Inside Virgin Voyages, the cruise ships that want to make sea travel cool again
Cruise travel is typically thought to be more appealing to families and older travelers—and for good reason as they are convenient for groups and parties looking for less hassle with little planning required beyond the reservation. Cruise guests can select an itinerary, and have little to worry about after that as far as logistics go.
But Virgin is hoping to change all that with the debut of its latest travel industry venture (at least the most recent available those of us wishing to travel only on Earth). Following in the tradition of Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Hotels, and Virgin Trains, Virgin Voyages wants to make the cruise industry cool again.
“When we went into this business, we did this because the cruise industry was successful,” says Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin Voyages. “But we wanted to take the best of what cruising is, one that has unique entertainment and is sophisticated, with lots of flexibility in an elegant way, not in a stuffy environment…And we believe by doing that, people will pay you.”
From the outset, the flashy and colorful designs as well as a heightened focus on fitness and wellness would make it seem that Virgin Voyages aiming to attract a younger audience. But millennials and Generation Z have much less spending power compared to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations amid record inflation that has not been matched in adequate salary gains.
That said, McAlpin says that the ships and itineraries were designed for the “young at heart.” He admits that “we’re not going to be for everyone” and there will be those traditional cruise-goers who want the same meals at the same time at the same restaurant every night. But, he continues, the experience on Virgin Voyages is meant to be livelier with more room for people to change their minds and do what they want, when they want.
“The people that are coming on board are having a fantastic time, and we really do think about this as a younger time,” McAlpin tells Fortune. “What we’re trying to appeal to is a different way to cruise, a different experience…Naturally, I think we’ll get a younger crowd, but this is about appealing to and a different experience for cruisers—cruisers, first and foremost.”
During a media briefing about the launch of Valiant Lady this month, Sir Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group, noted that he has been wanting to get into the cruise industry for a long time—to as far back as when he was in his 20s—but that he didn’t have the resources to do it then. “What seemed missing in the market was a really good adults-only cruise line,” he said.
A joint venture between the Virgin Group and Bain Capital, Virgin Voyages is headquartered in Plantation, Fla. The company’s first fleet is referred to as the “Lady Ships,” a play on the term “your ladyship,” in a nod to Virgin’s British heritage.
Virgin Voyages’ brand design ethos can be summed up as “modern romance of sailing,” capturing a fresh, contemporary, and sleek look, with nods of glamour and romance with touches of saltiness and nautical traditions.
“Our brand purpose is to create an epic sea change for all,” McAlpin explains. “We had to create the right culture. And that was the key element that we wanted to get across to everybody: An epic sea change for all—epic and sea change meant that what we’re doing had to be significant, a marked change.”
The Virgin Voyages fleet are also “adult-by-design,” welcoming guests only 18 years and older, with a capacity of approximately 2,700 passengers per ship.
“By not having kids [onboard], it means we can have much more space for beautiful, stunning workout rooms, stunning massage pampering areas, party areas, running tracks, and all that space that you would have to put aside for kids,” Branson explained.
Virgin worked with a creative collective comprised of some of the most experienced interior designers, artists, and architects worldwide, including New York-based Roman and Williams, Concrete Amsterdam, and Tom Dixon’s Design Research Studio as well as Softroom, both in London. What’s notable is that while these firms are responsible for some of the most stylish boutique hotels and resorts across the U.S. and Europe, none of them have ever designed for the cruise industry.
“We didn’t build behemoth ships. We built mid-sized ships, and that allows us to create a more intimate experience, and the size of the ship allows us to do things that others can’t,” McAlpin says. “The whole part of the building of this business was orchestrated in a way that makes sense to the type of customer that we’re trying to attract.”
For example, at Valiant Lady‘s port of call in Barcelona, Spain, you can walk right off the gangway and into Las Ramblas, a neighborhood popular with tourists at the heart of the Catalonian city.
The ship’s design is intended to mimic that of a yacht with a sleek silvery-grey hull with smoked glass, and of course, the Virgin brand’s distinctive touches of red. The ship’s livery was conceptualized by Ben Christie and David Azurdia from the award-winning Magpie Studio in London. RWD from Beaulieu, England, a top draw in super yacht design, fashioned the iconic red Virgin funnel of the vessel.
Constructed in Genoa, Italy, all four of Virgin’s ships will be fairly similar in layout and design upon completion, a conscious decision for both financial and sustainability purposes as McAlpin notes that 20% of the cost of the ship is engineering. There are minor tweaks from ship to ship, like the original artwork. But major components of the ship, such as the restaurants and nightlife (including an event called “Scarlet Night,” the marquee evening party of each trip) will remain the same.
The company has banned single-use plastics on-board its ships—including straws, bottled water, other beverage bottles, condiment packets, shopping bags, food packaging, stirrers, and to-go coffee and tea cups. Instead, the company emphasizes the use of recyclable and reusable materials across the ship. While onboard, guests are provided with access to complimentary filtered still and sparkling water in their cabins, and there are dozens of refilling stations on each deck.
“We have the newest fleet in the industry. So we’ve been able to benefit from all of the work that we’ve done to make it as fuel efficient as possible,” McAlpin says. “And with every last ounce of energy, we tried to train and not consume, and we have a lot less waste on board.”
Virgin invested in Climeon technology, which converts extra and waste heat into electricity. In the case of cruise ships, engineers can convert the water used to cool the engines, with that heat differential, to create clean energy. “So we can create almost one megawatt of power on board just by taking the heat that’s generated from the engine cooling water,” McAlpin says.
All in all, Virgin Voyages aims to be net zero in carbon emissions by 2050 as its fleet is being built to the latest energy-efficiency standards with state-of-the-art equipment. All of Virgin’s ships are built with diesel engines and the ability for connecting to shoreside power when docked, and McAlpin says, “the thing that we can do the quickest to have an impact is find different low carbon fuels.”
