On board Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class
Philosopher Alain de Botton famously inhabited Heathrow as Writer-in-Residence for his book ‘A Week at the Airport’. But Writer-in-Transit Sat Bal was content with just a leisurely few hours at Virgin Atlantic’s Heathrow Clubhouse.
Unlike de Botton we did have a flight to board; Virgin’s VS200 service to Hong Kong. And for once all the ingredients seemed right. A work-suspended Saturday afternoon, a night flight departure and ample time for destination excitement to well up.
Airlines pour small fortunes into their lounge facilities but few of us have time to savour the fruits. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but our mission was to slow down the travel pace. Easily done in Virgin’s Clubhouse and a useful window onto a niche area of the premium hospitality sector. This was going to be a venue review with a difference.
The Clubhouse cocktail bar
The hospitality starts with (pre-booked) chauffeur driven check-in at the covered kerbside of Virgin’s Upper Class Wing. Or head to the Upper Class desks inside T3 and then take the adjacent lift to the private security channel.
Fast-track security lived up to its name. Security with no queue seemed too easy even for a Saturday afternoon. And this efficiency gave us what we didn’t need: more time. Airside is scarily packed with passengers so it's a swift exit towards the airline lounges sign. Here we're greeted by touch-screening Virgin Clubhouse agents who courteously usher in Gold Card and Upper Class passengers.
Imagine walking into the design mind of early Le Corbusier and the set of 60s sci-fi film Barbarella. At 12,000 sq ft, the sprawling, two-storey Clubhouse presents plenty of possibilities. There’s the 14- metre long cocktail bar. The Deli, which serves home-cured salmon, salads and cheeses. The Library with expected laptop points and Wi-Fi. The Den, with video games consoles, a huge video wall with Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones and a pool table. And the Poolside Lounge which features a floor to ceiling Japanese water wall and clear acrylic ‘bubble’ chairs.
It’s like a spiralling options list for a luxury car. Did we forget Cowshed’s spa and wishlist products? Or Bumble & bumble for hair flair. And from St James’s in London there’s Truefitt & Hill for men. Indeed, at the Clubhouse you can be massaged, manicured and groomed to within an inch of your flight.
' Few pleasures are as bracing as hurtling down Heathrow’s runway 27L to distant lands - especially in this cocoon.'
Tranquility at the Poolside Lounge
New to the Clubhouse is an airside digital audio production suite, The Avid Suite, designed by studio supremo Guy Wilson. Note to our friends at MTV: isn’t the Clubhouse where global press/talent trips should start??
Red Carpet had just wrapped up the festival season with the V Festival so a residue of fun still hung over us. This was swiftly ignited by flutes of champagne followed by a run-through of the expansive cocktail list by Brigitte, our charming and knowledgeable hostess. Cocktail confusion (the Gold Card or Vesper Martini?) was banished with the gallant suggestion that we try a range from the complimentary menu. V Festival’s VIP area was never like this!
In the futuristic entertainment Den
Our work brief was to explore the luxury services/hospitality strata in Hong Kong so the Clubhouse elegantly set the tone. Discussion turned to the service level in here and I was reminded of a recent Tyler Brûlé rant in the Financial Times (‘Service in a class of its own’). The itinerant ‘Fast Lane’ columnist amusingly suggested a school for hospitality staff “to remind them what business they’re in and how they can become better hosts…” No need, Tyler. Just send them in here. A day with Brigitte and her colleagues will soon remind them.
The Clubhouse team is a service exemplar, both here and at the far smaller Hong Kong Clubhouse where the balcony view gives sweeping views over Chep Lap Kok’s concourse. Like London, it’s waiter service and the Hong Kong team is also immaculately turned out in silken scarlet waistcoats and ties.
Warren takes control of the Grey Goose cocktails
Food ranges from chicken tikka masala to pan fried minute steak and pan fried salmon fillet, brought to your table. Grazing on delicious salmon in the glass-fronted Gallery with views over the apron, there’s a risk of slipping from lounge-cool to plane-geek mode. We’re not the only ones at it. The neighbouring JFK-bound table debates whether their Virgin aircraft livery will be a ‘Scarlet Lady’ or a ‘Lady Penelope’. Returning the gaze to the mood-lit lounge and it’s back to cool mode. Geek. Cool. Geek…
Finally, the geek-cool pendulum swings us upstairs to view the planes from the Roof Garden and get some air. Only, en route is the Grey Goose Loft vodka bar. Cool! An interest to declare : Grey Goose is the potion of choice at Red Carpet’s weekly unwind ‘Friday Club’. The Roof Garden visit is immediately cancelled.
The Grey Goose Loft bar is managed by the urbane Warren Lee who has a keen eye for Friday Club types. He soon holds court with waterfalls of Goose and Chartreuse and we toast his alchemy and hospitality. The Loft, officially opened by DJ Pete Tong, is empty tonight yet a party atmosphere still ensues. It’s all very Virgin brand and explains why the Clubhouse topped Forbes magazine’s ‘Most Outrageous Airport Lounges’ list and the recent Cool Brands awards.
Ever the professional, Warren notes our Hong Kong departure time while we heedlessly sip and chat. When the boarding call’s made I resolve never to rush for a flight again.
The new onboard bar
‘Equipment’ today is the Airbus A340-600 and priority boarding soon takes us left into the aircraft’s nose and towards the familiar Upper Class Suites. Perhaps a bit too familiar because Virgin Atlantic is overhauling the Upper Class product on its new aircraft as competition for premium passenger traffic heats up. Witness carriers such as Emirates and Singapore Airlines which are virtually creating separate cabins for each Suite passenger. .
Not that the sumptuously padded private Suite feels shabby. Adjacent passengers aren’t visible thanks to the privacy dividers on either side. The service brings Clubhouse déjà vu, when welcome champagne is delivered by cabin crew.
Few pleasures are as bracing as hurtling down Heathrow’s runway 09R/27L to distant lands, especially in this cocoon. Bags and coats are stored in a nearby closet and the generous stretch room stretches further.
Flat bed takes the strain
With a 12-hour, 6,000 mile flight in prospect the flat bed is the prime reason for shelling out around £5,000 a ticket for most long-haul passengers. The recliner seat electronically morphs from into a bed with the push of a button. While it’s sleep-spacious for most one suspects that the, um, portlier passenger might struggle with the width. Indeed, the airline’s Upper Class revamp aims to address this with an extra 1.5 inch seat width and an enlarged 7 foot 2 inch bed surface. For this passenger anyway, it was straight from flat bed to flat out sleep as the Airbus made stately progress over the Himalayan plateau.
Earlier, a try of the Vport entertainment system revealed a comprehensive array of content but I found the buttons too fiddly and unresponsive. The good news is that the new Upper Class Suites will include touchscreen monitors and a new entertainment system called JAM.
Another shortcoming was the up-and-over table which felt more Ryanair than Upper Class. Once again the revamp will see new flip-down cocktail tables fitted along with push-panel armrests. Dining on a 12-hour night flight seems largely academic after Clubhouse hospitality but the ‘dine express’ and ‘graze’ are there and china and glassware uphold the first-class feel.
On a health note,we recognise that DVT is now widely recognised as a potential issue in the air. We therefore recommend the short walk to the onboard bar to resume circulation and restore well-being. A good move. Once there we were able to banter with the flight captain who gave us his tips on Hong Kong over a coffee while we listened over vodka. We also learn that the perfectly adequate bar is also set for a spruce up. Expect Virgin brand red flashes and Swarovski crystal adornment if you happen to be on the JFK route. Don’t expect cordial chats with airline captains.