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What an Experience!
Virgin Experience Days
Member Name: collingwood21
Virgin Experience Days
Advantages: Great choice of activities, Good quality service, Easy to order and book, Fun
Disadvantages: Might have to wait several weeks for your experience after booking
- Drive (e.g. 4x4 off road driving, drive an Aston Martin)
- Fly (e.g. gliding lesson, hot air balloon flight)
- Pamper (e.g. photo shoot, makeover)
- Adrenaline (e.g. bungee jump, paintballing)
- Discover (e.g. cowboy adventure, big cat encounter)
- Splash (e.g. learn to surf, coasteering)
- Virgin World (e.g. Virgin active, Virgin wine)
- Gourmet (e.g. chocolate making workshop, cookery course)
- Culture (e.g. dinner on the Thames, murder mystery)
- Junior (e.g. fairy school experience, first drive)
- Unusual (e.g. ghost hunting, name a rose)
My experience with them falls into two perspectives: I have both given and received an experience day.
*Buying an Experience for Someone Else*
Back in early 2007, I was struggling to find a birthday present for Other Half. I was browsing through the list of gift retailers on Greasy Palm as a source of inspiration, when I struck upon one of the many "gift experience" companies listed. I had never considered using such a company before (I think I just assumed everything would be vastly expensive) and what immediately leapt out at me was a falconry experience, something that I was sure would appeal to Other Half. The only problem was, this particular gift cost somewhere in the region of £120, which was rather more than I was able to spend at that point. Not to be put off, I tried several other gift experience companies, and found just what I was looking for on Virgin Experience Days - a half day falconry experience costing £76, available close to where I was living, and which I would also get Greasy Palm cash-back with (this is now £79 and does not appear to be listed on GP any more, although you can still earn ipoints at a generous rate of 12 per £1 spent). Although this was still an expensive gift, when it was split between me and my parents, it became affordable. I was also happy to choose Virgin Experience Days because I trusted the brand, having had previous good experiences with various sections of Sir Richard Branson's empire, and because it had good nationwide coverage (some companies I looked at had quite a limited range of activity centres outside of Southern England - hardly useful when you live in Newcastle upon Tyne).
Once I had chosen the experience I wanted to buy, it was simply a matter of going through a simple checkout operation to order it, and then waiting for the gift pack to arrive (delivery costs £1.75 for ordinary Royal Mail delivery, or you can pay an extra £6 to have it sent out by Special Delivery). I received my gift pack less than a week after ordering; it comes in a smart silver A5 sized wallet containing the gift voucher, a brochure describing the experience and how to book it, insurance information, and a list of all centres offering that particular experience. You just give the wallet to the lucky recipient and it is up to them to chose their centre, book their experience directly with the centre at a time that suits them, then turn up with their voucher on the day. The voucher is valid for 9 months from the date of issue, so there is plenty of time for the recipient to be able to book their experience; should any problems arise though, the date on the voucher can be extended for a further 9 months for a fee of £20. There are some minor restrictions on some experiences (e.g. age or height restrictions for legal or safety reasons), but these are made clear when you purchase. If you have any questions about the suitability of an experience for someone, you can phone customer services on 0845 330 5115 to discuss it.
The day itself was actually around 6 months after his birthday due to us only being able to go at the weekends, a hectic social schedule, heavy booking demands at the chosen centre, and one cancelation due to bad weather conditions. This might be something to keep in mind if you are choosing an experience for a child - while (most) adults won't mind in the slightest having to wait to have their experience some weeks or months after the occasion they were given it for, some children may find this frustrating. I accompanied Other Half to the bird of prey centre in Kielder forest, Northumberland, hopeful that I would be able to observe and take a few photos, but unfortunately that was not possible for that particular experience at that particular centre - although the staff did take some wonderful photos for me of Other Half holding and flying a variety of the centre's birds. He thoroughly enjoyed himself during his experience, and I was very happy that we got good value for money from this present. As long as you know someone well enough to choose something they would enjoy doing (and if you are spending this sort of money, I doubt it will be for someone you barely know) then it is highly recommended as a special gift.
*Receiving an Experience*
Having enjoyed his Virgin Experience Day so much, Other Half kept it in mind to give me something memorable for my 30th birthday last September. It is quite exciting to be given one of the silver wallets, then opening it up to see which experience you have been given - and in my case, it was a trial flying lesson (I won't be rude enough to look up the cost on the website, so if you want to know, just go to the web address at the bottom of this review and search for "discovery flying lesson"). He had remembered that I had always fancied learning to fly, and this taster session would give me a 60 minute introductory lesson that included 30 minutes flying time - brilliant! As luck would have it, the nearest flying school on the activity centre list was at Gloucestershire Airport, which was just a 15 minute drive from where we live. I phoned them a couple of days after my birthday to arrange my experience and found it a very easy process; I explained that I had been given a Virgin voucher, gave the voucher number and my details, and was given a date on a Sunday morning about 6 weeks later. As we discovered earlier, if you are limited to taking up your experience on a weekend, then you might have to be prepared to wait a while to have it. Due to the nature of the experience, the flight was also weather dependent, and so I was asked to phone the flying school about half an hour before my lesson began to check it was good enough to fly.
