This week I’m writing about all things Virgin Atlantic. Today I’m going back to the year 2000 when the very first Virgin flight flew to Las Vegas. I was lucky enough to be on that flight and be involved in the weekend celebrations.
So what was it like to be part of a Virgin Atlantic inaugural flight? Imagine one continual party, lasting three days with helicopter flights over the Grand Canyon and Vegas strip, flying Elvis, Cirque du Soleil, VIP nightclub access, karaoke and champagne until your legs fell off.
What I don’t want is for people to use this article as another reason to bash Sir Richard Branson or Virgin Atlantic and give them a reason why the UK Government shouldn’t offer some support – “ooh look at them wasting money, living it up, while I can’t afford to feed my kids, the dogs and buy 20 Superkings each day”. This was a press junket, aimed at improving the Virgin brand and publicising the new route to Las Vegas.
The entire weekend was like watching seven Bond films back-to-back, mixing them up and not remembering exactly what happened in each. It’s even harder to remember now and just lucky that I still have some old, poor quality videos – all taken on a Sony tape camcorder and transferred to digital years ago.
We arrived at London Gatwick and everyone on the flight was invited to the Virgin Clubhouse lounge. There was live music from Tom Jones and Elvis tribute acts and the usual free drinks and food.
The flight was more fun that usual, with just-for-fun gambling tables set up by the galley, plenty of drinks and everyone able to roam around the aircraft. When we landed in Las Vegas, everyone spilled out of the aircraft onto a windy tarmac. Richard had changed into an Elvis costume about 30 minutes before we’d landed and then posed with cabin crew on the aircraft steps.
We were then ushered into a marquee where there was entertainment, food and drinks while we waited for coaches to take us to the Four Seasons Hotel – a lovely hotel that occupies the top five floors of the Mandalay Bay.
You’d imagine that this would be a good time for a rest, but instead we went to a private room in the Hard Rock Casino for just-for-fun gambling, more drinks and a raffle where I think someone won a Virgin Holiday.
The weekend continued with a visit to the Grand Canyon in small aircraft, followed by helicopters to the base of the canyon and a picnic.
Here’s a video of the helicopter flight to the Grand Canyon floor.
And here’s Richard showing off with the helicopter door open.
At some point we had a champagne reception at the Bellagio and went to see ‘O’ by Cirque du Soleil – I fell asleep in the theatre as just couldn’t keep up.
We were taken to a ranch a few miles from the Las Vegas strip – just another big party, but with the Flying Elvis team and helicopter flights taking guests for a spin up and down the strip.
I also remember a visit to a nightclub in the MGM where an area was roped off for the inaugural party.
On our final day, before we headed to the airport, we were taken to a restaurant in the Venetian Hotel. Everyone was given some novelty Elvis glasses with sideburns attached. More Elvis tribute acts and then karaoke. There’s a lovey scene in this video, where Richard’s Mum, Eve Branson, takes the stage while Richard looks on fondly.
Over the entire weekend, Richard and his parents were friendly and approachable – I can’t pretend to know them, but they seemed genuine.
I don’t remember the flight back – I’m pretty sure I slept the whole way. I’ve since dreamed of joining another Virgin Inaugural, although now I’d just be happy if the airline survives.
Whatever you currently feel about Sir Richard Branson, don’t forget that Virgin Atlantic employs 8,500 staff in the UK, with many more UK businesses relying on the airline.
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