(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- “Go ahead, try some,” urges the Mad Hatter, a jovial redhead in a tall feathered hat and tails. He gestures toward a small apothecary bottle labeled “Drink Me.” It takes little persuading for Oona, my 7-year-old daughter, to grab it and gingerly sip, being careful not to spill any on her blue dress and white pinafore. Moments earlier her little brother, Zane, devoured a frosted sugar cookie that turned his mouth Cookie Monster blue. Soon, both are eagerly sampling other delights the be-hatted actor, Fergus Adamson, sets out on a little table before them.
Like everything else staged in the back eight seats of the Global 5000 Bombardier business jet—including games of dominoes and croquet—it’s part of an extravagant (and expensive) tea party produced at a turbulence-free 45,000 feet. Up in the front section of the plane, three adults sip Ruinart Blanc de Blanc Champagne while checking email, completely undisturbed by the action a few rows back. They can’t even hear the children’s squeals of delight when it comes time to eat the chocolate truffles they made themselves by hand.
Welcome to the world’s first official Alice in Wonderland adventure in the sky.
For many kids on terra firma, playing dress-up and having a performer isn’t outlandish at a themed birthday party, but at cruising altitude, entertainment options are usually limited to a screen and headphones. Not so with VistaJet Group Holding Ltd., the subscription-based global aviation company that launched its Adventures in the Sky program on June 1.
For a starting price of $4,000—not including the minimum $12,000 hourly cost of chartering the jet—travelers on the company’s 70 silver-and-red planes can retain Sharky & George, an exclusive London-based children’s party creator with an almost cultlike following, to devise enough antics to keep their kids happily busy from New York to Dubai.
Actors first meet the children out of costume, to avoid any sky-high freakouts. And the activities, which include eating sugary snacks and playing active games, are all vetted for safety on a narrow plane. (They’re also messproof; when experimenting with colorful stickers, the company tested 17 variants to find ones that wouldn’t ruin the jets’ $65,000 leather seats.) Parties are adapted for different ages and interests, but they all start with a handful of themes: a moviemaking option complete with green screen; a spy adventure promising international intrigue; and, of course, Alice in Wonderland.
Matteo Atti, executive vice president for marketing and innovation at VistaJet, believes an audience exists for concepts like these. “Given that one in every four VistaJet flights has a child on board, we saw the opportunity to build something incredibly special for our younger passengers,” he says. Researching and creating the product was a yearlong process. But it’s worth the effort to keep parents and children happy, he says, and to attract new flying families. “If you can trust us with your family, you can trust us with anything,” he says.
According to luxury-travel network Virtuoso, the number of jet charter trips grew 10 percent from 2014 to 2016. PrivateFly, a global charter-booking broker that works with 250 operators worldwide, said in its first-quarter 2018 report that 15 percent of its passengers were younger than 16, up 50 percent from a year ago. In a market that Atti estimates has an addressable population in the mid-five figures globally, catering to—and retaining—each client is crucial, even if that client is 5 years old.
“I fly privately because it makes it possible to do something special with my son and his friends in a single day, like going to the Grand Canyon to hike caverns,” says Eric Crown, co-founder and former chief executive officer of Insight Enterprises Inc., a Fortune 500 company. “He’s been on everything from prop planes to Gulfstreams since the age of 2.”
For most parents who frequent private jets, it isn’t lavishness that makes it worthwhile but practical concerns—legroom, flexible scheduling, reliable Wi-Fi, and not having to worry about your kids’ behavior in front of 150 strangers.
“Private terminal access at smaller airports makes traveling with children much easier to manage,” says David McCown, U.S. president and CEO of Air Partner Plc, a charter service and fractional-jet-ownership program. “Parents and kids avoid the hassle of long airport lines and TSA screenings.”
The typical requests for flights with kids rarely go beyond asking for a particular board game or brand of pizza, McCown says. But most private jet companies need to go all-out to meet client expectations every now and then. Air Partner, for example, recently decorated a plane with balloons, presents, and cake for the 10th birthday of a client’s granddaughter—and then proceeded to make multiple stops to pick up family members across the U.S. before flying to Europe.
NetJets Inc. makes a standard practice of providing coloring books and teddy bears for young travelers—who make up 10 percent of its passengers. If asked, the company will go further; it’s created Disney-themed flights for families and once put together an in-flight laboratory for a client’s science-minded granddaughter who was turning 8. “We have quite a few requests but don’t need to explicitly offer this as a service,” says Tom Ville, marketing manager for NetJets.
Formalizing Adventures in the Sky is certainly a marketing play for VistaJet, but it also allows the company to be nimbler in responding to extravagant asks. And yet its most crucial kid-relating tools are subtler: Since only 10 percent of its clients fly with nannies, VistaJet’s Cabin Hostesses have all taken coursework in family-based psychology and age-based care at Norland College, an institute for early-childhood education in Bath, England. They’re trained to calm nervous little flyers and even bottle-feed. For parents who want something more special than a coloring book and less expensive than a full-blown party, the company will create activity hampers and backpacks—stuffed with treasure maps and stop-motion Lego moviemaking kits—to get kids excited.
VistaJet flyers tend to have the means to indulge in such treats or spring for an Adventures in the Sky party, which can carry a six-figure price tag. Private jet “members” have an average net worth from $670 million to $1.1 billion.
Of course, the best judges of whether it’s all worth it are the kids themselves. After her VistaJet tea party on a three-hour flight from New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, Oona was so enchanted, she wondered aloud to me if she’d dreamed it all up. “Alice went down a rabbit hole, but I went up high in the sky,” she says. “It was so cool.”
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