Bullish: Virgin Voyages chief executive Tom McAlpin with Sir Richard Branson
‘He’s very excited, he’s been waiting a long time to launch this business,’ says Tom McAlpin, chief executive of the new Virgin Voyages cruise line.
McAlpin is referring to Sir Richard Branson, who has been dreaming of adding cruise ships to his vast Virgin Group empire for 40 years.
Finally, this August, the first Virgin superyacht, the Scarlet Lady, is set to launch in Portsmouth.
It will start with six ‘staycation-at-sea’ cruises – three or four-night tours off the English coast – available only to UK residents.
Virgin ‘will throw a big party’ for the first launch, says McAlpin, hinting that Branson could stage one of his signature publicity stunts. ‘Richard will not be able to miss being there in the UK and I’m sure he’ll have some family with him as well.’
McAlpin, a Miami-born cruise industry veteran, has been helping develop Branson’s vision of a ‘different way of cruising’ for ten years, before coming on board full-time in 2015 to complete financing.
He says he is ‘super happy’ about the number of bookings for the debut summer sailings and calls the UK launch a ‘homecoming’ for Virgin before it launches US and Caribbean cruises from September, followed by European trips next summer.
‘There is huge awareness of the Virgin brand in the UK,’ he says. ‘This gives us an opportunity to showcase the cruise business, work out the kinks, and get ready for the launch in the US.’
Branson’s foray into the $23.8billion cruise market has not been plain sailing. He originally planned to launch Virgin Voyages in the Caribbean last April, but McAlpin says the business has been in ‘a holding pattern’ since last March, when cruises were banned due to Covid outbreaks on ships that started on the Diamond Princess.
Cruise giant Carnival has raised $24 billion to stay afloat and McAlpin says Virgin Voyages has also secured an ‘equity infusion’ from its investors – led by Virgin Group and US private equity firm Bain Capital – after its expected revenues hit the rocks.
Last week regulators said US cruises could restart in mid-July, if ships meet strict requirements.
Some may question the timing of launching a cruise firm when the outlook remains uncertain.
But McAlpin says there is a huge pentup demand from Britons keen for a summer break once UK cruise restrictions are lifted from May 17, and that Virgin’s fleets will be one of the safest environments possible, with automatic temperature testing and hospital-grade air purification systems to kill bacteria and viruses.
Passengers on this summer’s UK staycation cruises must have had both vaccinations and Virgin will supplement the health checks through rapid antigen testing.
McAlpin says: ‘This is the safest way to travel – I can’t even go to a theatre or a grocery store and be assured that everyone I come into contact with has been vaccinated and tested. We know we have got the right things to control it [the virus] and we can do it in this highly controlled environment.’
Virgin’s ships, which each carry around 2,700 passengers, are designed to look like boutique hotels. They are for over-18s only to offer a more ‘sophisticated’ experience than more family-friendly cruise brands.
The ‘adult places’ on the Scarlet Lady’s 17 decks include gourmet restaurants, spas, fitness studios, cocktail bars, a tattoo parlour and a late-night cabaret show by Virgin’s ‘resident sexologist’.
McAlpin, who recently became a grandfather aged 61, says: ‘We love kids, but parents need to have a vacation and have some fun too. We are an adult-focused brand, and that means we can offer a more premium experience.’
Virgin is also aiming to shake off the cruise industry’s image of catering for mostly older customers, saying it is for ‘the young at heart’.
McAlpin adds: ‘We want to provide an opportunity so you don’t have to be with old people. But if you have a few years on you, like me, it doesn’t matter. This is for like-minded people who want to come and have a good time.’
Branson is betting big on his cruise line, which is more than 50 per cent owned by Virgin Group and Boston-based Bain Capital. Bain also helped prop up Virgin Atlantic during the pandemic and bought the Virgin Australia airline.
So far, the tally is $2.8billion for the four $700million superyachts in the fleet, plus start-up costs and the pandemic fundraising, which are undisclosed.
The ships, built by Italian firm Fincantieri, are financed by 80 per cent of debt, which is guaranteed by the Italian government, and its total borrowing is understood to be several billion pounds.
The main base for the fleet will be at PortMiami in Florida, in a $130million berth called Terminal V that has been designed with a roof shaped like palm trees. PortMiami is building the terminal, due to be completed in November, and Virgin Voyages will lease it in a 30-year deal.
Virgin has also agreed a partnership with Genting, the Malaysian gaming group, to create a Virgin Voyages Beach Club at Genting’s Hilton Resorts World on Bimini island in the Bahamas.
Virgin will pay an undisclosed fee to use the resort as a stop-off on all its Caribbean cruises, with shark-spotting and beach yoga in the day followed by DJs late into the night.
Once the fleet ramps up, Scarlet Lady – named after an early Virgin Atlantic plane – will be joined by sister ships Valiant Lady, Resilient Lady and a third, unnamed superyacht.
Valiant Lady and Resilient Lady will cruise round the Mediterranean in the summer months but will only sail in the Caribbean in the winter, due to the European climate. ‘I went to Dover last February,’ recalls McAlpin. ‘Man, it was cold.’
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