Richard Branson hopes to beat

Jeff Bezos

into space this Sunday with the sort of high-profile act that made the British billionaire famous and helped him build his Virgin Group into a global brand.

Back on the ground, Mr. Branson’s business empire—straddling airlines, cruise ships, hotels and gyms—is trying to recover from the economic hit that many tourism and travel-focused businesses have suffered during the pandemic.

Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc.,

SPCE 4.18%

the space-tourism company that will take Mr. Branson on its first fully crewed space flight this weekend, and his satellite-launch company, Virgin Orbit, have been bright spots. They have been his main focus for several years, according to people familiar with the matter.

The launch, assuming no weather or technical issues, is scheduled nine days before Mr. Bezos, the Amazon.com Inc. founder, is slated to be part of the first crew carried by his own space-tourism company, Blue Origin LLC. The rival launches highlight the competition that could unfold in the coming years between billionaires to carry fee-paying passengers to the edge of space. SpaceX, the rocket company led by Tesla Inc. Chief Executive

Elon Musk,

plans this year to carry paying passengers higher still.

The billionaire founders of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will both be on board as the companies send their vessels to the edge of space. But their spacecraft, flight logistics and altitudes have some differences. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

Mr. Branson, 70 years old, has for years brought global attention to his businesses on the back of publicity-grabbing stunts, establishing a risk-taking, flamboyant persona that is a key part of the brand. Mr. Branson’s participation in the launch is a marketing opportunity but also important for assuring future paying customers that the flight is safe, said Will Whitehorn, a former senior Virgin executive who has discussed the flight with Mr. Branson.

“Nobody will feel confident in his commercial space flights if he is unwilling to do it himself,” said Mr. Whitehorn, who is also the president of UKspace, a trade association for British space companies. Virgin Galactic says its tickets have sold for $250,000 each, and the company has collected $80 million in sales and deposits.

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Virgin Group declined to make Mr. Branson available for this story. A spokesman said Mr. Branson’s trip was always planned as part of Virgin Galactic’s test-flight program, and that the timing close to Mr. Bezos’ flight was a coincidence. Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration granted approval of Virgin’s full commercial space-launch license, opening the door for outside passengers to join flights.

Mr. Branson is no stranger to taking personal risks. In 1998, he attempted to be the first to fly a hot-air balloon around the world but crash landed near Hawaii. A 1985 attempt at the fastest Atlantic crossing ended with his vessel capsizing, though he would later break that record.

Other stunts were more directly aimed at advertising businesses. He drove a tank into Times Square to bring attention to his attempt to start a cola company, and has been photographed in a bridal gown, drag and wearing only a pair of Union Jack boxer shorts to advertise other ventures.

These days, Mr. Branson spends more of his time on his private island in the British Virgin Islands than in front of cameras and corporate boards, according to people familiar with the matter. A spokeswoman said that while Mr. Branson takes an active interest in Virgin Group, day-to-day management is now led by an executive team, allowing its founder to spend more time on philanthropic causes.

Many of Mr. Branson’s businesses have been hit hard by the drop-off in demand for travel that walloped the industry early last year, and has only come back in fits and starts in much of the world. Mr. Branson has said the pandemic represents the biggest challenge to his businesses in his five decades of working.

The entrepreneur’s flagship airline, Virgin Atlantic Airways, had to raise $1.5 billion to stave off bankruptcy, while another carrier, Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd., was rescued by private-equity firm Bain Capital. Virgin Voyages, a cruise line that Mr. Branson partly owns, had just taken delivery of its first vessel when the pandemic brought that industry to a halt.

Virgin Active, the gym operator Mr. Branson’s group owns 20% of, lost over a quarter of its members last year and posted a £13.1 million loss, equivalent to about $18 million, according to recent accounts from its parent company.

Virgin Group has also warned that the pandemic would likely affect the lucrative business of leasing out the Virgin brand to other companies. Those royalties totaled £72 million in 2019, according to its most recent accounts. Overall, Mr. Branson and Virgin Group have committed more than $390 million to support the business through the crisis.

As vaccination rates rise in many Western countries, and economies recover, Mr. Branson’s businesses are preparing to make their own comebacks.

Next week, Virgin Atlantic will restart regular operations at London Heathrow Airport after a pause of over a year. The carrier has restructured its operations, boosted its cargo network and opened new connections to try to weather the collapse in passengers.

Virgin Voyages, the cruise operator, will launch a series of limited journeys from Britain starting in early August, before its first U.S. sailing in October. Virgin Hotels in the U.S. is now receiving guests again.

Through the pandemic, Mr. Branson’s space ventures have racked up some notable wins. Virgin Orbit had a successful test launch of one of its satellite-carrying rockets in January. The Wall Street Journal first reported that the company is planning to go public this year through a special-purpose acquisition company, aiming for a valuation of up to $3 billion, according to people familiar with the matter.

The interior of the craft that will take Mr. Branson to space.



Photo:

Virgin Galactic/Zuma Press

Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, has remained an investor favorite. Shares in the company are now worth almost four times the price at which they listed in October 2019, valuing the company at almost $11.6 billion. Mr. Branson owns a quarter of the company.

Mr. Branson’s interest in the commercialization of space goes back to at least 1995 and a chat with Buzz Aldrin—who took part in the U.S.’s first mission to the moon—in a bar in Marrakesh, Morocco, according to Mr. Whitehorn, the former Virgin executive.

Mr. Branson quizzed Mr. Aldrin about why the U.S. had used large rockets and not planes or balloons for the first stage of space flight, Mr. Whitehorn, who was present, said. A representative for Mr. Aldrin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Branson’s launch is using planes, with a space-launch vehicle being ferried part of the way under the wing of a separate jet. The capsule detaches and then climbs to an altitude of above 50 miles.

Write to Alistair MacDonald at [email protected]

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