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Richard Branson has pledged to shake up the cruise industry with his latest venture, Virgin Cruises, and agents are taking him at his word, believing that a healthy dose of Branson-style innovation is just what the industry needs.
“People are sick of cattle car, mass-market products, and while some of the existing luxury brands have updated their options onboard, most miss the mark,” said Angela Turen, co-founder of Churchill & Turen. “Most are so structured people feel they really do not have a lot of options. I am expecting Virgin will truly personalize onboard service, given the latest technology innovations.”
Tom Baker, who has sailed on well over 250 ships, couldn’t agree more. “The current cruise industry is lost in a yesteryear of tired and second-rate entertainment and is not hip or fresh at all, even with new technology being introduced,” said Baker, president and partner of CruiseCenter in Houston. “This entry by Virgin will certainly shake things up with Richard’s hip way of implementing products and services.”
In all likelihood, the Virgin product will attract a younger clientele to cruising, agents said. “We need a Virgin-type sleek, hip product in the marketplace with a focus on the under-55 traveler,” said David M. Rubin, owner of DavidTravel in Corona del Mar, Calif.
Mary Jean Tully, founder and CEO of The Cruise Professionals in Toronto, couldn’t agree more. “I feel that Virgin will attract the mid-range age group of 30s to 40s who still want to have fun – and they will no doubt offer creative stuff onboard,” she said.
In part, the power Richard Branson has as a brand will go a long way in attracting these younger cruisers to the line. “There are a lot of people who follow Richard Branson and like him,” Tully said. “He is hip and happening and I believe that a lot of people are still caught in the perception that cruises are for families with young children or for very old people.”
In addition to being younger, prospective Virgin cruisers will also be more active. “I can see Virgin doing fun and exciting things, such as skiing and diving, in addition to very unusual and off-the-beaten path things,” said Tully.
On the itinerary front, Turen said she believes that the cruise line’s port selection could mirror the international, out-of-the box options found on The World, the ultra-luxury ship with 165 private residences headed by Tom McAlpin, who has been selected as Virgin Cruises’ new CEO. Turen said she expects the line will offer overnights in port to enable guests to emerge themselves in local culture.
Not surprisingly, agents believe that the Virgin product, with ships in the 1,250-passenger range, will cater to a luxury clientele. “There is nothing this size in the luxury niche that is truly fresh and modern with attention to nuanced details such as mood lighting, chic design, fun safety briefings and young vibrant employees that has made Virgin is famous,” said Rubin.
For her part, Claire Schoeder of Century Travel in Atlanta is envisioning ships featuring contemporary décor, larger staterooms and a vibrant, charismatic staff. “The staff makes a big difference in the cruise experience. The airline is known for its service and I am looking forward to seeing how that standard of service moves to the Virgin ships,” she said.
“I expect a very inclusive experience, as that is what people associate with Virgin – no additional charges for gratuities, beverages, etc.,” Schoeder said. “And I anticipate that Richard Branson will find several unique things to include as well.”
Speculation aside, CruiseCenter’s Baker knows what he would like to see. “I am hoping it will be like traveling to a top-drawer St. Bart’s beach club resort with great music, current entertainment, the right type of modern cuisine and beverage, and décor that will please a younger, fresher, affluent audience,” he said.
In the end, many agents said they only wish a Virgin Cruises ship would launch before 2019 or 2020, which is when the brand is expected to debut – although recent reports have speculated that a vessel could be delivered to the line as early as 2017.
“I am most excited, to say the least, and 2019 seems far off, but it will be something we can all look forward to,” said Baker.