Craig Curran, an accredited travel agent for Virgin Galactic, the world’s first space tourism business, has sold exactly two tickets since getting the job in early 2011. And one of those tickets was to himself.
To be fair, it’s not easy selling $200,000 tickets (with a $20,000 deposit payable up front) for a suborbital day cruise in which the inaugural flight hasn’t even been announced yet. It’s basically selling a promise for something that will probably happen in the vague near future. But as Curran, 54, prefers to think of it, his customers are “investing in the birth of an industry.” They’re not investors in the literal sense. “They’re not getting shares or a piece of the company,” he clarifies. “But they are trail-blazers. They’ll be among the first 500 civilians to leave the earth’s atmosphere.”
Before Curran was picked to join Virgin Galactic’s global sales team—he’s one of only 140 agents worldwide—the 30-year travel agent vet from Rochester, N.Y., had to prove that he has, as Tom Wolfe might say, the right stuff. In addition to marketing plans and a résumé, he was asked to demonstrate an “enthusiasm for space travel.” And how does one demonstrate such a thing? “I explained to them that I’ve been a passenger in fighter jets at air shows,” Curran says. “I own a Ferrari. I’ve gone to high-speed driving schools. I like guns. I’m mechanically inclined and scientifically wired.” In other words, he represents the type of person who’d feasibly spend big money to be shot 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.
Finding customers—the gun-toting, science-loving, Ferrari-driving people like Curran—has been a unique challenge. It’s not like it was back in Curran’s travel agent heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, when customers would actively seek him out. For space tourism, he’s had to be creative. “I do speaking engagements,” he says. “I’ll speak in front of anybody who’ll have me.” He gives presentations about Virgin Galactic for country clubs and socials groups across upstate New York. He’ll even be traveling to the U.K. in July for the Farnborough International Airshow, where he’ll join Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin empire, and several other “future astronauts” to meet with potential customers.
But the best networking opportunities, Curran says, come in unexpected places. During a recent visit to Las Vegas, he was playing poker at the Wynn Hotel when the subject of space travel came up. “I took out my iPhone and showed [the other players] pictures of the SpaceShipTwo,” he says. “I showed them pictures of me and Richard Branson shaking hands, and it was the talk of the table.” He ended up meeting a potential customer—the managing director of a “very large firm involved in capital markets” that he declines to name. He didn’t make a sale (yet), but he still considers it an important lesson. “You just never know where you’re going to make that important connection,” he says.
Curran is paid by Virgin on commission, and while he won’t reveal the exact percentage, he does admit that “it’s a very small commission. It’s probably a token. I’m not making a living at this.” Not that he’s complaining. He’s well aware that he’s on the ground floor of an industry in its infancy. “We’re in the startup phase,” he says. “The industry doesn’t technically exist, so the compensation model doesn’t exist. We don’t know definitively what the market looks like yet.”
He may have the sales record of a space tourism Willy Loman, but his confidence in Virgin Galactic’s future in unwavering. “This is going to happen,” he says. “And someone is going to handle this business. This is not about selling tickets; it’s about something much bigger. I am a part of a new industry. Can you imagine if you were smart enough to see where the automobile industry was going in the early 20th century and you locked up dealerships before they started mass-producing the Model T?”
“I’ve seen these ships,” he continues, with a conviction that’s infectious. “I’ve seen the SpaceShipTwo. I’ve watched the White Knight Two fly. I’ve touched them. It’s going to happen.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.)