Virgin Voyages will host nightly bonfire “fireball ritual” experiences on the beach before guests return to the ship for sailaway
Developing an itinerary involves almost everyone in a cruise company in some way, says Diana Block, senior vice president of revenue, sales and itineraries at Virgin Voyages. At Virgin, it begins with a planning team gathering information on whether it is worthwhile operating in a region, and then developing the customer experience and carrying out market research.
Bimini in The Bahamas, which has recently opened for cruising, is one place that Virgin researched and considered extensively for its itinerary value. The cruise line’s first ship Scarlet Lady will visit the island on all its Caribbean voyages, with sailors (Virgin’s term for guests) having the exclusive opportunity to sunbathe, swim and party at The Beach Club at Bimini.
“Virgin Voyages Beach Club at Bimini is a marquee moment of a Virgin cruise experience and is unique to our brand,” says Block. “We want to include it on every single itinerary, especially at the end as it allows us to finish journeys on a high.”
Delivering unique Virgin experiences for guests is what the cruise line is known for, and its cruises to Bimini will be no different.
“One of our secrets is that the itinerary team also manages our shore experiences,” says Block. “The way we differentiate ourselves is by delivering a very distinct shore experience so we can go to the same place as other cruise lines and offer something unique.
“We share our vision about authenticity, small groups and intrinsic value with tour operators so we can work with them to create our own curated experiences. We require some to be solely unique to Virgin Voyages so they can’t be replicated, for example, in Bimini, we have someone teach guests how to make Bimini bread. It’s not so much about the port itself, it’s more about finding a place where we can offer experiences that we think are going to be really compelling.”
Block has been in the industry for over 20 years and knows how important an itinerary is to people when booking a cruise. While working on Virgin’s itineraries, she has focused on ensuring that there is more time in port and offering rich experiences as opposed to making them a box-ticking exercise.
“Our branding is important because what we’re providing onboard is different from anything else that exists in the cruise industry,” says Block. “This is such a unique and upscale product for our passengers to enjoy, wherever they go. The itinerary is always going to be important, and we spend a lot of time and energy on it.”
Virgin’s Scarlet Lady is starting out with four to five itineraries in the Caribbean, departing from Miami, Florida. “The decision for this was very intentional because it helps to bring people into the brand and understand it,” says Block. “We believe that once they come and experience the product, they’re going to want to come back again. Therefore, we’re growing our itineraries on our second ship, Valiant Lady, so there will be six, seven and eight-night sailings – and we will do the same for our third ship Resilient Lady.
“As we start looking at additional itineraries, we might go broader, more exotic and longer. It’s all about building the brand from scratch, so we started with something a little simpler because we wanted to really focus on bringing people into the brand. Once people realise they like the brand, they’re going to want to go to other places too.”
Listening to customers’ feedback and being open to continual improvement is important to see what works and how to build the perfect itinerary, says Block. She is happy with how her team has designed itineraries but points out that they will continue to refine and tweak them to keep them fresh and exciting.
Virgin’s approach to setting a week-long itinerary, which includes late night and overnight stays, is to make sure that it delivers an experience where no evening is wasted.
“We look at places where there’s great dining and nightlife for people who want to stay late,” says Block. “Our selections fall into two categories, we’re either choosing a place to stay late that gives people enough time to go to a major city and come back, or we’re doing an overnight in a place where the action is right near the ship’s dock.
“I see itineraries as a series of destinations, and when we’re looking at a region, we zone in on the one that we think delivers on late night and overnight experiences. Not every port needs to have that because we have such amazing experiences onboard the ship at night and we don’t want sailors to miss those either. It requires a bit of balancing.”
With a fourth ship expected to be delivered in 2023, Block is already starting to look at new itineraries. “With our first ship, Scarlet Lady, we had five ports to develop,” she says. “Now we’re getting more ambitious, so we’re looking at ideas of itineraries for maybe 40 ports, all the while focusing on getting some really interesting options and variety.”
This article was first published in the 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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