A new idea takes flight: Firm offers blimp tours above the Strip


Travel Weekly contributing editor Amy Baratta recently floated over the Las Vegas Strip in a blimp. Her report follows:

LAS VEGAS -- The phrase "cruising the Strip" has taken on a whole new meaning here, thanks to the Lightship Group.

Since October, the London-based company, which counts Virgin's Richard Branson as an investor, has operated airship flights over the city -- a first for Las Vegas, according to Andrea Rice, general sales manager for the Lightship Group.

The A-150 vessel -- more commonly known as a blimp -- measures 165 feet long, 46 feet wide and 55 feet high and consists of an envelope, or balloon, filled with 150,000 cubic feet of helium. A couple of engines drive the entire airship, which can reach speeds of up to 63 mph.

However, during the company's sightseeing trips, which originate from the North Las Vegas Airport, the vessel generally cruises at about 20 mph, Rice said.

"We would only go the maximum speed if the airship were [traveling] from one area to another," she said, noting that the blimp did travel at top speed while it was being flown to Las Vegas from Oregon, where it was built.

The airship has an enclosed gondola that can seat up to nine people plus a pilot "or 1,300 pounds -- whichever comes first," Rice said.

Inside, the gondola is fairly roomy with four seats on either side of a small aisle that leads to the pilot and co-pilot's seats.

A co-pilot is not required for the flights, so passengers can sit next to the pilot -- the company employs two, who rotate flights -- and view the airship's control panel.

Passengers are asked to wear their seatbelts while seated, but during the flight they are allowed to get up, walk around or switch seats.

Headsets have been installed at each seat, so passengers can listen to music or to the pilot, who talks about various points of interest during the 45-minute tour.

By the end of March, passengers will be able to listen to a fully narrated tour in several different languages, according to Rice.

Word has spread slowly about the tours, which began in late October.

"When we first started out, people didn't realize you could buy a ride on [the airship]," Rice said. "They thought it was for advertising only."

That's a mistake that's easy to make, since for most of its time over the city the blimp has sported an ad for www.Vegas.com, which has a six-month advertising deal with the Lightship Group.

When it is not obligated to carry the ad, the airship touts itself, which always results in a flurry of tour bookings, she said.

"[At first], we did the press release route, but people didn't pick up on it," Rice said.

"Then after a while we had a lot of interest from the [local] media." That finally got the ball rolling -- at least for the local market.

"All of a sudden we had a huge amount of interest from the local community," she said.

"We probably get more business from local people than from [tourists]."

The company is promoting itself to concierge desks and bellmen citywide.

In fact, Rice added, the Lightship Group this month will be distributing new brochures to such locations as RV parks, hotels, casinos, car rental agencies and travel agencies.

The firm operates five flights per night Sundays through Wednesdays; a flight costs $179 per person, excluding tax.

On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, which are considered peak days, seven flights are scheduled.

They are priced at $199 per person, not including tax.

In the winter, flights begin at sunset, which occurs at about 4 p.m.

During the summer months, though, the sun does not set until 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m., so the company may add a couple of daytime excursions to its flight schedule, Rice said.

Sunset cruises are priced at $229 per person, excluding tax.

The company pays a $30 commission on each tour, no matter what the tour price.

Once purchased, the tours are nonrefundable.

However, if windy conditions force the cancellation of a flight, Rice said, passengers are offered the opportunity to reschedule the tour if their schedule permits.

If they can't reschedule, their money is refunded.

Booked passengers should call and reconfirm their flight two hours before flight time.

There is no minimum age for blimp passengers, said Rice, noting that the company does not charge for infants younger than 18 months who can sit in the lap of a parent.

However, she said, "there are no children's discounts. We don't market ourselves as a family-type attraction." Instead, the company wants to market the excursions as more of an upscale activity.

So far, at least demographically, that approach seems to have worked.

According to Rice, the blimp's passenger list has consisted mostly of couples over 40 years old.

Tour prices also include roundtrip hotel transfers from the Strip -- such nearby properties as the Rio Suite Hotel and Casino and the Las Vegas Hilton are included -- as well as downtown Las Vegas as far south as the Silverton.

However, passengers staying elsewhere should inquire about transfers, Rice said.

"If we can work it into our schedule, we'll do it," she said, noting that the approximate tour time is three hours from hotel pickup to hotel drop off.

All tours include a range of nonalcoholic beverages, which passengers can choose while they wait for their flight in the airport's Visionair terminal.

The sunset flights also include mini-bottles of champagne.

"We do have people call us from time to time asking if they can bring their own champagne [for a special occasion]," said Rice, noting that that is allowed.

The company also offers a wedding package through a local wedding chapel, she said.

"We have a group rate if [the bride and the groom] want to book the whole airship," Rice said.

"Otherwise, if they just want to bring themselves on board, then they would have to pay for an extra seat for the [officiant]."

So far, Rice noted, "we've had a number of [wedding] proposals [occur on board] but we've only hosted one wedding -- and they chartered the whole airship."

The Lightship Group
Phone: (877) LV-BLIMP or (702) 646-2888
Web: www.vegas.com

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