Like most agents, Mary Ann Ramsey of Betty Maclean Travel, Inc. in Florida usually sells destinations she has visited to give clients a first-hand account of what a vacation there will be like. She might, however, have a little difficulty doing that for the latest destination: space travel, which she plans on selling as early as 2009. That's right, the time has come for agents to get up to speed on how to sell the final frontier.
You've heard stories here and there of multi-millionaires making the long haul to outer space, but did you ever think you would see the day where a group of agents would actually become certified in selling something travelers could only dream of visiting for most of their lives?
"I heard about the possibilities of sending regular people to space for the first time in the mid '90s," says former astronaut Rick Searfoss, who took part in three exhibitions to space, "but I never thought it would happen this quickly. I never thought in about 10 years, we'd already start to see companies coming out that specialize in space travel. I never thought it was going to happen in my lifetime."
Well, get used to it, because space travel may have taken a while to become a reality, but by 2009, it will finally be here—and judging by the steadily increasing interest in the product from agents and clients, it's clear that space travel is here to stay.
So, to get prepared for the first year in which agents will be booking space travel to clients, Ramsey, along with about 45 other agents, recently completed a training course run by Virgin Galactic. Ramsey, along with the other Virtuoso agents, is now certified in space travel. Although she hasn't actually been to space, she says that a firsthand account is not necessarily needed to sell this unique type of vacation.
"I think a lot of people know what outer space is and how great of an experience it will be, so it's really not the type of trip you have to have visited to sell," she says. "But you do need to tell your clients what they need to expect and that's where the training comes in."
So, what should consumers expect from these Virgin Galactic tours to space, and furthermore, what should agents expect from this market? Travel to space might become a reality, but will it ever be a common vacation? Will the market grow enough for other agents to get invited to the party?
Bring on the Competition
For the time being, the early stages of the space travel market will belong to one travel network, Virtuoso. Virgin Galactic is the only company ready to offer space tourism to consumers. The problem for many agents, however, is that the company, developed by Richard Branson, appointed Virtuoso as its exclusive retail travel group partner to promote commercial space tourism to the North American market.
In addition, not all Virtuoso agents get the chance to sell space travel. Only a select group of Virtuoso's elite members, such as Ramsey, had the opportunity to go through the comprehensive training program with Virgin Galactic to become "accredited Space Agents," making them among the first travel consultants in the world endorsed to reserve seats on Virgin Galactic spaceflights, due to launch in early 2009.
Initially, the experience will cost $200,000 per person. However, Stephen Attenborough, commercial director for Virgin Galactic, says he anticipates that competition from other companies molded after Virgin Galactic will bring the price of space travel down. In the next five years, Attenborough predicts the price will fall to about $100,000 and in the next 10 years, he says it will be about $50,000, which by space travel standards is considered a bargain. Attenborough says, however, he doesn't think that space travel will ever dip below the $50,000 mark, because the cost to provide the trip to consumers is so pricey in itself. "I think it will be like any new product," he says. "First, you won't see very much of it available, so it will be expensive. Then, when more people get involved, the price goes down a bit. Don't ever expect this form of travel to be extremely cheap though. It's just not possible."
Suppliers Abercrombie & Kent also plan on getting involved in the market as early as 2009. The company plans to start its own space division offering package deals. The name of the space company they will work with has not been released yet.
Attenborough says the response Virgin Galactic has gotten for the 2009 flights is impressive. As of press time, more than 200 passengers had booked themselves on Virgin Galactic space flights independently. From here on out, however, all other bookings will be made through agents.
Attenborough says about 50 percent of those already booked are from the U.S., 15 percent are from the U.K. and 23 other countries represent the remaining 35 percent of the clientele.
The average age of these space travelers is about 50 or 55, Attenborough says. Attenborough says that is no coincidence and attributes that stat to the reputation of baby boomers as thrill-seekers with a buck or two to spend and a passion for space.
