In a strange display of awkwardness, Virgin Group unveiled its new travel Web site in New York today with founder and CEO Richard Branson and his two children, Holly and Sam, playing an ad hoc game of Twister on an impossibly large mat.
Roughly 15 feet square, the mat was decorated with the names of dozens of cities around the world, apparently meant to convey the site’s emphasis on ease and accessibility. Attendees of the event were supposed to call out major cities and have Branson and his children put their hands and feet on the appropriate circle. One journalist called out “Caracas,” to which Branson replied, “Where the f*ck is Caracas?” searching the welter of colored circles. After that, mercifully few journalists volunteered any commands, and the whole thing devolved into a posed photo shoot before any significant injuries were sustained.
The brief, quizzical intro might otherwise have been a footnote in Virgin’s 25-year history–the company celebrated its anniversary this week–if the site it was launching, Vtravelled.com, didn’t promise to be a pretty fantastic reinvention of the way we think about planning trips online. To an extent, Virgin undersold the product by giving it such a silly launch. Once you start using it, you quickly realize it is a Web tool that has never really existed before.
Vtravelled, which I can only assume was so named to confuse Americans accustomed to spelling the word “traveled” with one “L,” is a travel platform that focuses less on the ticket-buying and more on the choice of destination. Most travel sites require you to make choices about where you’re going (and when) as soon as you log on, but Vtravelled’s engine is more about location discovery. Most crucially, though, it focuses on one aspect of travel planning that has been horribly underserved: photography.
In the past, finding actual photos of the places you want to go was an exercise in Googling skills. Vtravelled has devoted much of its page real estate to large hi-res images, and even has an entire section for user-uploaded shots that are tagged by location. Sometimes, when you’re choosing places to go, photos are the very things that trigger emotional enthusiasm you need to go grab your credit card–why they’ve been so absent from other trip and travel sites is a mystery for the ages.
Another thing that Vtravelled excels at is its “wish-list” approach to travel ideas. The site is focused around something called a Trip Pod, which is where all your travel plans–real or aspirational–get put. It can serve as a list of places to see before you die, or a central hub from which several people can collaborate to plan a trip together.
What’s not quite clear about Vtravelled is how much it intends to be editor-driven. There’s a mix of content on the site–some of it from pro travel writers and photographers, and some from a small base of test users that Virgin had stocking the site before it went live today. (You can apply to provide editorial content here.) But the editor-driven content is so drastically superior to the UGC that it’ll be a wonder if the site can ever achieve parity between the two. And like any massive database, it’ll need good UGC if it ever intends to really provide deep and useful information about all the potential travel destinations in the world. In that sense, its success will still be left up to its users, no matter how good a platform Virgin has built.
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