A Conversation with Richard Branson, as Virgin Voyages Previews Its First Cruise Ship

The first Virgin Voyages cruises will depart from Miami in 2020.

"A sea change." That's the promise Sir Richard Branson makes for Virgin Voyages, the new cruise line from Virgin Group, which today celebrated the major milestone of laying down the keel for its first ship.

Originally announced in 2015, Virgin Voyages has spent the last two years existing mostly on paper. Now there’s something to show for it, as a large, central section of the first ship, the temporarily titled Virgin I, or hull 6287, was set into place. In total, the line has three ships on order to the tune of $2.55 billion, all to be built in Italy by Fincantieri’s Sestri Ponente shipyard near Genoa.

Always up for a publicity stunt, Branson made his entrance at the shipyard by dropping 200 feet from a crane with Tom McAlpin, the line’s CEO, before welding a ceremonial coin into the keel, the structural base of the ship.

Finally, the look of the exterior was unveiled: A sleek, silvery hull is accented by Virgin's trademark red, and a scarlet mermaid figurehead design decorates the sides of the bow. Details of the interiors and amenities may still be under tight wraps but, in March, the line’s CEO Tom McAlpin revealed that a “Creative Collective” of designers and architects have been tasked with fulfilling Branson's vision for the "world's most gorgeous ships.” This group of ten "creators of trends, not followers," to quote McAlpin, is led by the likes of Roman and Williams (Ace Hotels, The Standard High Line, Le Coucou) and PearsonLloyd (Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, Lufthansa Business Class). They’ll be the brain trust behind the mid-size ships, with the capacity for 2,800 guests and 1,150 crew, while “reflecting the craftsmanship and materiality inspired by super yachts,” says McAlpin.

Seven-day cruises out of Virgin Voyages’ Miami home port begin in 2020 and, although itineraries haven’t yet been shared, the line is promising that Virgin I will be the “most recognizable ship sailing the seven seas.” She'll maybe be one of the more scandalous as well, as Virgin Voyages plans to be "Adult by Design," prohibiting passengers under the age of 18.

Closing out the ceremony during a performance from Boy George came the announcement that the Virgin Voyages website is open for business, and accepting refundable $500 deposits “for access to an exclusive pre-sale before Virgin Voyages goes on general sale.”

Condé Nast Traveler sat down with Richard Branson and Tom McAlpin to gain even more insight on what we can expect from Virgin Voyages:

CNT: How long have you been toying with the idea of doing a Virgin cruise line?

Branson: Since I was 26 years old, and it was going to be for under-30 year olds. And I thought I was going to party the nights away, and then it never happened. That was prior to purchasing Necker, and the images I had of cruise lines were that they were stuffy and boring, and I wanted to have a fun cruise line. I still want to have a fun cruise line! Finally we’re going to have it.

Who is the Virgin Voyages customer?

McAlpin: There’s no box that you tick that says it’s exactly one demographic. I would say that it’s the young at heart, people who really want a different experience, who know what they want and that’s something that’s a bit off the beaten path. They want a luxurious experience, a premium experience that’s not being delivered, and they want flexibility. The industry is trying to be all things to all people, and we want to create a cool experience, more romantic, a more transformational experience. The mantra we have is that we don’t just want this to be the best week of your year. We want this to be one of the best weeks of your life. When you get off the ship, you don’t say, "Yeah, I went on a cruise." We want you to say, "I went on a Virgin Voyage and I’ll never go on another cruise line again."

Branson: We want to get people who’d never dream of going on a cruise ship. We’re going to start without kids, which will make me a very unpopular granddad. It sends a message. I think there are a lot of people who find that kids running around a cruise ship gets in the way of their holiday. But then I’m sure we’ll become kids-friendly with a ship down the line.

Are there any design details you’ve insisted upon or that you’re already influencing?

Branson: Virgin is famous for its design. When we went into the train business, we did so with high-speed Pendolino trains, and the amount of people traveling has gone from 8 million to 40 million each year. Design has played a big part in that. When we opened our Virgin Hotel in America, in Chicago, design played a big part. With our spaceship—there’s no point in going to space in a boring-looking spaceship versus a very sexy spaceship, and design again plays a big part. When it comes to our cruise ships, design is everything, really. We’re setting ourselves apart and making everyone who works on it feel really proud of it. I’ve had the privilege of actually walking inside the cruise ship today [via virtual reality headset], and the team have delivered. They’ve come from other Virgin companies and their work has been fantastic. For instance, the cabins for the staff are really well thought-out, and obviously if you have a staff that’s highly motivated and loving their jobs, which, generally at Virgin they do, a lot flows from that.

