Tickets for one day of last year's Virgin Mobile Festival ran upwards of $100. This year, all 30,000 tickets were free. Call it a recession bonus from British billionaire and Virgin founder Richard Branson. The festival, held Aug. 30 at the Merriweather Post Pavilion outside of Baltimore, featured Blink-182, Weezer and Franz Ferdinand as headliners. Branson himself was on hand and talked to TIME about the project, the recession and Virgin's next improbable plan.
What was your reaction when Virgin Mobile came to you and told you they wanted to make this festival free?
I thought the idea was brilliant. This is the worst economic year for young people since they've been born. A lot of them are out of work, are struggling to get jobs, and quite a large number are quite literally on the street. I'm sure I gulped and then almost definitely said, "Screw it let's do it." And it's such a feel-good thing for everybody, and I think we'll raise a lot of money for young people who are living on the streets.
Are there any plans to continue the free admission in coming years?
Whether we do it again next year depends on whether the feel-good factor is strong enough to warrant the obviously enormous extra cost. At least in this particular year, it's been great to do.
What's your advice to young people trying to weather the recession?
Smile. That sounds like a pithy answer, but those people who are positive and smile are much more likely to get a job and stay in a job than those people who are feeling sorry for themselves and look like they're feeling sorry for themselves. Be positive no matter what situation you find yourself in, be positive. If you're literally out of work, keep banging on doors and carry on and on until you find something and never give up. If you're that determined, you'll be much more likely to find something. There are plenty of other people who would give in.
How's Virgin faring in the recession? Fares on international routes in particular are down across the industry.
Well, Virgin America is a great airline and we're very proud of it. If you can create the best airline in your field, it's going to do well. Long haul is tougher because business class has collapsed. But Virgin Atlantic is 25 years old this year. We've been through 9/11, SARS you name it. And fortunately we've built up the financial capabilities to deal with these tough years. We're just having to tighten the belt until the good years come again.
One initiative you've recently announced is the ability for people to tweet business plans to you. What's the thinking behind that?
There are thousands of people out there who would like to get business ideas to me, and in any one day, I'll have a pocketful of people who have done it. I have lots of letters in my pockets and I have to hope I haven't sort of washed my jeans when I get back. At least if they tweet them to us, we have a new projects team that can check them out.
Some good ideas have come to me in letters over the years. Virgin Mobile wouldn't have existed if someone hadn't shoved a letter in my hand and said that mobile-phone customers are being ripped off and that he thought he could form a mobile company in the Virgin brand. I read the letter, rang him back and now Virgin Mobile is set up in 10 countries and has done very well. It made sense to do this [on Twitter], and hopefully we won't miss the good ideas.
What's the status of Virgin Galactic, your new space-flight initiative in New Mexico? Has the recession derailed those plans at all?
Virgin Galactic is on schedule. The mother ship flew successfully at Oshkosh, Wis., and I actually flew successfully in it. The first spaceship will be unveiled in the Mojave Desert in December.
You've developed a reputation for the outlandish stunt. What's the next big idea you're pursuing?
What hasn't been explored at all is the depths of the oceans. So we're in the process of building something called Virgin Aquatic, which is going to be submarines to go 35,000 feet underwater. The oceans need exploring we know nothing about what's going on under 25,000 feet. I have an island called Necker Island and 15 miles from there is the deepest place in the whole of the Atlantic, the Puerto Rican Trench. It's quite likely that we'll set up a scientific and exploration center on Necker to send out expeditions to explore that trench and other trenches in the world.
The technical challenge is finding materials that can withstand the pressure at 35,000 feet. It's almost easier to build a spaceship to go into space than to build a vessel that can withstand the pressures at 35,000 feet. But we think we can do it.