwiches, cereals and fresh fruit. The bar can provide that celebratory pre-flight glass of champagne, although all alcohol has to be paid for on top of the entrance fee.
So is this the shape of things to come?
Ms Smith isn't discounting the possibility of more V Rooms. "We've created a blueprint so if there's an opportunity to do it elsewhere we'll evaluate it," she said. And its competitors are closely watching the progress of the initiative, too.
Jo Clarkson, head of air products at Kuoni, sees it as a potential trend. "We're always looking at ways of enhancing the customer experience," she said. "We already offer our World Class customers access to the Servisair lounge on a complementary basis, which our other passengers can also book. We're not dismissing the idea [of an exclusive lounge] – we may consider it in the future."
A hidden benefit of buying a pass to the V Room is that it gives you access to the fast-track channel through security. Now that could be a real dealbreaker for travellers entering the airport scrum this summer.
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