The world of travel media press junkets and what really happens on these trips is sorely underreported -- which is a shame for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that sometimes the trip itself is more interesting than any news a travel journalist could possibly glean and report.
For example, sometimes you learn about a new flight route, say Virgin's new JFK-Vegas flights, which began September 5th and will operate on a daily basis. And then you find out they're partnering with HBO and the series "Entourage" and will feature the show as part of their on-flight entertainment, with "Entourage Class" amenities throughout September. A simple enough story.
The next thing you know, you're standing on a red carpet in a massive private hangar outside of JFK, next to an Airbus A320 marked "Entourage Air." People are mingling in red and white lounge areas that have been set up inside the hangar while a DJ blasts Jay-Z tracks featured in the series, and you're sipping Dom Perignon about 50 feet from this massive jet. Meanwhile, you're talking to other journalists who are all busy Blackberry-ing their editors about this unique scene while the bloggers are Twittering the event.
Then Sir Richard Branson arrives with a few members of the cast of "Entourage" and they pop a few bottles of champagne and mock squirt them at each other, then answer goofy questions about who they'd pick as their very own Vice President. A photo-snapping frenzy ensues, and they wave and leave.
But your journey has just begun. You board this A320 for its maiden voyage to Vegas, and -- at 38,000 feet, under the glow of the plane's purple and pink lights -- watch the premiere of Season Five of "Entourage." You're greeted at the Vegas airport with more champagne and clapping showgirls, and then you start your evening off with a free party at the Playboy Club at the Palms Casino. After less than 18 hours in your destination, you fly back to report your findings about Virgin's new JFK-Vegas route.
Such is the world of travel media press trips.
It's easy to snark on these scenes, but to be honest, part of me secretly loves these junkets and the cornucopia of kitsch they offer. If only the TSA's announcements of banned carry-on items were this interesting -- and involved the cast of Cirque du Soleil! It would liven up my workday, at least.
The problem with lavish media trips is that the average traveler can get lost in the shuffle. Your intrepid reporter gets an adventure. You as a reader may get a mundane deal and a few sentences about a new flight route. Or in this case, the press junket is so over the top it winds up obscuring the fine print of the news that will actually affect you as a traveler.
So for your benefit (and for my own amusement), I'll be examining some of these Preposterous Press Trips with the average traveler in mind. Watch for more of these on Frommer's upcoming editors' blog, Behind the Guides. Let's kick things off by rating this Virgin press trip, first for overall kitsch, then by how it will affect you.
Press Trip Kitsch Factor
9 out of 10. See above.
The kitsch factor obviously gets a big boost from the cast of "Entourage" and especially Sir Richard Branson who even in a brief 7 minute appearance comes across as a charismatic adrenaline junky, like someone who's probably doing something more exciting than me at any given moment in time. At one point he mentioned to Adrien Grenier that "this must be exciting for you guys," as if popping champagne over airplanes is old hat to him. His favorite thing to do while flying? "Well, there's always the Mile High Club." His pick for his own Vice President? "Barack," he said, then turned to an attractive stewardess next to him (Patricia Nobles) and reassessed. "Actually I think I have my VP right here!" Branson/Nobles '12?
This score also gets points for the mid-flight premier -- apparently the first of its kind -- and the clapping reception at the Vegas airport, which I admit is surprisingly effective as a morale booster.
What's in it for You
Okay, obviously Richard Branson, a private hangar, and a clapping crowd are not included in this promotion.
Virgin American will fly between JFK and Vegas daily, and an "Entourage Air" theme will continue throughout September. That means first class fliers will get champagne and goodie bags with products from Keihl's, Godiva, and Altoids, plus eye masks, Bose headphones and one seriously fluffy cashmere blanket marked "Entourage Air." (Unfortunately, you can't keep the last two items.) The idea is to make you feel like a VIP and part of someone's entourage.
All passengers can watch a half dozen episodes of the show mid-flight (indefinitely, not just in September). The plane, the water bottles, and the napkins are all marked "Entourage Air," and you'll probably hear some banter about it from your cabin crew.
One-way flights start at $159 (main cabin) and $744 (First Class), or $318 and $1,488 round trip.
Worth the Hype?
7.5 out of 10. The payoff of what amounts to a fancy goody bag seems a bit negligible for those First Class prices. But yes, the "Entourage Class" gimmick is fun, and it's something different. (Then again, if blatant cross-promotion and/or HBO turn you off, you'll be mildly irked.) Virgin America offers a respectable first class experience, though it doesn't have the "wow" factor of Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class, which is already "Entourage"-worthy with unfolding beds and a separate bar area.
The real news here: The economy class $318 round trip price beats all the other JFK-Vegas rates we've seen for September. Next best deal (for 9/18 to 9/21) was $443 round trip on Delta, then $458 on American Airlines. Midweek, runners up were $363 on Delta, $358 on JetBlue or AirTran, and $403 on American. Southwest has a few $149 one-way prices with layovers (departing out of Long Island's Macarthur Airport).
Note that Virgin rates fluctuate as high as $494 economy class one way (9/17) but go down to $143 (9/23).
Economy class offers an overall pleasant experience, with above-average seats, and a "Red" entertainment system that will keep you occupied with free games, free premium and live TV, and movies ($7.99). The pay-per-meal offerings on our return flight were severely limited; a paltry vegetable salad or a fruit and cheese plate had everyone asking "Where's the beef?"
Future Virgin Promotions
One benefit of these press trips is that you get to pick the brain of the Virgin marketing VP mid-flight. Porter Gale notes that other promotions may come out of this HBO partnership, though not necessarily "Big Love Air," she says. "We'll probably think of something new. Why do the same thing?"
More intriguing: She notes that Virgin Galactic -- you know, the division that will offer commercial flights to outer space -- will hold its maiden voyage in 2010. The spacecraft will be named "Eve" after Richard Branson's mother. Tickets are $200,000 and flights are already filling up. Virgin members with 10,000 points are eligible to win a trip. See www.virgingalactic.com for more info.
So since Virgin is obviously a forward thinking airline, do they have plans for a Virgin Blimp Hotel? (We wrote about these James Bond-worthy curiosities a few months ago.) "That sounds fantastic," she said, then motioned to a colleague. "Make a note of 'blimp hotels,' please. We need to discuss this."
I predict more Preposterous Press Trips from Virgin. Watch this space.