On the day itself, I was up early and eagerly checking the weather, hoping that it would be OK to fly. It was an overcast day, but the cloud level was high and it wasn't windy so I felt hopeful when I rang the flying school - and got the OK to come in. I arrived at the school shortly before my lesson began to fill out the requisite paperwork and hand over my voucher, then I was introduced to my instructor. The lesson began with her taking me into a quiet office and going through some of the basics with me. She first established what experience I had of flying (well, I had been on holiday abroad a few times...), so she knew at what level to pitch the lesson at. As a complete novice, I was taken through the basic controls of an aircraft, using a model to illustrate the effects of the main control stick and pedals, so that I understood what we would be doing when we got in the air. She told me not to worry about the switches and dials in aircraft, and instead get a feel for moving it around by looking out of the window and referring to the horizon. When she was happy I had got to grips with this, she went to complete the necessary paperwork for taking the plane out, while Other Half and I watched planes taking off and landing on the runway outside. This was the first time I had been near small aircraft, and I began to feel slightly nervous when I saw just how small, well, flimsy they looked!
As Other Half had come with me, my instructor was happy to let him come down and have a look at the plane, a Cessna 152, while she prepared us to fly. I thought this was a nice touch, and helped make the whole experience friendly and enjoyable. Once he had retreated back to the car park, I clambered into the tiny cabin and was shown how to adjust my seat and strap myself in - as this was only a two-seater aircraft, it was one of those rare occasions when it is an advantage to be short, LOL. The cabin really was far smaller than I had imagined: imagine yourself inside a small car where you both have pedals and a steering wheel, and you will get some idea of what I mean. The engine was also really loud, so you need to wear a headset to both protect your ears and to be able to communicate clearly with the other person in the cockpit. The instructor did all the pre-flight checks, explaining to me what she was doing and why, and double-checking that everything was ready before we got onto the runway. A warning had come over the radio that a weather front was approaching the airport, but she decided from what we could see on the ground that it would be fine for a 30 minute flight. She gently pulled the throttle out and we began to race along the runway before pulling up into the air.
As we took off, my nerves at being airborne in something so small came back once more, especially the great sensation of movement you get in such a small aircraft, but that soon eased when I started enjoying the view - we could actually see the wall of cloud that formed the weather front moving slowly in, which is apparently very unusual, and certainly a dramatic sight that I won't forget in a hurry. It was still calm and clear enough for us to continue enjoying our flight, and we began to fly over Cheltenham and the surrounding countryside. Once we were settled onto a flight path, it was my turn to take the controls. First, while carefully noting our position against the horizon, I descended and then ascended again to get the hang of the first aspect of controlling the plane. Levelling out, I then was asked to turn to the right. This sounds easy, but when you turn in a plane, the plane banks and this feels really weird the first time you do it, a bit like being on a rollercoaster - so you soon learn to keep it slow and steady so you don't leave your stomach behind! We practiced making turns and then coming back to a straight line until the instructor told me to look outside...where we were flying over my block of flats, a very nice touch indeed. With rain now starting to fall, we finished the lesson and headed back to the airport. My instructor landed the plane, explained about taxiing, then gave me a chance to try it out. This is done via the pedals, which can move the plane left or right, and also brake it on one side or the other, and I was allowed to do it up to the final parking of the plane, where she took over again. We returned to the flying school and this ended my experience....with a big grin on my face.
Virgin Experience Days are both wonderful to give and receive. To be on the receiving ended of such a gift experience is nothing short of fantastic - it was the chance to try out something I had long wanted to do and might not otherwise ever have actually done. The thought of making an approach to a flying school about trial lessons and costs is a bit intimidating (and I wouldn't really know where to begin if I were to book a falconry session independently), but Virgin Experience Days make it easy to access these things, with quality experiences at a range of prices (a lot of which are under £100). Their range of activities and centres offering them is huge, and both our experiences were so positive that I can do nothing but highly recommend this company to anyone wanting to give someone the gift of memories or treat themselves to something they will never forget. The only downside I can think of is that I want to fly again and can't afford it!
Summary: An excellent gift experience company
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