Staff Files: Paul Sands, Head of Product & Service

By: Maxine Sheppard

June 28, 2011

In response to the popularity of our Crew Files series of interviews with our Cabin Crew, this week we’re introducing Staff Files, a regular slot where we’ll get to know the work and travel passions of some of the people who make things happen behind the scenes at Virgin Atlantic.

First up is Paul Sands, our Head of Product & Service. Paul’s been with us for many years in a variety of roles, including stints in Japan and Hong Kong. Now he’s the man responsible for…well, just about everything that you’ll experience as a Virgin Atlantic customer. No pressure, then…


Paul Sands, Virgin Atlantic's Head of Product and Service

Paul Sands, Virgin Atlantic’s Head of Product and Service


Paul, for the benefit of our readers could you explain your role at Virgin Atlantic and what you’re responsible for?

I think I have one of the best roles in our business!  My job is to head up the Customer Experience team. We work with people throughout the organisation in order to make the travel experience for our passengers as good as it can possibly be.

This means co-ordinating activity right across the customer’s journey and making sure all the pieces of the jigsaw are in place and fitting together seamlessly – everything from seats on board to inflight food to movie selection to the way check-in works to our glorious clubhouses to our wonderful cabin crew and more. We’re like a hub team who work with the experts in all these areas.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to work for Virgin Atlantic?

I joined Virgin in 1997 and worked in the Commercial department, training for a black belt in Excel spreadsheets. It was a great grounding in the economics of our business. Prior to that, I’d spent several years teaching English in Japan and this is what really made me want to find a long term role in the travel industry. I’d learned first-hand how experiencing other cultures opens up new perspectives and even more importantly brings diverse people together. Personally I think the desire to travel is hard-wired into us as human beings – it’s part of what defines us.

These days my Excel moves are a bit rusty but since my time in Commercial I’ve also worked in Hong Kong and Japan as a Country Manager, before returning to the middle and my current role in January this year.

What projects have been occupying your time most recently?

We’ve recently been introducing the first of our shiny new A330 aircraft into our fleet. Any new aircraft type requires a raft of development which can run for several years before they arrive because we’re always trying to raise the bar, and so many decisions need to be made. What kind of seats shall we put on board? Where shall we position the galleys? How much storage space do we need? How can we make this one extra special? And so on.


Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A330 'Beauty Queen'

Virgin Atlantic’s Airbus A330 ‘Beauty Queen’


With these new aircraft we’re particularly pleased with the “JAM” inflight entertainment system we’ve introduced – it presents a brand new way of interacting with the system and is chock-full of content. So far it’s getting rave reviews.

How important is design and innovation in what the Product and Service team do?

It’s hugely important. Innovation is part of our DNA, right back to when Richard Branson set up the airline in 1984. Since then we’ve introduced a catalogue of innovations from seat back TVs in every class, to Premium Economy, to the limo service for Upper Class passengers, to having spas in our Clubhouses, to the flat-bed Upper Class Suites.


Virgin Atlantic's London Heathrow Clubhouse

Virgin Atlantic’s London Heathrow Clubhouse


Design is another strand of our DNA and it’s something our customers expect from us. If you compare one of our lounges to another airline for example, it’s obvious that as well as pure functionality, a great deal of thought goes into the look and feel of the space. We have the kind of structure internally that encourages ideas, wherever they come from, and part of our responsibility is to capture the best ideas from people across the business. No ivory towers here! (But if we did have them, they’d be very well designed…)

What are some of your favourite Virgin Atlantic destinations and do you have any insider knowledge to share?

I’ve spent a lot of time now in Asia and really enjoyed both Hong Kong and Japan, so these have become two of my favourite destinations – almost second homes.


Kung Tak Lam © One Peking

Kung Tak Lam © One Peking


In Hong Kong I like nothing more than heading out for dim sum. I’m a veggie so some people assume I would struggle in Asia but actually I’ve had some of the best food in my life over there. There are many Buddhist vegetarian restaurants where the food is so good, you feel like you’ve developed Buddha’s belly by the time you leave. Pure Veggie House in Mid Levels is one of my favourites, and Kung Tak Lam in Causeway Bay and One Peking is another good one.

Another great thing to do in Hong Kong is run around in the woods! People tend to assume Hong Kong is one massive, heaving metropolis – and parts of it are, but it also has loads of green space – semi tropical trails where you can walk across the mountains for example. It’s great to get a long hike in… and earn that dim sum.


Hiking trail on Lantau Peak, Hong Kong

Hiking trail on Lantau Peak, Hong Kong


As for Japan, it’s such a diverse country that it’s difficult to know where to start, but if you’re in one of the big cities then even just people watching can be completely absorbing.

Japanese culture is so ahead of the curve in terms of fashion and personal technology, just sitting on the Yamanote Line watching your fellow passengers is fascinating. Equally, getting out to one of the brilliant galleries is sure to inspire your inner artist – I like the MORI Art Museum in Roppongi for example.


Roppongi's MORI Art Museum by docadoca on Flickr

Roppongi’s MORI Art Museum by docadoca on Flickr


If you head out of the city, then a must-do is to go to an onsen – a hot spring. Book yourself in for a night on the tatami and you’ll emerge purified in body and soul.  Oh, and if you’re in Japan in summer check out Fuji Rock Festival in Naeba. It’s in a beautiful mountain setting, gets great bands (both Western and Japanese) and even has relatively clean loos – a rarity at rock festivals.

And finally, what would be your ultimate travel adventure? I’ve travelled east a lot more than west so far, so for me an adventure-in-waiting will be to get to know more about the USA. Maybe I’ll do Route 66 and visit all the towns named in the song…driving an open topped car, country music on the radio, wearing a Stetson, you get the picture.

Alternatively I’d love to go to South America – particularly Chile for the Carmenere and ancient ruins, or right down to Patagonia to feel like I’m literally on the edge of the world. Maybe on horseback even…I guess I could get to wear my Stetson on that one too.

Thanks to docadoca on Flickr for the photo of MORI Art Museum.


Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

Categories: Our People