Travel is “bonkers” according to Amber Kirby, vice president, marketing and customer experience at Virgin Holidays, but she clearly loves it.
After 15 years working in FMCG and retail, four months ago she left her role as Boots’ global brand director to take over marketing at Virgin Holidays.
In Soho, over lunch, she can’t stop beaming about her new role, but also explains how wrong she was to think she was prepared for travel.
“I thought my last job was complicated, [it encompassed everything] from condoms to EU laws on nicotine replacement therapy, but travel changes every second. It’s utterly bonkers,” she tells Marketing Week.
However, she is enthusiastic about what travel means to people. “People really do invest what might be life savings on a honeymoon, a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and you really want to make sure it’s in good hands … it’s a responsibility.”
That responsibility extends to ensuring travel is accessible to everyone. That’s why Virgin Holidays sees its role as more than just for booking, but for helping people pick the right holiday depending on their needs.
“We should be inspiring and helping you choose the right holiday for you, and also helping you understand how you can access it. Whether you are a single parent, someone with a disability who needs a little bit of extra help on resort, we should be there to help you out,” she explains.
Making travel more accessible
Virgin Holiday does not use its above-the-line marketing to shout about diversity, but it has been working behind the scenes to try to tackle some of the issues in the travel industry.
Part of this work aims to help LGBT+ travellers, with the company planning a traffic light system so that LGBT+ holidaymakers can see which countries are more welcoming and which it might be better to avoid.
We can be a force for good as a company beyond the holidays.
Amber Kirby, Virgin Holidays
Kirby explains: “It’ll be the same as with warnings for the Zika disease and when we tell you about those issues. Plus, if you’re a single parent you do get a little bit crucified in some places having to take a full family rate, but if you’re just one parent we have a special rate to make it possible for you.”
There are also more ambitious plans later in the year, although she won’t be drawn on the plans. “We can be a force for good as a company beyond the holidays,” Kirby says.
Accessibility goes beyond diversity and Kirby is adamant that “the biggest challenge to the travel industry is customers’ belief” in where they can holiday and what they can afford.
She explains: “It’s holding them back. We ask customers where’s your dream holiday and they say Seychelles, Mexico, New York and then we ask them ‘where are you going on your next trip?’ and they say northern France or Spain. But people can afford [to go further afield] if they’re prepared to make certain choices.”
Virgin Holidays is hoping to address this challenge head-on through its marketing. “Virgin Holidays has been a bit quiet from a marketing front and we want to tell people about ourselves, the accessibility of the world and how everybody can enjoy the world and it doesn’t take that much to get out there – it costs less than you think.”
Bringing together Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays
Inspiring people to go the extra-mile both literally and financially is part of what we can expect from Virgin Holidays’s next campaign. Kirby is tight-lipped about the creative that, along with a new campaign from Virgin Atlantic, will be released on 6 September.
It’s the first time the sister brands have aligned under creative agency AMV BBDO. Both brands conducted research into their customer and employees’ thoughts on the brands ahead of the move.
The three-year contract means the agency will be in charge of developing complementary marketing strategies for the two brands, something they both believe will drive marketing effectiveness.
“Coming under one creative agency helps us get the right echoes of Virgin throughout. It seems mad if two Virgin travel companies are doing different campaigns at different times,” she says.
Although cryptic about details, Kirby’s analysis of the company’s Seize the Day campaign provides clues.
“It was a really awesome campaign, I just wish that Virgin Holidays had been able to get it out there a little bit more. As the travel market has become more competitive, Virgin Holidays has talked more about being on sale and focused a little bit less on sharing what our perspective about the world is. I want to go back to that,” she explains.
How FMCG raises a marketer
Kirby has taken a well-worn path to the marketing boss role. Joining Procter & Gamble as a graduate, she spent 12 years working her way up the company, latterly as senior brand leader on Oral B.
Like many other alumni she talks about her time there fondly, speaking about the training she received with the same fondness that you’d expect from school or university.
“I was brought up at P&G. They raised me on the mantra that the consumer is the boss. All this talk right now about how we must put the customer at the heart of everything we do – that’s bread and butter to me.
“It doesn’t really matter what brand or industry you work in, the principles of understanding the customer need and being passionate about what you do remain the same. You should never forget your roots; I remember my washing powder days.”
She left P&G for Boots, working as head of global brand and innovation, and global brand director on its skincare, health beauty business, before joining Virgin Holidays. She admits the pull of Virgin as a brand was a big reason for joining, and that it helps both in attracting and retaining staff.
“The Virgin name really helps because the work we do is world changing. We don’t have to do much to be a top employer because people know they can be their own boss with us and they’ll be celebrated whatever they have to bring. Here, if it’s a good idea you can just go, and people will rally around you and let you go for it. People can see that,” she explains.
Kirby has her own purpose – “lasting change for good” – a mantra that drives her in every role she’s had.
She explains: “It’s dead easy to do something really flash in the pan, but I love the brands that I’ve worked on that have lasted. Pringles still has the design I did with my design team and they’re still using the same business model we instigated at Oral B. I want to make a difference for the future.”
And how does this apply to Virgin Holidays? “We genuinely could be a lot bigger than we are – getting more passengers on board and more people to experience Virgin branding. I want to go beyond selling holidays, I want to inspire and change.”
Virgin Holidays will be speaking at Festival of Marketing, which this year takes place at Tobacco Dock in London between 10 and 11 October. For more information and to book tickets visit www.festivalofmarketing.com