No one ever accused Virgin Founder Sir Richard Branson of being unambitious. Emboldened by his success in the music and airline industries, he often talks about the other “Mission: Impossible”-level tasks on his corporate to-do list: sending civilians into space aboard Virgin Galactic, colonizing Mars, and starting a cool cruise line that will appeal to millennials.
One of those goals truly may prove impossible — and it’s not space travel or colonizing Mars.
“We plan to shake up the cruise industry and deliver a holiday that customers will absolutely love,” Branson said when announcing Virgin Cruises, his new cruise line that will set sail with three 2,850-passenger ships starting in 2020 in Miami.
“We aim to redefine the cruising experience for good, and in the process entice noncruisers to give cruising a go.”
Long odds, an expensive commitment, and a hypercompetitive industry that’s bankrupted past entrants? Par for the course for Virgin Founder Richard Branson, who’s launched a new cruise line. (Photo: Virgin Cruises)
Problem is, you can’t bring noncruisers into the industry without tapping millennials, and that’s where Branson’s goal becomes even more daunting than conquering outer space. Although the cruise industry as a whole is exploding, millennials — consumers born between 1980 and 2000 — are all-too-happily missing the boat. Almost 70 percent of all cruise vacationers last year were over 40, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). The dearth of younger cruisers is more than just a coolness deficit; it’s an existential threat to the industry and, more immediately, to Branson’s plans to dominate the high seas.
Enter the man charged with bringing Branson’s ocean-bound goals to fruition: Virgin Cruises CEO Tom McAlpin, former president of Disney Cruise Line and former president and CEO of the World, Residences at Sea.
“They say the industry is for the newly wed and the nearly dead,” McAlpin tells Yahoo Travel. He says Virgin and its founder’s reputation for fun, out-of-the box approaches to travel will enable it to succeed where so many other upstart cruise lines failed. “The Virgin brand will allow us to get those people who haven’t cruised before — that have thought about it but have said, ‘Maybe it wasn’t for me because when I think of cruising I think of Grandma.’ [Virgin] gives credibility to people who may not have cruised before to say, ‘Oh, I trust the brand. This is going to be cool.’”
Virgin Cruises CEO Tom McAlpin talked to Yahoo Travel about his big plans for Virgin Cruises. (Photo: Virgin Cruises)
In a wide-ranging conversation, McAlpin talked with Yahoo Travel about how Virgin Cruises plans to make cruising cool again, the challenges of bringing more people to cruising, a high-profile lawsuit against Virgin Cruises, and Virgin’s plans for Cuba. He also shares what it’s like to work for Sir Richard (hint: do NOT wear a necktie around him).
Yahoo Travel: I was at a party the other day talking to an avid vacationer. I asked her, “Hey, have you ever been on a cruise?” And she, like a lot of other 30-something professionals I know, just went: “Ugh! I’d never go on a cruise!” Why do you think so many vacationers who don’t really know about cruising have such a negative initial reaction to it?
Tom McAlpin: I think the people who have been on cruise vacations have great things to say about it. The cruise industry enjoys very high satisfaction rates. There could be that stigma, but I don’t know how pervasive that is. The Virgin brand will allow us to get those people who haven’t cruised before — that have thought about it but have said, “Maybe it wasn’t for me because when I think of cruising I think of Grandma.” [Virgin] gives credibility to people who may not have cruised before to say, “Oh, I trust the brand. This is going to be cool. I’ve wanted to try it.”
Only 8 percent of those who took cruises last year were 25 to 29. Looking at stats like that, which Richard Branson employee do you think has it easier: you or whoever Branson will hire to put passengers on Mars?
[Laughs] Certainly the [Virgin] Galactic guys have their work cut out for them. Look, we think this is a natural fit for us. Our brand allows us to do things that others won’t. When you look at what other [cruise lines] try to do, they try to appeal to a very wide variety of different demographics and lifestyles. Many of them are appealing to children, teens, families, adults, singles, married couples, seniors, and everything in between. And as we look at what the sweet spot is for Virgin, it’s about people that are young at heart, want something different, a bit edgier, cool, and hip. It’s not just millennials but certainly we’ll get our fair share of millennials.
Can cruising be sexy? Virgin Cruises is going to try. (Photo: iStock)
The average cruise passenger is 49 years old. 84 percent are married. How are you looking to expand or build on that?
I think it’s an opportunity. We’re not looking to be a 30-ship fleet. We are looking at things with a laser focus and filling one, then two, then three ships. So this is about finding the people who fit, finding the people who want this type of experience.
One of the things that we did was we purposely built ships that were what we’re calling midsize. What you see right now is a lot of [other cruise lines ordering] 160,000-ton, 5,500- to 6,000-passenger vessels. Our customers were a little concerned about that, about that sense of mass. So we’re going with three ships that are a bit smaller to midsize ships — 110,000 tons each, about 2,850 passengers each. That gives us the flexibility to go to more places, provide a variety of different itinerary options, perhaps to do some more unique type of things with the itinerary, and create a much more intimate experience — to get away from that sense of mass. We think that’s an important element to our type of consumer.
Are there any details about ship design that you’re able to talk about?
We’re really not disclosing anything right now. Frankly, we’re still designing. We’ve asked our customers who are interested to go to Virgincruises.com and give us some feedback, tell us what they’re looking for. We really want to include them in the process.
