Virgin Atlantic: Branson, Kylie and the Mile High Club

From Barbados to Shanghai, when Richard Branson sets out to entertain the media, no effort is spared. Andrew Pierce of The Times recalls some Virgin experiences.

Well, she hardly looked like an international superstar in her scruffy denim shorts, singlet and big hat.

But as I chatted away to this diminutive actress, who had apparently appeared in Othello in a Shakespeare festival at the imposing Holders Plantation House in Barbados - the family home of the supermodel Jodie Kidd - I had the uncomfortable feeling that she looked familiar.

"So what part did you play?" I brightly inquired of the thirtysomething actress as we waited to board our flight to Gatwick, gin and tonic gripped firmly in hand, at Barbados airport.

"Desdemona," she even more sunnily replied. "Odd that," I said. "I thought Kylie Minogue played that role."

Before she could reply, I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. Even as the tiny tot removed her hat, the truth had already dawned: it was Kylie Minogue, the world's most popular diva. My friends will never let me forget it.

Happily, she was rather amused and, to the envy of every red-blooded heterosexual male, we sat next to each other on the flight back - well, lay together, to be precise - in Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class, at the end of a memorable inaugural trip to the Caribbean in 1998.

Meeting La Minogue was the last in a series of highlights of a hectic five-day trip that took in an overnight stay at the Royal Lucian Hotel in St Lucia. We sat, minutes after arriving, on a veranda, admiring the salmon-pink sunset as billowing granite clouds hurled down rain. We saw rainbows and cloudbursts, shooting stars and crescent moons. And then we saw real stars as the party began, with Branson last to bed. As usual.

On to Barbados the next day with the bearded adventurer, whom I had first encountered behind the distinctive ochre-coloured walls of Marrakesh, one of the imperial cities of Morocco, on the first of his heroic but doomed attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a helium balloon.

Then, as in Barbados, I was exposed to the full relentless force of Virgin's legendary hospitality for the media.

It's always Upper Class. The Virgin chief himself is always accessible for a chat, for a photograph, a soundbite, (even if, on occasion, it needs some improving), or a fiercely competitive game of chess or tennis.

Travelling in the Branson entourage is a bit like following the Royals on tour. His name, whether in the far outreaches of northern Africa or the Caribbean, is as distinctive as Bobby Charlton's or Manchester United's.

"Ah, Richard Branson," Eric, our burly Barbados travel guide boomed.

"He makes good condoms." Just a pity he never tried them. Eric boasted he had five children ... by different partners, none of whom he financially supported.

Celebrity attracts celebrity. So, in the punishing schedule Branson always sets, we went to Kensington Oval, which sounded familiar even to a sport virgin like me. A cricket match took place with Richie Richardson and other former West Indies international players at the crease against a little-known amateur player, Richard Branson.

"Anyone want a chat or photo with Richie?" the ever-present and helpful Virgin PR team inquired. Not likely - I was off on a shopping trip. But you should have seen those burly tabloid hacks melt in the presence of their sporting heroes.

And yes, you've guessed it. Virgin arranged for the star-struck press corps to bat or bowl in the nets with these cricketing greats, who clearly understood what was required and allowed themselves to be bowled out by the Fourth Estate's finest.

Within minutes, you heard hacks bellowing into their mobile phones: "Get me on to Copy: How I bowled out Richie Richardson by ...".

From the moment at the start of the trip when we were serenaded into the Virgin VIP lounge (you must try the massages), to the moment we walked off the plane in St Lucia to the sound of a Caribbean steel band, we lived in the lap of luxury. The food was the finest, the wine never house. It was virtually impossible to spend any money.

At the time, I was on the Sunday Express, a six-month sojourn, which was to end in disaster when Amanda Platell, the editor, was sacked, after I named Peter Mandelson's boyfriend.

Platell had only consented to me going on the trip - the paper had a shoe-string staff and I was its reporting team, give or take one or two other admirable colleagues - on the condition I came back with a story. I promised that I would.

Branson never let me down. During a tedious technical press briefing for the travel writers, he made a fleeting reference to cabins being introduced on Virgin flights. My eyes lit up. But I kept quiet. I buttonholed him afterwards.

"What you mean is the 'mile-high club', Richard." Never one to miss a headline, Branson agreed that was exactly what he meant. Paul Moore, now the head of corporate affairs for Virgin Atlantic, provided the details on my return. It was the perfect page-three story, which ran for days around the world.

I had a scoop, Platell was satisfied, and Virgin had acres of publicity.

It was more of the same on the trip in 1999 to Shanghai, China, which frankly is a dead ringer for Canary Wharf as there are so many high-rise office blocks and hotels. Vertigo sufferers should give the place a miss.

We stayed on the 84th floor of the Grand Hyatt, which required two elevators to scale the peak.

There were the usual trips to markets, temples, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and a celebrity soccer match, which featured, apparently, China's most famous soccer star. Or, more to the point, China's only soccer star.

I was still working on the cash-strapped Sunday Express.

The weekend I was due to return, the rival and cash-rich Mail on Sunday was planning a special-flights deal with Virgin's arch-rival British Airways. Associated Newspapers, which has long had the knife in Branson, had paid for an expensive wall-to wall television promotional campaign.

Opportunity knocked again. I was buttonholed by Moore, who made an offer I knew we could not refuse. Would we like to run a spread undercutting all BA's advertised prices at no cost to us at all?

Platell fell on the offer. Half the front page and a page inside were devoted to the "Airline Price Wars". It was a classic Sunday newspaper spoiler that so enraged the Mail on Sunday it had to remake its front page after the first edition.

Yet another freebie had provided front-page news, a genuine reader service and, as opposed to losing shedloads of readers, we lost only a few. Platell declared at the following news conference: "If Richard Branson has any freebies, Pierce is going."

The relations forged on those trips have led to a spate of other good news stories from "Branson issues writ against his biographer" to "Virgin joins Princess Diana's land mine campaign".

Then in June we were off again. This time, Branson was seeking to break the record for crossing the Channel in an amphibious vehicle. Despite the early start (the luxury coach complete with cooked breakfast left London Bridge at 5.30am), there were dozens of hacks, snappers and camera crew assembled beneath the impressive backdrop of the White Cliffs of Dover for the launch.

Branson set off in a cross between a car and a boat and we hacks were herded on to a flotilla of rigid inflatable boats to give chase. My stomach churned at the thought of a 22-mile crossing on what was essentially a dinghy with an outboard motor, no roof, and no protective sides, although we were handed lifejackets. But, of course, Virgin knew its stuff. The crossing was fantastic, even when a Cross Channel ferry came close by to toot its horn in support of Branson's record bid, launching what felt like a tidal wave over our tiny flotilla.

Branson smashed the record (not that we much cared, we were having such a great time on the ocean wave) with typical Virgin precision: in time for the Evening Standard final edition. It made the whole of page three and the lunchtime TV and radio news.

We had filed by 11.30am, were quaffing Champagne by 11.45am and by 12.30am sat down to a three-hour gourmet lunch in Calais' finest restaurant. England had conveniently lost to France in Euro 2004 the night before, which gave us all a strong news intro: Branson wreaks revenge on the French for England soccer defeat.

Through a mixture of luck and judgment, Virgin had again provided us with a genuine and highly topical news story, an unforgettable boat trip, a nice lunch, and a chance to do some cut-price booze shopping.

When's the next trip, please?

- Andrew Pierce is the assistant editor of The Times and the editor of the People column.

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