Vice-president of UK & European sales Lee Haslett tells Ben Ireland about carrier’s aim to become ‘most-loved’ travel company

It’s been a few years since Lee Haslett has pitched directly to travel agents.

But having recently moved to a role at Virgin Atlantic from operator and agency Virgin Holidays, which went direct-sell-only in 2015, he’s buoyed by the opportunity to engage with the trade once again.

“I’m reintroducing myself to the trade,” he says. “If you look at us as an airline, we’ve got a strong relationship with a number of trade partners and one of the things we are really focused on is how to connect with frontline travel agents.”

Haslett explains that one of the key elements of Virgin Atlantic’s three-year Velocity strategy, launched in January, is to become the most‑loved travel company – and he puts agents in the leisure sector at the heart of that.

“When I look at being the most‑loved travel company, what we want is for travel agents to be looking at us, and for that to happen we need to have the most-loved sales team.

“Part of the reason I’m so passionate about engaging with frontline sellers is that there’s more going on with Virgin Atlantic at the moment than I can remember in 10 years with the business.”

Agents, he says, can help customers understand which of Virgin Atlantic’s new products is best for them. That could be choosing which economy product they want [Virgin offers three tiers: Classic, Delight and Light] or advising on the latest aircraft in the fleet, such as the “phenomenal” A350-1000, which had its maiden flight to New York last month.

The airline is taking delivery of 12 A350-1000s between 2019 and 2021, and Haslett says they are likely to be used on popular leisure routes such as Orlando and the Caribbean.

“From an agent’s perspective, it’s a fantastic product,” he says. “In Upper Class, The Loft [bar] has seating for eight people and it’s got seat belts, at the bar, so you don’t need to return to your seat in turbulence.

“The Premium economy product is phenomenal as well. One of the things I love is the inflight entertainment – and the tail cam, which is in HD [high definition] and has proven really popular, especially during take-off and landing.” He says another selling point is the “very different” ‘loo with a view’.

New routes

Virgin Atlantic hopes agents will be wowed not only by its modern fleet but also by the new routes it is offering to destinations outside its traditional North America and Caribbean stronghold.

The inaugural flight for one of those routes, Heathrow-Tel Aviv, was scheduled for Wednesday (October 23), with Haslett on board alongside chief executive Shai Weiss and others in the senior leadership team ahead of a press conference with Sir Richard Branson in Israel.

“It’s a great opportunity for those more specialist agents,” he says. “It’s a beautiful leisure route as well as a business route.”

A Heathrow-Sao Paulo service, which will start in early 2020, will be Virgin Atlantic’s first foray into South America, offering connections across Brazil through its codeshare agreement with regional carrier Gol.

“This opens up so many opportunities and the trade is really excited about this,” Haslett says. “A lot of people tend to connect through but our flight is direct. It’s a great one for touring companies and agents putting together adventure itineraries.”

Along with new routes, extra capacity has been piled on for summer 2020 – with ex-Manchester services a big focus. Haslett says an 30,000 additional flights out of Manchester this winter were partly down to the collapse of Thomas Cook, but much of the new product was already in Virgin Atlantic’s plans including its new Escape Plus Lounge, which is slated to open at the northern airport in spring 2020. He pointed out that capacity from the airport grew 20% last year.

“We are really committed to Manchester,” he adds. “It’s a regional hub for us, which is great news for agents in the north. There is a massive population within a two-hour journey – and having a Clubhouse experience will be great for those premium customers, which can be lucrative for agents.”

Manchester flights serve New York JFK, Barbados, Las Vegas, Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Orlando, and Haslett says there is “potential for future new routes”.

“The main message is growth,” he says. “We are really growing in Manchester.”

Regional presence

And it’s not just London and Manchester, he adds, pointing out direct flights from Glasgow and Belfast to Orlando.

More regional flying is certainly on the cards. Just last week, the new name for Flybe, which Virgin led a consortium to acquire earlier this year, was revealed. Services will operate under the Virgin Connect banner from next year.

Haslett says: “It’s going to give us a lot more regional presence, connecting people to our long-haul network. It really gives the trade a complete proposition, and a really interesting proposition to sell.”

The wider Virgin family celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020, and Haslett says Atlantic was going big as the “brand that holds the travel vertical [agency and operator Virgin Holidays, cruise line Virgin Voyages and Virgin Hotels] together”.

With 2020 such a milestone year, Virgin wants to include its agent partners in the celebrations.

Haslett teased a planned trade incentive to launch early next year and says incentives will be given to agents in a way that is a “first in the airline industry”.

He also promises that the airline will be “completely redesigning our fam and educational trips”, but at this stage could only go as far as saying there would be more of them, in a “revitalised format” so agents should “watch this space”.

Trade site VS Flying Hub is also set to be “completely refreshed” in time for January, which Haslett appreciates is the “key selling period for agents”.

“In the lead-up to that we are getting the message across that we should be seen as the most-loved airline for the trade,” Haslett says.

It’s quite a change from the message he had to give in his former role.