Face to face: British Airways gives 1,000 free tickets to entrepreneurs


British Airways is definitely on to something here. I don’t know if it’s good marketing, good PR, good business or what. But it’s definitely good karma. And I got a taste of it last week in New York and London.

You may have heard by now about British Airways new Face-to-Face program. The carrier is hoping to prime the pump of international business travel by giving entrepreneurs free tickets anywhere the world it flies. The hope is that these business owners will come back to BA and buy more tickets if this opportunity to show up in person for a crucial meeting helps them realize a big gains for their companies.

In July, BA put out a call to small business owners in the U.S. asking for essays on how face-to-face meetings could help grow their enterprises. Now, nearly 1000 essayists have won a free roundtrip anywhere in the world BA flies. There’s only one small catch: winners must start their journeys on one of three flights departing for London from New York, Los Angeles or Chicago this fall.

I was invited to observe and report on the first of these three flights (departing New York on Sept. 15), and the events surrounding it.

I’ve been writing about business travel for almost 20 years and I have to say that I’ve never experienced anything quite like this.

First off, when I arrived at Kennedy Airport on the morning of our departure, I was expecting a small reception and an unsold seat on one of BA’s regularly scheduled flights.

I forgot that the Brits rarely do anything in a small way. I walked in BA’s Terraces Lounge and found a huge, catered breakfast reception with none other than London’s new towheaded mayor, Boris Johnson. Talking about the importance of personal relationships in business, he wondered aloud, “how would history have recounted the end of the Civil War had generals Grant and Lee exchanged letters rather than sitting down [face-to-face] at Appomattox?”

The lounge was full of about 200 bright-eyed entrepreneurs grabbing some nosh, and checking each other out. Most were still clearly in a state of disbelief that they really won this thing and that they’d soon be boarding a London-bound jet, free.

Out the lounge window was not a scheduled flight, at a Boeing 747-400 charter ready to whisk us across the pond. Airport authorities allowed a few of us to venture out on the tarmac to view the big bird that had been painted with the words “Face-to-Face.” (See Video)

Seats were assigned by lottery — I was hoping for a nice big first class cocoon, but I ended up with a seat in the World Traveler Plus section…what most other airlines call premium economy.

That seat turned out to be just fine for this unusual, extremely social flight. I was smack in the middle of the plane, which was a perfect position for observing the whole festive scene. Everyone was up and about talking, networking, checking out the various cabins (there were no restrictions on where you could go on this flight) and enjoying the free-flowing champagne.

On most international flights, nearly every business traveler has tunnel vision and big barriers up. Conversation and conviviality are rare onboard. This was the complete opposite. Every entrepreneur on this flight had a great story to tell about their business, where they were going and why. Plus, they were all eager to learn everyone else’s story. (Even the flight crew was amazed at the mood of this flight— See video)

I felt right at home and fit in nicely with this crowd, because I run a successful small business too, writing and consulting about the travel industry.

Our daylight flight departed New York at 10 a.m. and arrived at Heathrow’s enormous, new Terminal 5 at about 10 p.m. We sped through immigration, and then walked to the brand new Sofitel, attached to the terminal by a skyway. There our rooms as well as a champagne and canapé reception awaited. By this time, entrepreneurial camaraderie was at its peak, and everyone had found new friends and contacts and business cards were flying like confetti.

The next day, BA had a breakfast and motivational morning program set up for our group, with presentations by colorful British entrepreneurs and BA CEO Willie Walsh among others. (See Video for snippets.)

After that, most had to hustle back to their rooms to pack up and catch their connecting flights to their crucial meetings in Shanghai, Rome, Sydney, Nigeria, Ireland, and Germany…really all over the world. (See video for an interview with two of the lucky winners who were taking off for Sydney, Australia to clinch a deal.)

If you feel like you missed out, don’t fret. There’s second phase to the Face-to-Face program. BA will be offering “Business Opportunity Grants” offering 100 small businesses TEN free round trip business class tickets to be used in 2010. See www.ba.com/facetoface.