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When Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, was 27, he dreamed of starting a cruise line “run by 30 year olds, where we could have a blast.” That idea got back-burnered over the decades as the Virgin Group grew to 400 companies and he launched other travel businesses, including a few airlines, a hotel company and Virgin Galactic, a venture to get people in to space. Now, on his first ship the Scarlett Lady, Richard Branson promises “no buffets” and tables strong enough to dance on. He’s considering a special spin on room service (details to come later this year) and he’s got his own private island on which to entertain his cruise customers (or as he calls them, “sailors”). Tom McAlpin is the president and CEO of Virgin Voyages; he previously ran The World, a privately owned residential ship and served at Disney Cruises for 15 years, nearly five of those as president. He says Virgin Voyages’ tagline, "Epic Sea Change for All" aims to change the customer experience on a cruise line. The Virgin Group’s overall mantra is “Changing Business for Good” and that will carry through in the way Virgin Voyages treats its community, its crew and the oceans it sails on. “We want to create that culture and create an environment that not only hires the best people and trains them, but treats them like family, because we want them to stay with us,” McAlpin told press at the New York gathering.
For her inaugural season in 2020, from April 1 through October 21, the Scarlet Lady will sail four- and five-night cruises to the Caribbean, going to Havana, Cuba; Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, and Costa Maya, Mexico. “Our sailors told us they want to have an authentic experience where they can engage with the locals, so we're doing it,” said McAlpin. “And they want to be able to have dinner and to enjoy the nightlife so each sailing will have either have an overnight or a late night in one of our ports of call.” 1. Relaxation... Children under 18 will not be allowed on the ship, although Branson joked that he’s pushing to get that lowered to 16, as he left school to start his business at the age of 15. “I would have hated to be called at kid when I was 16," he told New York media. McAlpin, who insisted the age would be 18, said Virgin Voyages is intent on creating a sophisticated experience that will give parents a holiday away from their kids. “We have found a way to create a much more elegant and sophisticated experience where our sailors can detox and retox, have a good time, get away, rejuvenate, [and] have a transformational experience. And that's hard to do when you've got little ones running around,” said McAlpin. “I've done some personal research and found that when you put kids in the pool, they scream. And we don't want that. We don't want kids running up and down the hallway at midnight." The ship will also include a redemption spa, outdoor yoga, and Gym + Tonic, a well-being zone which allows you to restore yourself in the serenity zone by hopping in the Well-being Pool while sipping on fresh cold-pressed juices, served at the Gym and Tonic bar. 2. Entertainment... Entertainment promises to be different, as well. Rather than Broadway productions, the line is creating a series of events and “gigs” for guests with entertainers who have never worked on cruise lines before and who have been given a lot of creative freedom. The main theater can be divided into four setups that allow people to be spectators, to participate in an event or be immersed in a unique experience. There will be DJ stands, intimate show, concerts, dance parties and even dodge ball at 1 a.m. 3. Cuisine... As for cuisine, there will be no main dining hall, no assigned seating or dress codes. About 20 eateries will provide food that ranges from authentic Mexican to Korean barbecue to a food truck lineup. Venues will have extended hours to accommodate those with “late night munchies.” A “glamorous brunch” will serve those who have slept past breakfast hours. McAlpin says there won’t be additional surcharges for any of the restaurants. 4. All-inclusive pricing... In developing the brand, he said, the company looked at things that could be considered bothersome when traveling. “When you have a luxurious experience, you want to get rid of annoyances. We talked about gratuities and that all the restaurant cover charges and service charges would be included as well as basic beverages like soda, teas, still and sparkling water and drip coffee. Unlimited Wi-Fi will also be included on our fares,” said Branson. He joked that all this means that Virgin shareholders won’t make any money, but “we’ll get there.” Branson says including these amenities means the customer will be able to enjoy their cruise a lot more. Pricing for Virgin Voyage has been set the way Branson set pricing for his Virgin Atlantic airline, where the customer feels they’re getting "a first-class experience with business-class pricing." McAlpin cited the example of a veranda cabin for a five-night cruise having a base price of about $3,000 USD for two. An inside room would cost $1,500 USD.
5. Private Beach Club... Another itinerary stop? Branson is creating his own private island, The Beach Club at Bimini, in Bimini, Bahamas, promising DJs, great food and drink and a sophisticated vibe that’s modeled after the best beach clubs in the Mediterranean, said Branson. “There will be great food—no buffets—and an amazing soundtrack. Because what really brings a beach club to life is the music, because people like to have energy,” said Branson. “And, obviously, our Virgin brand has a huge history in music, so we're thinking very carefully about the music program here. Another thing we're announcing today actually is that we're establishing a residency program for DJs at the beach club, and the first DJ will be the one and only Mark Ronson; he'll be playing four times." Good for the environment? Part of the Virgin Group’s ethos is environmental sustainability and for that reason the company is developing a sun cream that doesn’t kill reefs; it will be readily available to all customers on Virgin Voyages. Other programs include collaborations with technology companies to take heat from the ship’s engines and turn it into clean energy. All single-use plastics are banned from Virgin Voyages; this includes straws, drink stirrers and individual serving packets for utensils. Plastic water bottles won’t be used; instead, filtered water-dispensing stations will be located throughout the ship. Including water and other amenities is part of Virgin Voyages’ “rebellious” attitude, said Branson. Our ship is full of planet friendly products and natural materials, with rooms that automatically conserve energy when your're not in them.