As Virgin Atlantic gears up for expansion, vice-president of UK and European sales Lee Haslett tells TTG how the airline is bringing agents along for the ride
With eye-catching expansion aspirations at Heathrow; new routes to exotic climes, freshly launched aircraft and a whole new sister carrier on the way – it’s full speed ahead at Virgin Atlantic.
“I couldn’t have started at a busier time… or a more exciting one,” smiles vice-president of UK and European sales Lee Haslett, looking back at a “whirlwind” year for the airline he joined in June.
“We’ve got more to talk to agents about than ever before – we’re in a real growth phase and the trade is key to making it a success.”
Kick-started with the arrival of its new chief executive Shai Weiss in January, Virgin has shifted from three years of restructuring and consolidation, arriving into a new era of investment and expansion termed: “velocity”.
The airline hasn’t waited around with its plans, from the Virgin-led acquisition of Flybe in March, (debuting next year as Virgin Connect), to a pitch to become the UK’s “second flag carrier”, publishing a plethora of potential routes from Heathrow.
The airline also launched its new A350-1000s last month – of which 12 will join the fleet by 2021 – and with its joint venture codeshare agreement with Air France/KLM close to gaining regulatory approval, it has been a rapid ride of late.
In the middle of its packed array of announcements was Haslett’s appointment, moving from Virgin Holidays where he had spent 10 years rising to the role of vice-president of product and distribution.
Haslett was eager to learn about the aviation industry, admitting to having “become a bit of a plane geek”, even spending a day on the tarmac at Heathrow with ground crew preparing aircraft for take-off.
“I really wanted to make sure I understood every part of the airline industry and then all of a sudden you find yourself debating the benefits of 787s versus A350s,” he laughs. “I’ve definitely jumped in with two feet”.
Aviation may be a new field for Haslett but retail, and the importance of agents is clear.
“We’re going to continue to evolve how we’re working with agents,” he outlines, adding the carrier is currently reviewing how its leisure sales team is operating to best serve agents.
Trade activity has also seen a facelift with the launch of a new competition, “Going MIA”, in partnership with Virgin Voyages for 15 agents to win a trip to Miami – flying onboard Atlantic and getting to experience Voyages’ first ship, Scarlet Lady.
Haslett is looking to throw “even more events” in 2020, teasing a “big, overarching event for several hundred to get everybody ready for peaks” at the end of next year.
“We get phenomenal support from our travel agents and we love what the guys do for us. What I’ve wanted to do since joining is really put the focus on that – both within our business and also externally.”
Haslett is clearly relishing working with agents again but acknowledges his past company – Virgin Holidays – had a different approach.
“At Virgin Holidays [which went direct-sell in 2015], trade was a very small percentage of their business. From my perspective, the move was the right thing at the time. It was a difficult decision, but it doesn’t mean other Virgin businesses would follow suit.
“At Virgin Atlantic, trade is really important to us and we see the value and the distribution opportunities, and that’s not going to change any time soon. I’m incredibly passionate about travel agents and the high street and you’re going to see us back that up and grow in that space.”
Next year is going to be “a big, red, Virgin year” for the group as a whole, Haslett predicts, with Virgin Voyages’ maiden sailing and Virgin Galactic aiming to carry its first customers among just some of the marquee moments.
“A lot of customers are going to want the Virgin brand”.
Virgin Atlantic intends to use Virgin Connect as a feeder airline, operating from 12 UK bases, for its long-haul operations.
The airline – run by Connect Airways (with Virgin a controlling stakeholder) – will allow regional agents, and their customers, easier access to “the full Virgin experience”, Haslett explains.
“We want to look after their customers and we can serve more of them across the UK than we previously could.”
In the capital, Virgin Atlantic has firmly laid out its stall for growth with 84 would-be routes across long-haul, short-haul and domestic – in a bid to break British Airways’ stronghold at Heathrow.
A survey released earlier this month by Virgin Atlantic also claims 57% of its 2,000 UK respondents are hungry for more competition.
“There are too many [Heathrow] routes that have got a single carrier monopoly, which isn’t good for consumers, for prices, for competition or for travel agents,” argues Haslett. “We’ve shown our vision and that it’s achievable and now it’s about gaining public support, industry support and agent support to be able to achieve it.
Another airport of opportunity for Virgin Atlantic, and agents, Haslett points out, is Manchester – where Virgin has announced major expansion: adding 30,000 seats for winter 2019/20 including increased capacity for Barbados and New York and the opening of its first Clubhouse next spring.
And more expansion could be on the cards with the gap left by Thomas Cook Airlines, with Haslett confirming his carrier is “looking at what more we can do for the summer next year”.
“All those people who were booking holidays with Thomas Cook will still want to go on holiday and as a travel industry we don’t want that market to just disappear. What will probably happen is they will just book through different means now.
“We are proactively looking at where else we could support. Obviously Thomas Cook did a lot of routes we don’t do – it was a big short-haul operator, which I imagine our competitors will pick up. It’s not our game.
“We’ve launched Tel Aviv already and we’ve launched Heathrow-Sao Paulo [due to start in early 2020, offering connections across Brazil codesharing with Brazilian carrier Gol Airlines] and Mumbai this year and we’ll look at launching new routes in the future which could be out of Manchester if we can make it work.”
Haslett is due to fly off to the Israeli city for the inaugural flight on Wednesday (23 October), but before leaving has a parting message for agents.
“It’s going to be a big red Virgin year next year and Virgin is investing in its airline, its cruise line, in hotels… there’s a real travel focus across the group.
“We see the power of what a travel agent provides to a customer and I know how much an agent loves their customers, and takes a real care in creating a fantastic holiday.
“I see that travel agents have a similar ethos to us in making sure to offer phenomenal customer experience and we want to partner with people that have that mentality.”
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