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How Different Will Virgin Voyages Be, Really?

By Michelle Baran

Jan 15, 2020

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The Manor will be a two-story, three-bar venue named after Branson’s first recording studio.

Courtesy of Virgin Voyages

The Manor will be a two-story, three-bar venue named after Branson’s first recording studio.

There are plenty of other cruise lines in the sea. But Sir Richard Branson’s adult-only cruise experience—complete with champagne delivery, DJ-fueled nightclub experiences, and tattoo parlor—touts itself as its own unique brand of “rebellious luxe” cruising.

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“Let me tell you what it’s not,” Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin Voyages, recently explained about the new cruise experience being launched by the Richard Branson–founded Virgin Group. “It’s not marble as far as the eye can see. It’s not a waiter with white gloves in a tuxedo serving me.”

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Instead, McAlpin said that Virgin Voyages will embody what he called “rebellious luxe,” or a casual sophistication.

When the first of Virgin Voyages’s three planned cruise ships, the 2,770-passenger Scarlet Lady, begins sailing the Caribbean in April, it will be joining 278 ocean ships out on the seas in 2020, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). That includes 19 new cruise ships that are scheduled to debut this year alone.

So, whatever McAlpin wants to call it, Virgin is going to have to set itself apart from the many other cruise ships in the sea. In order to do so, the line appears to be banking on a combination of unconventional, new-to-cruise offerings and—the thing that Virgin does best—cheekiness.

That cheekiness is manifesting itself in things like a tattoo parlor called Squid Ink, a karaoke lounge called the Groupie, so-called RockStar suites (with private transfers included), and “shake for champagne” delivery service (a technology-driven, on-demand feature that will allow passengers to request champagne with a simple shake of their phone). Virgin Voyages is definitely trying to have a lot of (adult) fun.

The onboard vinyl shop gives a nod to Virgin Records.

Virgin will be one of the few ocean cruise lines that is adult-only, joining Viking Cruises as the other notable ocean cruise company that has taken a hard no-kids-onboard policy. Of course, there are pros and cons to that approach—the biggest con being that you exclude a large swath of potential passengers.

“We were originally going to be adult-centric, but we were going to allow children on,” said McAlpin. But, as the company conducted additional research and focus group studies, it found that its potential “sailors,” what Virgin Voyages calls its passengers, would rather “leave kids at home,” he said.

No buffets, no assigned dining times

Another way Virgin Voyages is hoping to stand out from the crowded cruise pack is through its food and beverage program.

Nirmal Saverimuttu, the line’s chief commercial officer and head of sailor experience, said that Virgin Voyages is “throwing out the cruise dining rule book” by having no buffets onboard, no main dining room, no enforced formal wear, no assigned seating, and no assigned dining times. All of the food and most beverages (save for some specialty drinks) at the restaurants on board will be included in the voyage fare.

In fairness to its competitors, the so-called cruise dining rule book has actually already been thrown out by many other cruise lines, especially in the luxury arena, as they shift away from the clichéd cruise dining experiences that were dampening their cred. But, it’s good to know that Virgin Voyages is starting off by shunning them altogether.

The Razzle Dazzle diner will play host to a drag queen brunch.

Where Virgin Voyages really stands out is in the look of feel of the Scarlet Lady’s planned restaurants. The dining venues and bars were (purposely, according to McAlpin) envisioned by a team of designers and restaurateurs who have never worked on cruise ships. Virgin Voyages partnered with AvroKO Hospitality Group, chef Brad Farmerie (the executive chef at New York restaurant Saxon & Parole), and Brand Bureau to design and develop the Scarlet Lady’s food and beverage experiences. And the designers who were tapped to execute the spaces include Roman and Williams (the team behind several Ace hotels, and Standard and Viceroy properties, among others); Tom Dixon (the firm’s resume includes the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles), Concrete Amsterdam (the architects behind several Citizen M hotels), and Softroom (which designed the Turkish Airlines international lounges).

Onboard venues include Wake, a glam Roman and Williams–designed steak and seafood restaurant, complete with a raw bar and a table-side cocktail cart; Razzle Dazzle, a diner that serves brunch to the backdrop of drag performances and has “naughty” and “nice” menus (think boozy smoothies versus plant-based vegan dishes); and the sleek-looking Test Kitchen, a laboratory-cum-restaurant that will host mixology classes and coffee workshops.

The ship will also house a Korean barbecue restaurant, Geonbae, where Korean drinking games will be encouraged. Pink Agave, inspired by Mexico City street food, will be a shared-plate experience with a soundtrack of live DJ beats. And Intelligentsia Coffee will be served at the ship’s coffee bars with an emphasis on third-wave brew.

Tox, detox, and retox

The Manor will transform from a live music venue to a nightclub.

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“It’s not just a party cruise,” McAlpin emphasized. “There’s plenty of opportunities for you to tox and detox and retox.”

So, let’s start with the tox, and why some (OK, I) might ask McAlpin if this is really just going to be a fancy booze-slash-party cruise given the brand’s reputation for encouraging merrymaking. There will be ample opportunities to indulge in champagne, craft beer, cocktails, and wine, as well as ample opportunities to let loose. Among them will be the Manor, a two-story, three-bar venue (named after Branson’s first recording studio) that will host live music shows before transforming into a nightclub.

Virgin Voyages has tapped famous DJs like Mark Ronson and Diplo to headline dance parties at the Beach Club at Bimini, Virgin’s private beachfront club in the Bahamas, which all Scarlet Lady cruises will call at. And it is gearing up for over-the-top dance parties on the ship as well. There’s also the onboard karaoke lounge and vinyl shop, a nod to Virgin Records.

A mani-pedi with ocean views feels like a good way to recover from the previous night’s debauchery.

As for the detox part of the equation, there will be a spa on board, as well as an athletic club with bootcamp and boxing classes, a full basketball court, and a juice bar.

Progressive ideals

Some of the most important ways Virgin is trying to do things differently are actually taking place behind the scenes. Virgin Voyages has a Scarlet Squad program that is an initiative dedicated to bridging the gender gap in the maritime industry. The company has recruited nearly a dozen female officers to work on the Scarlet Lady, including Jill Anderson as hotel director, Christin Wenge as safety officer, and Lindsay Kerber as environmental officer.

Further embracing diversity and inclusion, Virgin Voyages has also partnered with Atlantis Events, which will charter the Scarlet Lady for a LGBTQ voyage during the vessel’s inaugural season. The LGBTQ cruise, a custom seven-night sailing, will depart from Miami on May 31, 2020, and will include port calls in Key West, Florida; in Cozumel, Playa Del Carmen, and Costa Maya in Mexico; and at the Bimini beach club.

Ultimately, whether Branson’s version of rebellious luxe cruising truly resonates will be revealed in due time.

Meanwhile, the company has already planned the launch of its second ship, the 2,770-passenger Valiant Lady, which will begin sailing in the Mediterranean in May 2021.

>> Next: The Best All-Inclusive Cruises

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