High Tea—at 30,000 Feet

by Julian Ryall

There is nothing more quintessentially English than afternoon tea—and Japanese people flying with Virgin Atlantic Airways are lapping up the new service.

“Wanting to build on our strong reputation in this market, we have introduced the traditional afternoon tea in our Upper Class meal service, and I’ve heard that it is very popular among Japanese travellers”, said Julie Southern, the airline’s chief commercial officer, during a visit to Tokyo in late March.

Britain’s national drink is just one part of the airline’s strategy for remaining distinct and ahead of the opposition in a market that has experienced a testing year.

“Our customers in Japan are very important to us and, in our 23rd year of serving the Japanese people, we are proud to be supporting the [nation’s] recovery by bringing in tourists from the UK and investing in our service to make it even more attractive for people to choose to fly with us”, explained Southern, who arrived in Tokyo from Sydney.

Travelling with two colleagues, Jon Harding, general manager of the International and Distribution Division, and Greg Dawson, director of Corporate Communications, Southern was keen to meet people who support the airline’s business in Japan, including representatives of travel agencies. She also wished to spend time with the Virgin Atlantic team here and to review the current market situation as the new financial year was dawning.

The key message to get across is that, despite the economic pressures that exist in the airline industry, there is “an enormous amount to be positive about”, Southern explained.

“Our recent investment to improve the product, service and customer experience will help drive customers to come back and again fly with Virgin Atlantic”, she said. “We are passionate about giving people a magical flying experience”.

With a reputation as an innovative airline to uphold, Virgin is focusing its efforts on improved services. The firm introduced a new meal service in Economy Class in November 2011 and in Upper Class in March, while in February it announced an investment to the tune of £100mn in its Upper Class service.

“Our Premium Economy product is very strong in the Japanese market and we hope to be able to announce a new service in this sector in the summer”, Southern added.

Another area of expansion is in new routes, with direct services from London to Vancouver starting in May and to the Mexican resort of Cancun in June. Flights will resume between London and Mumbai in October.

State-of-the-art Airbus A330s have already been given the distinctive Virgin livery and a further eight are scheduled to be delivered by the end of the year. Equipped with new in-flight entertainment systems and a revamped Upper Class, the jet is the most environment-friendly aircraft in its class.

In addition, Boeing 787 Dreamliners are scheduled to be delivered in 2014.

Tokyo remains special to Virgin as it was the airline’s first route in Asia and the first destination outside the US. Today, the airline operates a daily service between Heathrow and Narita airports.

Business passengers come from a wide range of firms, many with direct links to the UK, but generally from wealthy backgrounds and with an international mindset. Leisure travellers are typically split 50-50 between male and female and are mostly aged between 30 and 40. Virgin also appeals to students, and benefits from young people’s interest in British music, fashion, culture, history and sport.

Research indicates that travellers choose Virgin over the other airlines flying the direct route between London and Tokyo because of the product and high level of service. Facilities such as flat beds in Upper Class are a bonus on the long-haul route, along with the chauffeur-driven car service, onboard bar and airport lounges.

“We want to ensure that we provide a tailored product for the Japanese market”, Southern said. “So we have invested in Japanese in-flight entertainment, arranged that half our crew are Japanese nationals, and serve Japanese food as well as drinks, that include sake and green tea.

“In our Tokyo office we also have a very strong team of people, who lead the development of the service to ensure that we respond to any challenges coming out of the market”, she added.

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