Well, I could go to the website but I’m talking to you, so I’ll just throw an idea out right now: The dancers and singers from the Virgin America preflight safety video. I don’t know if you’ve seen that…
Yes, I have. Fantastic!
They would make great cruise ship entertainment! That song is really catchy. They will have a packed house every night!
What Virgin America did with the safety video is kind of consistent with what Virgin does. Have a little bit of fun with it. I think — not letting any secrets out — we’ll do a lot of similar things like that. Our brand allows us to do that. At the end of the day, people on vacation want to have a good time. We’re going to bring fun back to cruising.
That Virgin America video sets the bar high for your precruise safety drills.
Oh, I think we’ll have some fun there, too.
Are we going to see mood lighting on Virgin’s first cruise ship, like on Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America?
I think we have an opportunity here for Virgin Cruises to extend the brand. All of our Virgin brands have been very successful, and we certainly learn from them and partner with them.
What are your feelings about onboard entertainment?
[Virgin’s] roots are in entertainment and music, so we’ll leverage that to create great experiences. But they will be different. This is a lifestyle; you’re traveling with people like you. Part of the entertainment is, how do we engage like-minded people to have a good time onboard, and how do we provide those great entertainment venues that you wouldn’t necessarily see on a ship?
A lot of ships are doing Broadway-style shows. I think our consumers, if they want to see a Broadway-style show, they’ll go to New York. Our challenge will be to come up with what is new, unique, and fun that you haven’t seen before. We certainly will put a lot of resources around that, and we certainly have some great ideas.
Virgin Cruises will succeed or fail based on its ability to bring younger, first-time cruisers aboard. (Photo: iStock)
Yahoo Travel: Are we going to see an element of Las Vegas in Virgin Cruises — the adult playground kind of thing?
I don’t know that I would make a pure comparison to Vegas, but I think that there are a lot of elements in Vegas that appeal to people that will appeal to our consumer as well. They’re going to want a bit of an edgier experience, a bit more fun experience, where you go to have a great time, and we’ll see that onboard our ship for sure.
That’s not to say this is going to be a Vegas at sea; we don’t want to have that perception, because the Virgin brand is a bit different than that. Of course we’ll have gaming — that’s in our plans for right now. I think this will be an experience that appeals to a lot of people: singles that want to go and see other singles; young couples; multiple couples traveling together; singles traveling as a group together. It will be families as well. The younger, affluent folks have families, and I think some of them will bring their kids, some will leave their kids behind. We will still provide kids’ experiences, but it will primarily be an adult experience — but we’ll certainly have family [activities]. What I know from my days at Disney is that in order for the adults to have a good time, you have to take care of the kids.
Let’s talk about a difficult topic. The former CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line is suing Virgin. [Colin Veitch alleges Virgin stole his idea for a cruise line; he’s filed a $300 million federal lawsuit against Branson and Virgin Group.] What’s the status of that lawsuit now? Are you worried about it delaying anything?
No. At the end of the day, we believe this is completely meritless. Unfortunately in the United States it’s very easy to file lawsuits. We’re aggressively defending it. Most importantly, we’re not going to let it get in our way. We know that we’ll prevail, but it’s a nuisance at this point. It’s a nuisance lawsuit, but it’s not slowing us down.
Virgin Cruises’ home port is going to be Miami, and there is likely going to be a Caribbean itinerary. An unavoidable question for you guys is the potential for Cuba.
Look, I think Cuba is going to be great for the industry, I think it provides us some more sex appeal to the Caribbean. My personal belief is that Cuba will open up very shortly in the next year or couple of years. I wish I had ships in the water today to be able to capitalize on that. Where that goes in the future, I’m not sure. We certainly will consider Cuba, but we can’t consider them right now.
I have to just ask you for a confirmation on something: Did Richard Branson really snip the tie off of the mayor of Miami when announcing Virgin Cruises’ home port out of Miami?
Absolutely. Richard has this fun way of dealing with things that are too stuffy in business. I caution people, don’t ever wear a tie around him. I was cautioned in that regard.
McAlpin and Branson announce Miami’s new port. Notice McAlpin is not wearing a tie. (Photo: Virgin Cruises)
I’m sure you have some nice ties, too, that you know not to wear anywhere near his presence.
Listen, I came from an organization where you’re expected to wear a tie every day, and it is great to be here in my jeans and without a tie.
What’s Richard Branson like to work with?
He’s a lot of fun. You can see that by his demeanor. He’s a gregarious, fun-loving guy, but serious about business. He has a great passion for cruising. He’s very excited that we’re finally in business, and frankly he wants to grow it beyond three ships.
When you’re planning a new cruise line, do you ever run into the feeling that so many things have been tried? So many cruise lines out there, huge cruise lines, have tried different things to varying degrees of success. How do you find something new?
One of the benefits we have is the power of the brand. The brand allows us to do things that others wouldn’t dare to do because they may be offensive to certain people. But we can do it in a fun, cheeky kind of a way where people… I think many people will like it, others may not, but we take that risk, and that’s something you can’t do when you’re trying to appeal to everyone from children all the way up to seniors.
We don’t want cruisers to just say they went on a cruise. We want them to say, “I went on a Virgin Cruise.” And what that means is that it’s a different experience than the rest of the industry. In a fun, cool, exciting way — they’re going to have a good time no matter who they’re traveling with. But they’re going to be traveling with a lot of like-minded people, who are out there to have a good time.
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