Will Virgin Voyages Change the Cruise Industry?

When Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, was 27, he dreamed of starting a cruise line “run by 30 year olds, where we could have a blast.” That idea got back-burnered over the decades as the Virgin Group grew to 400 companies and he launched other travel businesses, including a few airlines, a hotel company and Virgin Galactic, a venture to get people in to space.

Now, nearing the age of 70, Branson has indeed launched his cruise line, Virgin Voyages, and admits rather than being just for 30 year olds, it will have to be for those who are “young at heart.” The cruise line was six and a half years in the making.

He says through the years he never gave up on the Virgin Voyages dream, even though cruising wasn’t his preferred method of vacationing. “I've never been on cruise ship. I've never fancied a cruise ship,” said Branson at a recent New York media event. “But that's the kind of reason why Virgin goes into something, to try to create a cruise experience completely different from what anybody else is doing.”

On his first ship, the Scarlett Lady, Branson promises “no buffets” and tables strong enough to dance on. He’s considering a special spin on room service (details to come later this year) and he’s got his own private island on which to entertain his cruise customers (or as he calls them, “sailors”).

Sir Richard Branson and Tom McAlpin

Tom McAlpin is the president and CEO of Virgin Voyages; he previously ran The World, a privately owned residential ship and served at Disney Cruises for 15 years, nearly five of those as president.

He says Virgin Voyages’ tagline, "Epic Sea Change for All" aims to change the customer experience on a cruise line, as well as that of the line’s travel partners (he calls them “first mates”). The Virgin Group’s overall mantra is “Changing Business for Good” and that will carry through in the way Virgin Voyages treats its community, its crew and the oceans it sails on.

“We want to create that culture and create an environment that not only hires the best people and trains them, but treats them like family, because we want them to stay with us,” McAlpin told press at the New York gathering.

He said inclusive pricing will cover service charges, Wi-Fi and basic beverages like soda, teas and drip coffee, as well as still and sparkling water. 

Virgin Voyages will not charge direct gratuities, because it will pay its crew a salary that gives them more stability in their earnings. He says Virgin Voyages has surveyed its crew and they’ve told them it’s important that they have an easy way to communicate with their families back home. “We want them to stick around,” said McAlpin.

A “Scarlet Squad” program will focus on gender equality as a way to get more women involved in the cruise line; research shows that women fill just three percent of the maritime and technical roles in the cruise industry. Recruitment, career development and mentoring for women are some of the initiatives in that program.

Reservations opened for the cruise line in February and are available directly through the line's website, through a call center in Plantation, FL and via travel advisors. Virgin has already partnered up with Virtuoso as a preferred partner.

“We love the travel trade, and we expect to get a significant amount of bookings from them,” said McAlpin. “It's a great way to help us spread word of mouth, because we're a startup company.” In fact, he says that Virgin has “created a structure of commissions that is unlike anything that's out there today.”

Children under 18 will not be allowed on the ship, although Branson joked that he’s pushing to get that lowered to 16, as he left school to start his business at the age of 15. “I would have hated to be called at kid when I was 16," he told New York media.

McAlpin, who insisted the age would be 18, said Virgin Voyages is intent on creating a sophisticated experience that will give parents a holiday away from their kids.

“We have found a way to create a much more elegant and sophisticated experience where our sailors can detox and retox, have a good time, get away, rejuvenate, [and] have a transformational experience. And that's hard to do when you've got little ones running around,” said McAlpin. “I've done some personal research and found that when you put kids in the pool, they scream. And we don't want that. We don't want kids running up and down the hallway at midnight."

Entertainment promises to be different, as well. Rather than Broadway productions, the line is creating a series of events and “gigs” for guests with entertainers who have never worked on cruise lines before and who have been given a lot of creative freedom. The main theater can be divided into four setups that allow people to be spectators, to participate in an event or be immersed in a unique experience. There will be DJ stands, intimate show, concerts, dance parties and even dodge ball at 1 a.m.

As for cuisine, there will be no main dining hall, no assigned seating or dress codes. About 20 eateries will provide food that ranges from authentic Mexican to Korean barbecue to a food truck lineup. Venues will have extended hours to accommodate those with “late night munchies.” A “glamorous brunch” will serve those who have slept past breakfast hours. McAlpin says there won’t be additional surcharges for any of the restaurants.

For her inaugural season in 2020, from April 1 through October 21, the Scarlet Lady will sail four- and five-night cruises to the Caribbean, going to Havana, Cuba; Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, and Costa Maya, Mexico.

“Our sailors told us they want to have an authentic experience where they can engage with the locals, so we're doing it,” said McAlpin. “And they want to be able to have dinner and to enjoy the nightlife so each sailing will have either have an overnight or a late night in one of our ports of call.”

Another itinerary stop? Branson is creating his own private island, The Beach Club at Bimini, in Bimini, Bahamas, promising DJs, great food and drink and a sophisticated vibe that’s modeled after the best beach clubs in the Mediterranean, said Branson.

“There will be great food—no buffets—and an amazing soundtrack. Because what really brings a beach club to life is the music, because people like to have energy,” said Branson. “And, obviously, our Virgin brand has a huge history in music, so we're thinking very carefully about the music program here. Another thing we're announcing today actually is that we're establishing a residency program for DJs at the beach club, and the first DJ will be the one and only Mark Ronson; he'll be playing four times."

Part of the Virgin Group’s ethos is environmental sustainability and for that reason the company is developing a sun cream that doesn’t kill reefs; it will be readily available to all customers on Virgin Voyages. Other programs include collaborations with technology companies to take heat from the ship’s engines and turn it into clean energy.

All single-use plastics are banned from Virgin Voyages; this includes straws, drink stirrers and individual serving packets for utensils.

Plastic water bottles won’t be used; instead, filtered water-dispensing stations will be located throughout the ship.

Including water and other amenities is part of Virgin Voyages’ “rebellious” attitude, said Branson. In developing the brand, he said, the company looked at things that could be considered bothersome when traveling.

“When you have a luxurious experiences, you want to get rid of annoyances. We talked about gratuities and that all the restaurant cover charges would be included. Unlimited Wi-Fi will also be included on our fares,” said Branson. He joked that all this means that Virgin shareholders won’t make any money, but “we’ll get there.”

All told, Branson says including these amenities means the customer will be able to enjoy their cruise a lot more.

“You won't have to worry as much about your vacation. You can probably think more about if the table in front of you is safe to dance on,” said Branson, noting that as the years have gone by, he’s learned to double-check whether a table can withstand dancing before he gets on it.

Along those lines, Branson, who officially turns 70 next year, is throwing himself a birthday bash in July by renting out part of the ship. He says he will get to stay in the ship’s Mega Rock Star Suite, which has a table fit for dancing. It actually has stairs going up it to make it easier to get on, he said.

Pricing for Virgin Voyage has been set the way Branson set pricing for his Virgin Atlantic airline, where the customer feels they’re getting "a first-class experience with business-class pricing."

McAlpin cited the example of a veranda cabin for a five-night cruise having a base price of about $3,000 for two. An inside room would cost $1,500. And that Rock Star Suite? $28,000 for four nights.

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