Branson to Entertain Virgin Galactic Ticket Holders on Necker Island

Richard Branson, GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)
Richard Branson and GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)

Two years ago, Richard Branson hosted two separate groups of Virgin Galactic ticket holders for one week stays at his exclusive Caribbean retreat on Necker Island. There were parties and water sports and fine dining and drinking and all sorts of other activities among luxurious accommodations in a stunning tropical setting.

With the exception of one miffed girlfriend who went home in a huff (the topic of another post), a fine time was had by all.  The ticket holders went home happy, and Branson collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenues from them. The one great advantage of having a space plane whose flights are perpetually delayed is being able to cross-sell all of Virgin’s other properties and services to a group of wealthy individuals with money to burn.

There was one place that was off-limits on the island. The Great House had burned down the previous year after it was struck by lightning. It was still being reconstructed when the two groups visited the island. In fact, its reconstruction was part of a big competition going on within Sir Richard’s sprawling Virgin empire.

The folks on Necker were in a race with the engineers working in Mojave. The challenge was to complete the Great House before Virgin Galactic began commercial flights to space. Both were expected to happen by Fall 2013! But, who would be first? It was like the space race, but different somehow.

When one of Virgin’s ticket holders recounted that story to me, I burst out laughing. Take every cent you have, I told him, and bet it on the house. You CAN NOT lose. I was positive Virgin Galactic would be in flight test with SpaceShipTwo by Fall 2013 (as indeed they were), but commercial service? Not a chance.

He did not take my advice. That’s a terrible shame because he probably would have become richer than old Richie Rich Branson.  And he might have shown his gratitude by throwing a couple of million my way as a tip for…well, my tip.

One year after the Great House was completed, Branson faces a major crisis. SpaceShipTwo lies in pieces on the desert floor, customers are canceling and demanding their deposits back, and Branson’s confusing performance at a brief press conference at the Mojave spaceport on Saturday might have done more harm than good.

Branson’s short stay in Mojave — a mere 22 hours — has been the source of considerable speculation. Why did he leave so fast? Didn’t he want to spend more time meeting with his staff to plan the recovering effort? Did he have some pressing business on Necker?

Today, we found a possible answer. It seems he is hosting another group of Virgin Galactic ticket holders on Necker this week.

“We regularly hold gatherings of our future astronauts at my home on Necker Island, and this week happened to be when the latest of these was scheduled,” Branson wrote on his latest blog post dated Nov. 6. “The group decided they absolutely wanted to go ahead with the gathering, and arrived last night. I am looking forward to spending the coming days with such a committed, inspiring community. In the toughest of times, it is wonderful how people can pull together, provide support, offer help and demonstrate the true meaning of family.”

Did all of them really want to go forward with the trip under these circumstances? Or had they just invested too much money to cancel at the last minute? Did anyone drop out despite the cost of cancelling? How much fun will it be to spend a week in a tropical paradise trying to cheer up Sir Richard?

We’ll probably never know. Branson insisted on Saturday that he didn’t expect to lose even one or two ticket holders despite already having lost several of them by then. In fact, it seemed as if Virgin Galactic had actually added to its list of ticket holders despite the tragedy.  It was extraordinary; just think of how many more tickets they could have sold if the ship hadn’t crashed in a million pieces. Alas, it also wasn’t accurate.

I don’t expect the next week to be portrayed as anything other than a triumph extracted from the maw of tragedy. The script is already written. Richard and his ticket holders will mourn together; they will down copious amounts of Virgin Galactic’s official vodka, Grey Goose; not one of the customers will ask for a refund; several will appear in videos reaffirming their faith in the company; and everyone will come out of the week ever more determined to honor Mike Alsbury’s sacrifice and push on into the final frontier no matter what.

That will be the story anyway. I imagine the interactions with ticket holders will be a lot more raw than that. People are scared that what happened to Alsbury could happen to them. And when people get scared for their lives, they get angry. Especially if they feel they might have been misled. There will be plenty of tough questions, and Branson and his people will issue extravagant reassurances about how fast they can recover and how safe they will make SpaceShipTwo.

If I were a ticket holder, the question I would be asking is how much of this stuff to take seriously. Branson’s act had already begun to wear thin even before the tragic events of last Friday. His credibility further disintegrated as pieces of SpaceShipTwo rained down on the desert. Regardless of the root cause of the accident, the reality is that Virgin Galactic and its partner, Scaled Composites, have not been able to get anything to space in 10 years. And this accident just caused yet another delay of unknown length.

I can’t imagine it’s that much fun on Necker Island tonight. Instead of a lighthearted tropical getaway, ticket holders are visiting a house in  mourning. This I understand perfectly. Mojave is also in mourning today. And it’s not a fun place to be. Or nearly as nice of a place as Necker.