London’s visitor offer is now changing rapidly

Shape of the future – or flashes in the pan?

London’s visitor offer is now changing rapidly

Firm future or fantasy – that’s often the discussion when an innovator puts forward plans for a radically new and different concept – even something out of this world.

Richard Branson is no stranger to challenging conventional wisdom in transport and travel, and his current ‘big vision’ of space tourism is now being tested against the confidence of investors.

His Virgin Galactic company recently unveiled plans to merge with Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH), a New York-listed investment vehicle run by the Silicon Valley billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya, in an unconventional effort to become the first publicly-listed space tourism company. SCH was set up two years ago to find a suitable company to merge with, and has a £578m investment fund to deploy.

According to a presentation shared with analysts recently, Virgin Galactic expects to begin flights as early as June next year, and to be flying more than 1,500 passengers a year on suborbital flights by 2023. It expects to break even in 2021.

There are discussions taking place with Italy and the United Arab Emirates to build spaceports in addition to its current base in New Mexico. It also plans to go beyond space tourism by using its aircraft for supersonic flights between cities, saying it could fly passengers between London and New York in an hour, or Los Angeles and Sydney, currently a 15-hour flight, in 2.5 hours. That would put what Concorde offered in the shade!

Virgin Galactic has raised around $1bn to date since it was founded, largely from Sir Richard’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala wealth fund – it cancelled a proposed billion-dollar investment from Saudi Arabia last year after the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

Sir Richard’s company has faced multiple delays to its promise to send tourists on 90-minute flights into space, but apparently has a waiting list of 600 people who have paid $200,000 for a ticket. Last year it successfully sent test pilots into space.

Branson may be the most ambitious and radical of those potentially reshaping the face of travel and leisure, but he’s certainly not the only one. Our London feature inside GTO Magazine highlights a range of physical developments and conceptual approaches that mean the capital’s visitor offer is now changing rapidly.

The Battersea Power Station development incorporates shops, restaurants and a heritage trail as well as a new river-bus service and its own tube station on a Northern line extension, as it seeks to become a new destination for the London visitor.

There’s an increasing number of immersive experiences dotted all over London too, including Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds in the City of London, produced by entertainment experience entrepreneurs, dotdotdot, and the play and dine Virtual Reality experience, Otherworld, that’s recently opened in Hackney. Not to mention a burgeoning range of escape-room game experiences in a variety of settings from heritage to sci-fi.

It’s anyone’s guess if, in future years, this will all become mainstream, and considered to be supplanting more traditional visitor activities, or seen as just a ‘flash in the pan’ as businesses experiment with available new technologies that come and go.

People probably asked the same questions about moving pictures and the birth of the cinema, the invention of television and digital home entertainment, and, in terms of moving around, the beginning of aviation only just over a century ago, and the arrival of low cost flights at the end of the 20th century.

And what about Thomas Cook? When he began organising the first leisure excursions in 1841, history now confirms he was onto something, and the company that bore his name led the way in all sorts of holiday and travel innovations for the next 150 years.

But even the Thomas Cook brand and portfolio didn’t stand the test of time, as the recent sad collapse of the company attests. It became a different entity since it passed through new ownerships in 1992 and 2007, and arguably was the victim of grand corporate thinking and financial mechanics, as much as changing tastes and the emergence of rival offers in the marketplace.

One thing that is pretty certain is that the pace of change in the sector will continue to accelerate.

So, in planning group trips over the next decade, do include a quick hop around our planet through the stratosphere or a day trip to New York in an hour, not to mention a journey on Elon Musk’s hyperloop 240-mph rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles or London and Edinburgh, if that comes to fruition!

Or you could maybe stay at home and immerse yourself somewhere on the other side of the world through VR technology without moving at all!

This article was originally published in issue 291 (September / October 2019) of GTO magazine.