"We see all types of people," he says. "But mainly the types of people agents should be targeting for this particular form of travel are scientists, former pilots or simply anyone with a passion for space."
The trip starts from the moment you make a firm reservation. There will be opportunities to contribute ideas and participate in pre-flight events.
From the spaceport to 50,000 feet above ground, travelers will be in the spacecraft attached to the mother ship, a specially designed jet carrier aircraft. It will be a time of anticipation and contemplation of what lies ahead. Then there is the countdown to release, a brief moment of quiet before take-off.
With rockets blaring in the background, passengers will be instantly pinned back into their seats. The aircraft accelerates to speeds as fast as 3,000 miles per hour, or four times the speed of sound.
Gravity eventually disappears. There is no up and no down. Passengers are allowed to leave their seats and experience the floating sensation throughout the cabin of the ship. The trip to space and back takes a total of about 2.5 hours.
Virgin Galactic is expecting to see so much interest from travelers that it recently took measures to improve the company even more.
NASA officials recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Virgin Galactic to explore the potential for collaborations on the development of space suits, heat shields for spaceships, hybrid rocket motors and hypersonic vehicles capable of traveling five or more times the speed of sound. The memorandum of understanding will be in effect for two years and stipulates that neither NASA nor Virgin Galactic will be required to pay any fees or provide funds to support the areas of possible collaboration.
Under the terms of the memorandum, NASA Ames Research Center, located in California's Silicon Valley, and Virgin Galactic will explore possible collaborations in several technical areas employing the capabilities or the facilities at NASA's Ames Research Center.
The agreement with Virgin Galactic was negotiated through NASA's Space Portal, a newly formed organization in the NASA Research Park at Ames, which seeks to engage new opportunities for NASA to promote the development of the commercial space economy.
"More companies will be coming out, more products will be coming out year after year," Searfoos says. "I can't tell you how excited I am about this. I am so happy that regular travelers will be able to experience what I experienced in space. I love that there will be more people who can share that experience with me."
Space, a Site to See
Whenever there is a new trend, a new market, a new niche, chances are a wave of related web sites will follow. So, it should be no surprise to agents that when you Google space travel, you'll find a host of sites promoting it, explaining it and, in some cases, sharing first-hand accounts of what it's like to take part in it. Sure, everyone probably has a general idea of what it's like to travel to outer space, but agents should absorb all the reading material you can get your hands on to further prepare you for the day when you too can sell the destination to your clients.
One web site that Travel Agent highly recommends is www.charlesinspace.com. Dr. Charles Simonyi, the fifth private space explorer, recently created the site, which features training videos and personal interviews, among other content. Simonyi also recently launched "Kids' Space," an interactive, educational portion of the site designed to captivate potential space travelers. Simonyi personally answers questions from kids and uses every opportunity to educate the world's youth about space travel. Children can learn about the terms astronauts use, take an interactive Space Quiz, and earn an official "Charles in Space Certificate of Achievement." They can also learn about astronaut recruiting programs. In addition, resources are available for parents and teachers to inform children about the history of space travel and promote an interest in the cosmos.
Simonyi is preparing for the April 7 launch of the Soyuz TMA-10 en route to the International Space Station (ISS), a flight provided by Space Adventures, Ltd. From training to landing, Simonyi aims at making the experience as tangible to others as possible. He has been capturing the intensive preparation for his upcoming flight on video. From centrifuge training to re-entry simulation, these videos attempt to show what it takes to travel to ISS.
Loretta and George Whitesides' web site www.spacelove.org, was launched on Valentine's Day and is designed to share the couple's excitement for their upcoming honeymoon in space.
Loretta and George are two of the 100 Virgin Galactic "Founders," the people who have already paid in full to be the first to fly on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic Spaceline. The sub-orbital spaceflight will launch the couple more than 100 kilometers high, past the boundary of space. The flight will include several minutes of weightlessness, a view of the blackness of space and a perspective of the Earth in its entirety.