Virgin Richard Branson

How far along is the interior design process?

McAlpin: It’s very far along. We don’t have all that steel in the shipyard without the design already being laid out. We know exactly where the faucets in the bars are going to be.

We are differentiating ourselves in everything. The look of the ship—it looks different. The colors are different. We want her to be distinctive no matter where she is in the world. We’re not about having a big gimmick. We’re about creating a platform, a structure, to provide great experiences that make you more in touch with the ocean. That’s why 86 percent of our cabins will have ‘sea terraces.’ Ninety-three percent will have ocean views.

We have a lot of influence from superyacht design, and the modern straight-edge bow comes from that. It allows our ship to look different, to look more like a yacht. It’s also very efficient. We’re a lot about conservation, and we want to have the best fuel efficiency we can, and the best way to improve efficiency is with the hull form.

Speaking of the hull, you've revealed that a mermaid design will grace its sides. I know, with Virgin Galactic, that Eve, the “Galactic Girl,” is modeled after your mother. Is the Virgin Voyages mermaid modeled after anyone in particular?

Branson: They’ve all got a little bit of her in it. I’ve definitely told her that it’s all her.

McAlpin: It’s inspired by the ships of hundreds of years ago, when they had these mermaids on the bows of the ships to bring good luck, and for sailors to determine one ship from another. We think it’s the right spirit for our ship.

The cruise industry is far from being "green." How do you see Virgin Voyages doing something about its impact on the environment?

Branson: We keep this very much in mind in every single thing that we do. If you have shampoo and conditioner on the ship, it has to be friendly to the seas and friendly to the individual. If you have suncream, it mustn’t damage the reefs. If you have things in bottles, they must be reusable bottles. Every single eco-friendly box must be ticked and we’ve got the kind of people who will make sure of that. We did away with plastic at our Virgin Limited Edition properties a long time ago. It makes business sense as well as being the right thing for the environment.

McAlpin: This goes back to our culture and Richard’s culture, which is that you’ve got to focus on sustainability and be good stewards of the environment. Our brand purpose is an epic sea change for all. Those words have a lot of meaning because "epic" means grand, "sea change" means change, and "for all" means everyone affected by our operations. It’s for our sailors, for our partners, for the communities, and for our oceans. We’re going to do some things in regard to conservation I can’t share with you yet, but in the early stages of designing the ship we entered into an agreement with Climeon of Sweden, to better utilize waste heat and convert it to clean electricity. We’ve spent several million dollars per ship to do that. It improves our efficiency, but it’s also the right thing to do. We are just signing a deal with Scanship, who provides wastewater management systems. We’re partnering with them to develop technology we think will work by using microwave technology to create energy from waste. If we’re successful, we’ll be able to reduce our load and create clean energy. What we’ve learned from Richard is that it’s important, and it’s our responsibility, to take these risks.

The ships will be sailing in your backyard, Richard, in the Caribbean. Would you like to see them calling on the British Virgin Islands as a port?

Branson: Of course. It will give us a hell of a thrill to see a Virgin ship coming into the Virgin Islands and I’m sure we’ll be lucky enough, even if it just once.

McAlpin: We’re flexible. We can do different sailings, one-off sailings, and even if it doesn’t happen with the first ship, there’s the second and third ships as well.

All of the content that Virgin Voyages has so far released has mentioned "sailing the seven seas." Are you committed to a range of itineraries, or will Virgin Voyages only focus on the Caribbean?

Branson: For the first year, it’ll be the Caribbean. But it won’t be long before we’re in the Mediterranean as well. I’d love to do the Antarctic and Arctic.

McAlpin: We don’t think this is a three-ship fleet. We think this is much more than a three-ship fleet, but we’re focused on three ships right now, and they’re flexible. We can go anywhere we want to go.

This article has been republished from www.cntraveler.com

Last modified onWednesday, 15 November 2017 16:27

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