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This week, we're delighted to introduce our readers to Pete Shaw, one of our frequent flyers and founder of V-Flyer.com, a website dedicated to all things Virgin Atlantic.
Pete has something of an eclectic background. Being a bit of a whizzkid at school, he was authoring books on computer games and contributing columns to magazines like Computer Shopper and MacUser before he was out of his teens, which led to a successful career in journalism and publishing and a weekly show on Capital Radio to boot.
But if all this sounds slightly, well...geeky, think again, because not only is Pete an expert web developer and publisher, he's also an accomplished theatre producer too, with a string of well-received shows to his name including a collaboration with Sir Tim Rice on his first musical outside his partnership with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But for now, it's back to travelling and flying - our favourite subjects - as we quiz Pete on his love of Virgin Atlantic, everything V-Flyer and the collaborative partnerships between the two...
Pete, can you explain exactly what V-Flyer is for those who may not have heard of it?
V-Flyer is a community of people who have either travelled, or are planning to travel, on a Virgin-branded aircraft at some point. The Virgin brand reaches around the globe, so V-Flyer proudly includes passengers on Virgin America and Virgin Blue as well as the one that started it all, Virgin Atlantic.
When you get 'under the hood', so to speak, there are three pretty distinct parts that all support each other. Firstly, there are a slew of tools for flyers to use, such as the seat maps & ratings, flight status and aircraft databases. Then there is a 'community' section which, Facebook-stylie, allows visitors to interact via their profile walls, and create social events, etc.
The third, and possibly largest section, is the forum; a place for everyone to engage in topic-centric discussion about all aspects of flying, travel, destinations and more. The forum allows people to ask questions about pretty much anything to do with their travel plans, and it's pretty likely that someone on V-Flyer will have already encountered that situation before and provide their own experience.
What prompted you to start a community about flying with Virgin and what were your initial aims?
V-Flyer didn't have any aims when it first started; in fact it didn't technically have a name for the first six months of its life back in 2003. It was spawned from the grandaddy of frequent-flyer forums, FlyerTalk, as a way of addressing the most commonly asked question in the Virgin section; namely "which aircraft will I be on?"
That may seem an odd question, but back then it was because there was less consistency in the onboard entertainment than there is now. So I built a tool that collected historical flight data to show the average percentages that different aircraft (and different IFE systems) had flown on each route. It proved popular, and soon more tools were added, along with its own dedicated forum which ignited the community spirit that remains today.
Tell us a bit about the collaboration between Virgin Atlantic and V-Flyer?
We've always been very proud of our close relationship with Virgin Atlantic, so when a group of us were invited to take part in a open discussion event called V-JAM hosted by Virgin to explore ideas around social media, we jumped at the chance.
From that came several projects, including the V-Flyer-written Facebook app to track Flying Club Miles and publish flight status in your news feed. We are also very honoured to be included in Virgin Atlantic's native iPhone Flight Tracker app, with a custom-designed version of our website including the most popular tools from V-Flyer. We still work closely with the technical team at Virgin Atlantic, and I'm always on the lookout for any opportunities to turn raw data into useful tools for our members.
How would you describe the V-Flyer community?
A glance at the responses to the visitor questionnaires we collect every year as part of the V-Flyer Awards will show you that we're a diverse bunch, but there is a noticeable draw toward the pointy end of the aircraft. One thing I should warn all potential V-Flyers is that turning left as you board is addictive; and when you've sampled it once, it's difficult to release your grip on the delights of Upper Class!
V-Flyer has a long tradition of highlighting special offers, mileage deals or plain irresistible bargains that can get you into an Upper Class Suite for less, so I feel partly responsible for the corruption of quite a few people who quite reasonably used to only fly economy, but now check every possible way to travel in the front of the plane.
A lot of strong social bonds have built up on V-Flyer. Indeed, two of the moderating team met on V-Flyer and subsequently married. A lot of the moderating team were at their wedding! We regularly gather at locations near and far for social get-togethers, and not necessarily aviation related. As a group we've gambled in Vegas, joined in a fun run across San Francisco, attended the Edinburgh Festival and many other things in between.
How would you like to see V-Flyer develop in the future?
V-Flyer isn't run as a business with a goal, as such, so the development of the site goes where the members want to take it. In the last year we've been through a major revamp of the site to open it up to the 'Web 2.0' format that allows more connectivity with the other social networking sites out there. Facebook is becoming increasingly important, and we already integrate with it; but for the future I'd like to see even more seamless bridging so visitors can use V-Flyer tools or share their V-Flyer activity with their Facebook friends.
I'm also planning to create a native V-Flyer iPhone App which will allow for more 'offline' use of our toolbox - the sort of thing you'd want to do at check-in at the airport when being offered a specific seat on the plane, for instance. Beyond that, who knows? Part of the fun of developing the site is taking the suggestions made from members themselves, and turning them into site features everyone can use.
What do you most love about flying with Virgin Atlantic?
I love flying Virgin Atlantic (and Virgin America for that matter), because the company values pretty much match my own. It's professional, but not stuffy; they'll enjoy a good laugh, but will strive to get the job done to the best of their ability. You walk into the terminal, and from the minute you cross the threshold into 'Virgin Territory', you feel like you're amongst friends. The network is big enough to go to the majority of places you'd want to go, but not so big that the service is impersonal.
I'm also very lucky that my involvement with V-Flyer has meant I have had the opportunity to form some great friendships with people at Virgin. It's difficult to put a value on that, and I find it hard to envisage that would have happened if I'd created a site that helped you find the best price on a tin of beans at Tesco.
What is your favourite Virgin Atlantic destination?
It has to be San Francisco, probably because I've been there so often! My favourite hotel is the W on 3rd Street. If you can get a good rate through one of the Starwood special offers, it's a great place to stay. I'll eat in the Cheesecake Factory above Macy's at least once during each visit, and take a leisurely look around MoMA which has some great exhibits.
Going between the airport and city? Take the BART. It's quick, clean, cheap and safe - and so much better than the 11-mile journey in a cab.
Are there places on our network you haven't been yet? Where would you most like to go next?
I regret to say large chunks of the Far East are unknown to me. The furthest I've been is Singapore, which I had the great fortune to visit on the inaugural flight of the A380 from London with Singapore Airlines. I would love to visit China, Japan and Australia, but work always drew me west to the US, and that's the continent I'm most familiar with.
I'll certainly aim to go east in the next few years. So many V-Flyers have so many good things to say about that part of the world, and I really have no excuse not to visit. Once my Flying Club balance is topped up, I should plan a trip eastwards!
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.