How Virgin Turned a Viral Story of Missed Connections Into a Customer Service Coup

Positive press and a happy ending, for the price of 2 tickets

Sometimes when a business helps someone out of a tough spot, the good deed can be its own reward. But sometimes, it can also be a spectacular marketing move.

That's what happened last week in the U.K. with travel megabrand Virgin.

In case this story hasn't turned up in your news feed already, here's what happened: A 26-year-old woman from Birmingham, England, decided to surprise her boyfriend with a trip to Las Vegas for his 30th birthday. But when the couple checked in at their local airport, BHX, they were told that their flight was actually leaving from BHM—Birmingham, Alabama.

Richella Heekin had purchased tickets out of the wrong airport. It was a non-refundable mistake.

     

Richella Heekin and boyfriend Ben Marlow, shortly after their Vegas vacation mixup. Photo: Birmingham Mail

 

This mixup got picked up by a reporter for the Birmingham Mail, who posted an article about it. One of the readers who saw it was Kelly Grindle, PR lead for Virgin Holidays.

"I came to work in the morning and was reading the paper and thought, 'This is something Virgin should be able to help with," Grindle told Adweek. 

In fact, lots of Virgin employees thought the same thing  as the story went viral across the U.K. within hours. "It wasn't just the marketing department," he said. "I had emails from social media and customer service, and people were saying it felt like Virgin territory to help them."

Unbeknownst to the public, Virgin Holidays keeps a budget known internally as the "Just Because" fund, a pool of money set aside for sundry events such as this one.

"If we can help someone out—if there's a reason to do it not just from a marketing perspective, but because it's a good thing to do—we can dip in there," Grindle explained.

When Virgin had no success reaching Heekin, who'd shut down her social media channels after the story about her went viral, Grindle reached her through the reporter for the Mail (which, of course, promptly wrote a second story).

And it was here that a corporate good deed turned into a fine piece of marketing.

Heekin burst into tears upon hearing the news that Virgin would get her and her boyfriend on a flight to Vegas—and pick up five nights at a hotel, too. "It's so lovely of Virgin to do this," she told the Mail. "I'm a bit overwhelmed."

The coverage brought a happy ending to an international story, but it also gave Virgin something to tweet out on its own feed:

While consumer response has included the predictable grousers ("Does that mean I can get a free holiday for being basically stupid?"), Grindle said the response overall "has been overwhelmingly positive."

Was it worth the cost of two transatlantic tickets? "Absolutely—five times over," he said, "which genuinely wasn't our original intention. We knew we'd get a good bit of social traction for it, but the fact that it's gone as far as it has is surprising."

A footnote: Virgin actually doesn't fly direct from Birmingham to Las Vegas, so the couple got routed out of Manchester—as in Manchester, U.K., not New Hampshire.