This article was first published in Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
Tom McAlpin is no stranger to the cruise industry. With 30 years’ experience behind him, half of which was focused on starting up Disney Cruise Line, he is well placed in his role as president and CEO of Virgin Voyages (VV).
Designed to deliberately steer away from the traditional cruise, the new VV brand is already building the first of three adults-only ships. Although limiting the target audience cuts out a whole swathe of potential customers, McAlpin is confident that adults-only has a secure place in the industry.
“As a boutique player, it’s not only what you will add, but also what you will give up in order to solidify a place in the market,” he says. “In speaking to our sailors (Virgin’s name for passengers), we found that they want an adult programme and an elevated experience, without the risk or unpredictability of children. We want to offer a romantic, sophisticated experience.”
Field and focus group research with target customers and travel and trade suppliers showed overwhelming support for the business model. “It was a bold decision and people are saying we’ll lose a lot of business,” McAlpin says. “Maybe, but now we can charge a premium.”
When it comes to the prospective sailors, McAlpin believes VV will not only attract many existing cruisers, but also non-cruisers and current Virgin customers. At the keel-laying of the first of three 110,00gt, 2,700-passenger ships at a cost of US$2.55 billion, owner Richard Branson announced VV was open for business and that people could pay a US$500 deposit to join the pre-sale list. “The take-up has been more than we were expecting,” comments McAlpin. “We’ll primarily market in the US, Canada and UK.”
The thought processes behind the new brand are key. “Virgin asked: how do you get into a business, to find opportunities, to service a type of customer or mindset not being addressed at that time?” explains McAlpin. “If you look at what Virgin did early on in its business, it was fun and different. With bigger and bigger ships coming on stream, the cruise lines are trying to appeal to a broader section of the population, including families, adults, seniors and everything in between. It is an experience that tends to be more generic.
“We see an opportunity for a segment that is more flexible, more hip, more cool, like the Virgin lifestyle brand. Our target market is ‘young at heart’, so there is no specific age group. It has a mindset of looking for something different. Our product will be different in everything we do, from the entertaining to programming, and more.”
Extending the Virgin theme of differentiation, the newbuilds are to be called ‘Lady Ships’. UK-based superyacht designer RWD and Magpie Studios are working on the hull design, while the interiors will be tackled by several international designers, none of whom have worked on ships before. They include Roman and Williams, Concrete Amsterdam, Design Research Studio, Softroom, WORKac, Knibb, HL Studios, HKS and Pearson Lloyd. The project will be coordinated by Giacomo Mortola, architect and founder of Gem SRL.
There will be both contemporary and fun spaces on the ships. “We’ll have to add a little bit of eclecticism to the ships,” says McAlpin. “We want to celebrate the sea, while making them flexible so guests feel like they’re at home, but also in a big city. If you’re on a ship you want to see those fantastic views, be close to the water and get a feel of the ocean. Hence, 93% of cabins will have an ocean view and 86% a sea terrace. Our ship design has no big gimmicks or tricks, but a great structure where we can provide experiences.”
The environment is also a key concern, according to McAlpin. “Richard [Branson] has always focused on ocean preservation, so it’s only natural that we have one of the cleanest ships at sea.”
As well as installing the latest technology, such as LED lights and induction cooking, VV is working with Climeon of Sweden to use heat waste to create clean energy. It’s also developing technologies with Scanship to create fuel by treating waste. “I don’t know if we’ll be successful, but it’ll be pretty cool if we can make it work,” comments McAlpin.
Although the company considered using LNG, it eventually opted to fit Wärtsilä scrubbers to clean emissions. “LNG is completely plausible for companies that have 20-30 ships and can operate one or two using LNG where the fuel is available, but having 100% of the fleet [powered by LNG] doesn’t make sense as it’s a challenge without a readily available fuel source,” McAlpin explains.
Beyond the ships, the crew will be essential to making the brand a success. “Our brand purpose is an ‘epic sea change for all’ and the crew fit very well into our overarching brand purpose because they deliver the service,” remarks McAlpin. “We’ll hire the best inside and outside the industry and we’ll take great care of them. We hire for attitude and mindset.”
VV spoke to existing crew members from different brands to understand their needs. Privacy and communication came out as being important. “We’re building higher numbers of private cabins with shared bathrooms,” says McAlpin. “We’ll also make communicating back home easier.”
McAlpin is only too aware that this brand launch comes with high expectations, and hence pressures. Building a new ship is a tremendous amount of work in itself, but simultaneously launching a new brand means the team is facing everything for the first time in one go. “This is what I call a big bang,” says McAlpin. “It has to work on day one as a lot of eyes are looking at us. We’ll take time when the ship is delivered to train the crew and show the ship off.”
Summing up his part in making the new venture successful, McAlpin concludes: “It ain’t my first rodeo.”
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