He’s done luxury hotels, trains, spas, turned private islands into its own travel niche, shook up the airline industry, and even famously sold tickets into space on Virgin Galactic. Now Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson is taking to the high seas, and today announced that Virgin Voyages is officially open for business, and just started taking bookings for its inaugural season, with the first voyage of The Scarlet Lady, a nod to Virgin’s iconic red logo color, departing April 1, 2020.
“I’ve dreamed of starting my own cruise line since I was in my twenties,” said Branson (via release). “We have taken the time to think about every detail and craft an experience that brings the Virgin brand to life and disrupts the travel industry.”
Over the years I have stayed at several Virgin Limited Edition luxury hotels, from Europe to South Africa, flown the superlative Virgin Atlantic business class - easily one of the world’s best and most creative, complete with in-flight stand-up bar - and I even interviewed the serial entrepreneur while in London (I wrote about his management and business advice here at Forbes). I have very impressed to date with his forays into the travel business, which usually involve new wrinkles that outdo the competition, so I expect nothing less of Virgin Voyages.
Not surprisingly, the company says it is taking a cheeky and cheerful approach to service, along with inclusive pricing that removes the annoying add-ons common to many major cruise lines. Many ocean goers who are not traveling with the most luxurious and expensive lines (like Crystal, Seven Seas, Oceania, Azamara Club Cruises, etc.) are shocked to discover they are a very captive audience forced to pay high rates for basic necessities like soft drinks and water, even when meals are included. This is especially costly and annoying to families, and the most frequent cruise industry complaint I hear from consumers (though the first season of Virgin Voyages will be 18 and older only). In addition, many ships offer “included meals,” but then highly limit free venues with surcharges or a la carte for more desirable restaurants. Extortionate rates for Wifi are another common irritant.
In sharp contrast, Virgin Voyages customers will enjoy free food at their staggering choice of more than twenty different onboard eateries, free basic beverages (soda, teas, coffee, still and sparkling water) and free Wifi, along with complimentary niceties like group fitness classes, all with no gratuities or service charges. They call this the “Virgin Voyages Rebellious Luxe” experience. “At Virgin Voyages we are going beyond just great design, to defy and redefine luxury to be rebellious luxe. This new luxury is about knowing you are taken care of, that you’re never being nickel and dimed, and what you want, even some of the things you didn’t know you wanted, are already taken care of for you,” said Tom McAlpin, president and CEO. “Because food is the fuel for our bodies and souls, and we’re Virgin Voyages, naturally it all had to be included within your ticket price.”
Virgin’s culinary concept - in partnership with some well-known chefs and restaurateurs - is to throw out the traditional cruise dining rule book, and instead bring the same flexible and varied experience you’d get visiting a city to the sea. There is no buffet, no main dining room, no forced formal wear, no assigned seating, no assigned dining times and some restaurants are open until well into the night - and in some cases, the wee hours of the morning. There’s an English grill-style steakhouse, vegetarian, interactive “laboratory” dining, elevated Mexican, Korean BBQ, Mediterranean, pizzeria, fast casual food court and more.
Many cruise lines focused on the Caribbean and Bahamas stop at their own private island paradises for land recreation and watersports, and all Virgin Voyages will visit the company’s new Beach Club at Bimini, a Bahamian island long popular with sailors. Set on a white-sand beach with crystal clear waters, the facility and its programming is modelled on the best beach clubs in Ibiza and Saint-Tropez. The Beach Club overlooks the ocean and features an expansive lagoon-style pool as its centerpiece. Days here begin with morning yoga and meditation, and the energy level amplifies, reaching its peak with afternoon DJ-led pool parties before toning back down as dusk settles in. The visit will wind down with a beach bonfire and acoustic musical performance.
There are all-day watersports onsite, and for those less interested in the day club setting, there will also be options for exploring seven-mile island, which was a favorite of Hemingway. Optional activities include boating, snorkeling and even wreck diving on the SS Sapona off the island’s southern coast.
Like the ship, the Beach Club will feature complimentary food that is thoughtfully sourced and locally inspired, with island favorites such as conch and mango salad, banana leaf-wrapped queen snapper, Bahamian rum cake and more. The complex is strewn with hammock groves, social spaces and half a dozen different bars. For a more private experience, the club offers both beach and poolside cabanas for rent. Guests opting for the line’s more luxurious “RockStar Suites” will have an exclusive club within the club, with dedicated bar, private outdoor terrace lounge, and dedicated lounge chairs and beach cabanas.
The other big focus is entertainment. Passengers can choose from a lineup of completely original “Events & Gigs” developed by industry leading producers, directors and artists, an expansion of Virgin’s Creative Collective. Many offerings will be interactive, so instead of sitting and watching, “sailors,” as the company likes to call its customers, may be asked to participate with the cast or become immersed in the performance. As Virgin describes it, “From modern takes on classic stories, to interactive dance parties and off-the wall participatory acts, the experiences will break down the fourth wall and push the boundaries of traditional stage performances.”
The Scarlet Lady will feature six original shows, including a yet to be announced production by award-winning producer Randy Weiner (Queen of the Night, The Donkey Show, Sleep No More). Also, instead of a traditional cruise director on board, the ship will have a dynamic group of individuals dedicated to constantly creating “Happenings” all around the ship.
With a guest capacity of more than 2,770 The Scarlet Lady is considered a mid-sized ship, and was designed to reflect a yacht’s sleek luxury boutique-style. The cruises are Adult-by-Design, meaning only 18 and above. Her 2020 inaugural season will begin from Miami, with an array of four and five-night voyages to Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. She is the first of four ships Virgin Voyages currently has on order with master shipbuilder Fincantieri.
The cabins are smartly designed to maximize space, including the use of custom German-made pull out sofas called “Seabeds” that convert to full beds but take up less space and offer more comfortable, more social seating by day. Virgin claims to be the first cruise line to utilize this. All rooms also have at least 43-inch flatscreens, rain showers, hammocks and more than 85% have ocean terraces. The Rock Star Suites are top tier and have names like “Cheeky, Glamorous, Massive and Posh.” These boast larger bedrooms, sitting areas or large living rooms, full-on hotel-style all marble bathrooms with walk-in rain showers, and very large balconies, much larger than the standard rooms. In addition to the countless restaurants and bars, there is a full fitness center, spa and salon, a fixture on many cruise ships, but Virgin is the only operator I know of that already has its own spas, salons and health clubs to draw from, and I have seen this quality work before at their luxury hotels and premium class airline lounges.
From wearing a wedding dress for his bridal retail chain to setting balloon piloting distance records to driving an amphibious car across the English Channel in a tux, Sir Richard Branson has a flair for the dramatic, and one of the ways he is celebrating the launch of his new cruise line is by spending his own 70th birthday onboard. Branson and a posse of celebrity friends will set sail on the four-night Havana After Dark itinerary departing July 15, 2020 and the general public is welcome to join them, as all spring through fall 2020 reservations went live today.
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