On the day that Virgin Voyages officially opened its inaugural sailings on its first ship, Scarlet Lady, for bookings, Richard Branson talked about how the launch was a culmination of his personal journey with cruises that started when he was only 27.
“I first came up with the idea when I was 27. I didn’t fancy traveling on any of the cruise shops that I read about,” Branson told the media at One World Observatory in New York City. The idea that popped into his head, he said, was to “create a cruise ship around the 30-year-olds where I could have a blast.”
It took more than 40 years, and a couple of evolutions to that idea, but Branson has arrived just a year away from launch and has done so with industry giants like CEO Tom McAlpin, the former president of Disney Cruise Line; CCO Nirmal Saverimuttu, a former Virgin Hotels board member and principal at the Virgin Group; and SVP of Design Dee Cooper, the former head of design at Virgin Atlantic.
McAlpin, Saverimuttu, and Cooper joined Branson in New York to talk about the excitement building around the cruise line, the importance of the trade to the line’s success, and more.
Travel agent commitment
Virgin made big trade waves last month when it revealed it would eliminate all non-commissionable fares (NCFs) for its travel advisor partners, or First Mates, as part of its outreach that the company is calling “An Epic Sea Change.”
“We purposely called our travel partners ‘First Mates’ and we named it that way because it’s like our captain’s first mate,” McAlpin said, explaining that Virgin will operate with a “significant amount of bookings” from agents. “It’s a great win-win for us. The structure for commissions [is] unlike anything out there.”
Virgin has also since opened its travel agent portal for its First Mates (FirstMates.com).
Sailing to Cuba
Virgin earlier announced that Scarlet Lady will be sailing to Cuba out of Miami during its inaugural season and then revealed that the surprise destination that it had been teasing is The Beach Club in Bimini, a Mediterranean-inspired port that will allow its guest to spend the day lounging at the beach and the night dancing to world-renowned DJs like Mark Ronson, who will be the first DJ in residence.
“It’s always about choice and giving our sailors an amazing day at the beach,” Cooper said.
There will be no buffet at The Beach Club, In fact, there will be no buffet anywhere near Virgin Voyages, but there will be a number of eateries and bars lined up for guests to enjoy.
The line’s dedication to conservation will roll over to The Beach Club, as well. Branson said that they will be offering all guests environmentally friendly sunscreen that won’t damage surrounding coral, free of charge. Virgin also has a ban on all single-use plastics onboard.
Age limit and loyalty program
The 18-year-old-plus age restriction that Virgin placed on sailings wasn’t the only one considered, Branson said. Initially, he hoped for 16-years-old — Branson started his company when he was just 17 — but it was pushed to 18.
Virgin will launch a new loyalty program sometime this year, called Virgin Red, which is something Branson said the company hasn’t “done very well” yet. “I think that’s going to be launched with big fanfare,” he said. In the meantime, the company will credit its guests on an ad hoc basis.
Pricing starts at $1,500
The Rockstar Suite, the ultimate accommodation onboard Scarlet Lady that Branson will be staying in during his birthday sailing in July 2020, will start at $28,000 for a five-night sailing.
A balcony cabin will start at around $3,000 for two for a five-night cruise; and an inside cabin will start at about half of that, $1,500, for two for a five-night cruise.
All fares will include sparkling water, group fitness classes, gratuities, WiFi, dining at a choice of 20 different intimate eateries, and more.
A boom for the industry
Branson told reporters that even though Virgin is planning on making a major splash in the industry, it doesn’t expect to take business from other lines. Research that Virgin has done through Bain Capital Ventures showed that the line would attract the new-to-cruise guest, those who have not ever sailed before.
“I think we’ll expand the market,” he said.