How Virgin Voyages is creating a rebellious twist on cruising

Tom McAlpin explains to Sam Ballard how focusing on the environment, diversity and creating unique onboard experiences will ensure Virgin Voyages surpasses expectations

How Virgin Voyages is creating a rebellious twist on cruising
Sailors will get a taste of tropical island life with late-night beach bonfires in Bimini

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

There are few launches that have caught the imagination more than that of Virgin Voyages. The project, which has been simmering away in the background for years, has got everyone talking. The fact that founder Sir Richard Branson, the enigmatic British billionaire, is leveraging his global fame certainly helps. As does the many Virgin Voyages innovations and announcements taking place just as the industry is going through a real sea change – be that reducing plastics or revolutionising restaurants and other onboard offerings. Excitement is building as the first ship, Scarlet Lady, nears her 2020 launch.

“Scarlet Lady is currently in the outfitting dock and coming along beautifully,” says Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin Voyages. “We have a fantastic team in Genoa [Italy] that will be making sure that we are in ship shape for next year. Our People team is heavily focused on recruitment right now. As we move into later this year and early 2020, we’ll be focused on training, testing and getting ourselves operationally ready. I’ve been working with Virgin Voyages for five years so it’s incredibly exciting to finally get to this point.”

Having been there since the early days, McAlpin is one of the chief architects of the Virgin Voyages’ cruise vision. The announcements, whether about the food offering or entertainment experiences with global superstars, are starting to come thick and fast as the company approaches the 2020 launch of its first ship, Scarlet Lady.

“We worked with Tom Dixon to design our RockStar suites,” says McAlpin, citing one example of how Virgin has sought the expert help of famous names in different creative industries. “He’s very much an iconic British designer and many of his designs were inspired by retro-futurism, which is taking inspiration from the past and modernising to be stylish and contemporary. Of course, the Virgin brand is rooted in music so you will see touches of this throughout Scarlet Lady. Virgin will honour that history with record players and a record collection in all RockStar Suites, a karaoke studio and music shop on Scarlet Lady, as well as with seasonal musical performances by some of the industry’s biggest stars such as Diplo. Guests will also benefit from curated music playlists throughout the ship, which were created by Mark Ronson, our ‘Minister of Music’.”

One of the most interesting things about Virgin Voyages – from an objective spectator’s point of view – is how the company is taking established elements of a cruise holiday and turning them on their heads. During a recent on-stage interview in the UK McAlpin used examples like leaving your luggage outside your cabin the night before departure as something he wants to change. Announcements on those specific topics are yet to come, but it’s clear that every aspect of the experience is being dissected.

“We’re approaching entertainment quite differently than other cruise companies,” explains McAlpin. “Rather than taking shows from land and bringing them to sea, we’re working with some of the world’s best creatives to develop completely original entertainment that could one day go from sea to land. Our ‘Creative Collective’ includes Jenny Gersten, Randy Weiner, Sam Pinkleton, Ani Taj, PigPen Theatre Co, The 7 Fingers, Roslyn Hart and Alfredo Guenzani, as well as Spark Cooperative.

“We have also designed our entertainment, which we refer to as Events & Gigs, to be a festival of choice for our sailors [the name Virgin Voyages gives to guests]. There’s nothing that is one-size-fits-all and throughout the ship there will be pop-up performances, surprises and transformative experiences. Sailors will be active participants in onboard entertainment, creating unexpected theatre that has never before brought to sea. We also won’t have a traditional cruise director on the ship; instead we’ll have a dynamic group of individuals dedicated to making ‘happenings’ around the ship completely epic.”

Restaurants will also be different to those on traditional ships. Virgin Voyages will remove buffets, dining times and assigned seats, allowing sailors to simply make a booking in their chosen restaurant.

“We’re rebellious at Virgin Voyages and we put our own twist on everything,” explains McAlpin. “Improving the onboard dining experience by making it unlike any other restaurant at sea was essential. We will have more than 20 eateries onboard Scarlet Lady, including everything from a Korean barbeque, the Test Kitchen with its surprise menu, a food hall, to experiential, vegan and haute cuisine. Each restaurant is a unique experience.”

While a lot of the focus on Virgin Voyages has been around the onboard offering, the news that the US Government is placing new travel restrictions on Cuba had significant ramifications as the country’s capital, Havana, initially featured heavily on the itinerary programme. However, Virgin Voyages has come up with some clever alternatives.

“The new itineraries will feature multiple late-night sailaways, including a midnight departure on all new sailings,” says McAlpin. “Virgin Voyages will now offer five-night Riviera Maya sailings to Cozumel in Mexico and Bimini in The Bahamas. The destination offers opportunities for sailors to experience some of the world’s best diving because the area is home to 26 coral species.”

The brand will also offer four-night ‘Fire and Sunset Soiree’ sailings, which will include a midnight departure from Key West, Florida and Bimini. Drawing inspiration from the fireball sculptures found on Branson’s own private Necker Island, Virgin Voyages will also host a late-night beach bonfire in Bimini. Everything points at a company trying to do things the right way – whether that’s through sun lotion that doesn’t damage coral reefs being available to guests, or the company being plastic- and tree-free. Virgin Voyages’ policy to operate ethically is also evident in its Scarlet Squad programme, which is designed to help it harness female talent. The squad will be bolstered by Wendy Williams, who will captain Scarlet Lady.

“Diversity and inclusion are pillars of the Virgin brand and culture engraved in our DNA, so as we build Virgin Voyages, it’s incredibly important for us to instil those same principles into our company,” says McAlpin. “Sadly, the statistic is that only 2% of the mariners working on the global fleet are women and many of these are working on cruise ships. When we heard this statistic, we knew that we needed to play an active role in being a proponent for change, so we established our Scarlet Squad programme to actively recruit, support, and mentor female seagoing talent. Ships, like everywhere on the planet, are much better when there is diversity involved.”

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By Sam Ballard
29 November 2019

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