On finding low carbon fuel for ships, Branson said, “If the industry can’t have sorted that out by 2030, 2035—basically, in my lifetime—I’d be very, very disappointed. I don’t think we need to wait to 2050 for it.” He noted that Virgin has been looking at setting up hydrogen islands in Norway, where ships can just pull in, fill up with hydrogen, and then sail off. “It’s so much easier to do for ships than it is for airplanes,” Branson said. “I would be surprised if ships are not either using alternative fuels, as Tom says, or hydrogen-based fuels within 10 years.”
While stressing there are no positives from the current war in Ukraine, Branson said it is getting more people in Europe talking about every single way to try to speed up deployments of hydrogen and other alternative fuels.
As cruise operators ramp up business again in the wake of pandemic shutdowns and quarantines, many of them are trying to lure customers back with as many all-inclusive goodies as possible. Virgin Voyages touts that all guests get at least $600 “in value” with included gratuities, Wi-Fi, all food across all of the more than 20 eateries on board, basic drinks (water, coffee, soda, wine, and beer), and group fitness classes—all included in the voyage fare.
“To launch the business, we did a lot of work in talking to our prospective customers about what they were looking for, and wellness resounded very well,” McAlpin says. “They wanted that flexibility, they want to have a good time, they wanted to party, but they also wanted to be able to take care of themselves and have great, healthy food.”
Wellbeing, in all senses of the term, is at the forefront of the onboard experience. You could also throw in the phrase “work hard, play hard” as the ship is fully equipped for daytime rejuvenation and exercise with a 24-hour, fully-quipped fitness center as well as dozens of eclectic group workouts from spin cycling and vinyasa yoga (indoors and outdoors) to upswing bungee masterclasses.
But guests should budget accordingly for onshore excursions (which can run anywhere from $50 to $500—per person, per excursion—based on what you choose to do) as well as for premium drinks, like speciality coffees (i.e. lattes and cappuccinos), green juices and smoothies, and champagne and cocktails.
The only tip that Virgin says it will ask for are donations to supports ocean conservation partners. All of the fish and seafood served in the onboard dining facilities were promised to have been sustainably-sourced, and sunscreens for sale are all reef-safe.
The newest ship sailing in the fleet, Valiant Lady has nearly 80 suites, ranging from 352 square feet for more budget-friendly cabins to upwards of 2,147 square feet for those who want to travel like rock stars. Virgin is really betting big on the latter—so much so that they’ve branded its VIP hospitality as “Rockstar Service.”
RockStar Quarters guests (or “sailors,” as Virgin is referring to them as while onboard) see perks as soon as they board thanks to an exclusive express VIP pathway to the ship during embarkation. Guests staying in RockStar Quarters will also get to have porters (also referred to in-house as a “wardrobe team”) to help unpack and repack along with complimentary pressing service and nightly express swimsuit drying service.
All RockStar Quarters Sailors have access to Richard’s Rooftop, a private members club and a more secluded (and quieter) spot for sunbathing and cocktails. Rockstar guests will also be welcomed with a full bar and cocktail kit in their minibars.
All cabins can sleep at least two, but adjustments can be made during the reservation process to accommodate more depending on the party. Each cabin is custom-created to accommodate the Seabed, the first-ever transformational cabin bed-at-sea, specially engineered and handcrafted by Walter Knoll in Germany. Think of it as the sofa-bed or futon of the ocean as the bed can be reconfigured to a couch easily, reflecting Virgin’s emphasis that this is a social ship rather than a place to quietly get away from it all.
Most standard cabins already have transitional Seabeds installed as well as in-room entertainment with 43-inch 4K flat-screen HDTVs, mini bars, and ample closet space. Cabins feature infrared (PIR) presence sensors, which automatically detect when someone has left the cabin so that the system can go into energy saver mode, closing the blinds close and adjusting the air conditioning to an eco-saving temperature.
All suites across the board are equipped mood lighting that automatically adjusts to match the time of day and in-room tablets that allow guests to adjust the room’s lighting. Rooms are outfitted with premium linens and a plush European king bed in every suite as well as upgraded bath amenities.
Virgin Voyages currently has four ships on the docket, and the original schedule for delivery was to launch a ship annually between 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023. Virgin Voyages’ first ship, Scarlet Lady, was delivered on Feb. 14, 2020. (And the name “Scarlet Lady” appeared on one of the earliest planes to fly for Virgin Atlantic.)
Obviously, given the pandemic, that plan changed, and instead, the operator is in the process of launching the first three ships over the span of a year. “Our timing was just as bad as it could be,” Branson chuckled.
Valiant Lady just debuted with her “mermaiden” voyage this spring. Resilient Lady will follow later this summer, and Brilliant Lady will set sail, as originally planned, in 2023.
Scarlet Lady sails from Miami with itineraries to Mexico and throughout the Caribbean, including stops at Virgin’s private beach club in Bimini. After being christened in England, Valiant Lady is sailing Mediterranean itineraries out of Barcelona. Resilient Lady‘s port of call will be in Athens, with itineraries around the Greek Islands.
But beyond these four ships, Virgin Voyages is keeping the cards close as to what’s next on the horizon. Branson compared Voyages to Virgin Atlantic, recalling that when the airline was founded in 1984 with only one plane, they didn’t expect to have more than four planes. “We are a small, niche player in a big market in the same way that Virgin Atlantic, when it started, was a small, niche player in a big market.”
“We’re not going to be a fleet complete of 30 ships, but we certainly believe that we can grow beyond four ships. We think 10 is probably the right place,” McAlpin says. “But we’ll do it very systematically, and at the right channels at the right time as we continue to build awareness and build that repeat base of customers.”
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