by Annabel Fenwick Elliott, The Telegraph, May 25, 2018
Planet Earth in 50 years: what might it look like? Few people, perhaps, are more qualified to provide an interesting response to this question, than Sir Richard Branson - who is far more at risk of getting lost in the future, chasing his dreams of space travel, than ever getting stuck in the muds of the past.
And according to the billionaire Virgin chief? Stephen Hawking was wrong when he said that the survival of mankind hangs on colonising another planet, we’d be far better off if we just stopped cattle farming; no, hotels will not have replaced human staff with robots; yes, Virgin Galactic will finally have taken flight; and if he has anything to do with it, illegal drugs won’t exist and America will have abolished the death penalty.
We’re here chatting in Edinburgh, where Branson - aged 67, bright-eyed and bushy bearded, with a perma-grin that feels in no way contrived - is announcing the launch of his first UK-based hotel. You can’t fake a real grin, he assures me. It comes from being genuinely happy with your lot in life, and that’s always been the key to his success.
Asked what makes a great hotel - his latest, housed in the Scottish capital’s historic India Buildings and slated to open in 2020 - he tells me: “It’s the same as what makes a great airline: getting every single little detail right. If you do that, you’ve got happy staff and so from the second a guest steps outside the hotel they’re met with a smile.
“You walk inside and there’s another smile, and these are not just forced smiles because you’re told to smile, they’re real genuine smiles.”
For a man so fond of new technology, however, and so ruthless in his pursuit of innovation (Branson gets off every Virgin flight with “at least 20 little changes” he wants to implement scribbled down in his notebook, he tells me) I wonder what he makes of the robot servers in hotels that have been cropping up all over Asia.
“I don’t think it will catch on,” he retorts. “Personally I would wander along to a hotel with real people. If you had robot servers on an airline, and if every airline did, there’d be no differentiation between, say, British Airways or Virgin. It’s the same flying tube, and only the people who differentiate it.”
Again he puts the essence of doing well in any business down to staff that are “happy and proud”, and bosses who are kind and who “really listen”. It would be easy to roll your eyes at this somewhat American brand of cereal-box enthusiasm, but coming from Branson it’s contagious.
I watched closely for any flicker of human frustration as the day progressed and he was ferried between tightly-scheduled appointments - when a member of staff unwittingly charged through our conference room as the camera was rolling, or while he was being quizzed over the failure of one of his airlines. Not a flicker. His cheer is seemingly limitless.
We talk of the many challenges faced by the world today and I ask him what he makes of Stephen Hawking’s solemn warning, a year before his death this year, that humankind’s only hope for survival is to colonise another planet.
“Personally I wouldn’t be so bleak as to say that,” he responds. “We have a magnificent Earth that we live on and we have to fight to protect it and make it better, or at the very least try not to make it worse than it already is.
“I think mankind should be able to do that. We should be able to come up with the technology to combat climate change, and a lot of that technology now exists. We should be able to create products that enable us not to have more and more cattle that will ultimately destroy the rainforest. We should be able to create massive nature reserves in our oceans that enable fish to replenish their stocks - and we’ve got to. Getting distracted thinking there is an escape hole in Mars is a mistake.”
It would be wonderful, he argues, to try to colonise another planet, but space companies’ principle role should - for now at least - be trying to help things back home on this one.
With that in mind, I probe, how far off is Virgin Galactic? It’s a question he can’t help but chuckle at, given the somewhat ludicrous number of times the launch date has now been moved back. His own mother put it well when, four years ago, she said of her hopes to join Branson on board his rocket ship: "I think it's the end of the year… it’s always the end of the year."
Branson tells me: “I’ve been 13 years at it now. The space race is fascinating, exciting and challenging but I think we’re almost there - I’ve said that before, but I do think we are almost there. We’ve got 800 wonderful engineers working hard at Virgin Galactic, another 100 working at Virgin Orbit [announced last March, with plans to provide launch services for small satellites] and it’s coming to a climax.”
He’s up against some solid competition from the likes of Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX is designing its own rocket for interplanetary travel, and Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, who’s convinced, incidentally, that his space initiative Blue Origin will ultimately save our civilization. They’re two “very big guys”, Branson concedes, who he counts as friends as well as rivals.
“Rocket science is difficult, and this is a competition to deliver a really safe product for thousands of people who would love to become astronauts,” he says of his intentions. “We’ve had one test flight, we’ve got another one coming up in the next few days, then we’ll have another one to the edge of space, and then hopefully into space, so it’s tantalizingly close. We’ve had tears, we’ve had happy moments, and I think the team deserves some good fortune now, so we’ll see how the next few months go.”
We’ve already touched on saving the planet we’re on rather than moving to a new one, but what might this actually involve, I persist? It shouldn’t be ignored that here is a man who says he’s concerned with the issues of climate change, at the helm of a major airline. But it’s a lesser-known fact, amid all the talk of flying and its associated carbon footprint, that cattle farming is responsible for the production of more greenhouse gases than planes, cars and all other forms of transport put together.
“I’ve stopped eating beef,” he says, and not just because of global warming. “The more cattle you have in the world, the more the rainforests are going to disappear, acre by acre.” Does he miss red meat? “Not at all, there are plenty of alternatives.” At least two of them, he’s personally invested with: Beyond Meat, which manufactures a vegetable-based substitute; and Memphis Meats, a Bill Gates-backed San Francisco start-up that’s developing a way to grow real meat and fish in a laboratory using tiny samples from live animals.
“I spend a lot of time on Necker Island serving Beyond Meat burgers to rabid meat-eaters and them telling me, as the juice drips from their chin, that it’s the best burger they’ve ever eaten,” he tells me eagerly of the former, and of the latter: “Memphis Meats believes that in 25 years time, 50 to 60 per cent of the world’s meat could be grown in labs, and maybe in 50 years time we won’t need to slaughter animals any more.”
I quiz Branson over many things, from his favoured mode of transport (ballooning) and his aisle vs. window preference on board a plane (window), to what he’d advise someone with a horrible boss (revolt, then leave) but I finish by inquiring what he’d do if he were master of the world and could pass any three laws, to which he had little hesitation: change how we address drugs, abolish the death penalty, and overhaul organ donation.
“One: I’m part of The Global Commission on Drug Policy, and we’ve got 15 ex-presidents with one voice,” he states. “We believe that drugs should be regulated and that people who have drug problems should be helped, not imprisoned or locked up or punished, so that’s one I would change right away.
“Two: we do quite a lot of work with people in desperate need of organs at the moment. In most countries you have to opt in if you want to leave your organs to somebody else. We believe very strongly that you should opt out so that anyone who is killed - the doctors can take that organ unless there’s a specific name on a computer that means you can’t, and that means that most of these people who are dying unnecessary deaths not getting organ donations wouldn't.
“And the final thing I think I would do is to get rid of the death penalty worldwide. I think it’s demeaning of society to still have it. Europe has pretty much got rid of it all all but one country [Belarus], but I think America sets a dreadful example to places like Iran and other more extreme countries by still allowing it.”
In the next installment of Telegraph Travel’s exclusive interview with Sir Richard Branson, he discusses what Britain can expect from its first Virgin hotel, what the future might look like for aviation and what a typical day involves running his empire from Necker Island.