Breaking Travel News interview: Tom McAlpin, chief executive, Virgin Voyages
After a nearly a year-and-a-half at anchor following a delayed launch, Virgin Voyages is finally setting sail on its inaugural cruise this month.
Alright, it is around the UK, without any port calls, but after the past 17-months chief executive, Tom McAlpin, is just delighted to be onboard and ready to go.
“There is incredible excitement in the cruise industry; it has been a tough time, but I can tell you right now, we are ready.
“The crew is ready, the ship is ready, our passengers are ready – we are ready to set sail,” he tells Breaking Travel News from the bridge of Scarlet Lady, the first vessel in the fleet.
“The mood is one of incredible pent-up demand from consumers.
“However, they are still a little worried and we, as an industry, have the opportunity and obligation to prove to everyone that it is safe to sail onboard ships.
“We have taken a lot of action in this area, and we think we have the safest way to travel.”
With the sector slowly reopening after the Covid-19 shutdown, Virgin Voyages will offer a series of three- and four-night trips from Portsmouth this summer.
The aim is to give guests a taste of life onboard, before decamping to Miami in October for a winter season touring the Caribbean.
An exuberant American, with a long history in the cruise sector, McAlpin has not seen his enthusiasm for the new venture dented over the past year or more.
“Who would have predicted a pandemic like this?
“These are the types of things you cannot foresee, and there are risks in any business,” he continues.
“The good news for Virgin Voyages is that we have great investors behind us, and they have been supportive throughout.
“This is not just us; the industry is in this together, and we will rebound – the industry is incredibly resilient.
“We have weathered the past 17-months and the good news is that there is that pent-up demand.
“We see bookings picking up, people are tired of being stuck in their homes; our passengers are sick of being parents, guardians, teachers and coaches - they want to sail again.
“We can offer them the perfect way to get away and have a break from that.”
Of course, ever since 14 people died onboard Diamond Princess off Japan at the outbreak of the pandemic last spring, something of a cloud has hung over the cruise sector.
As the relaunch gathers pace, Virgin Voyages has put safety at the centre of its offering.
Only British residents will be able to join the summer sailings, while all guests must be fully-vaccinated against Covid-19.
McAlpin continues: “We have spent the last 17-months really looking at all options, and our goal is to make our passengers feel safe, feel secure.
“With the protocols we have put in place, we believe we can do that.
“It starts with the things we do onboard, including enhanced cleaning and sanitisation, but we consider that to be table stakes.”
He continues: “We have invested in new technology, called AtmosAir, a purification system, as opposed to a filtration system, which uses bi-polar ionisation to clean 100 per cent of all bacteria.
“This is the system that is being used in hospitals around the world today.
“This combination means there is no safer environment; this is safer than going to a theatre, going to a casino or a theme park, restaurant or bar.
“We have a controlled environment onboard, and we are able to take advantage of that.”
With no chance to get off the ship during a trip, Virgin Voyages is seeking to wow passengers with a feast of entertainment onboard.
Working with designers including Tom Dixon and Roman & Williams, the line has sought to create a sanctuary at sea.
The Wake and Richard’s Rooftop, an exclusive chic outdoor lounge, are not to be missed, for example.
Each space offers a distinct voice with additional highlights including the Red Room, the first multi-form theatre at sea, the Dock, a rustic beach-club serving Mediterranean-inspired tapas, Sip, the decadent Champagne house, and B-Complex complete with its build, bike and balance rooms.
“We are aimed at the premium end of the market; we have created a brand, a vision based around differentiating ourselves,” says McAlpin.
“If you are a foodie, when you come onboard, you are going to love this ship, as there are 20 different eateries, including six different restaurants, which means you can visit a different one each night on these short trips.
“The entertainment is also a much more immersive experience; the theatre is able to change configuration three times throughout the voyage.
“We are also designed for adults only, so you do not have to worry about the little ones – this means there is a much more sophisticated, elevated experience onboard.”
Following her summer in the UK, Scarlet Lady will head to the United States for the winter season.
“Demand has been good for our Summer Soiree series, as we return to the roots of Virgin here in the UK,” continues McAlpin, “the brand recognition is very high here.
“We have had to limit our capacity as we return, to around 60 per cent, which is fine as we launch the business.
“We are here throughout the month of August; we are doing six of the three- and four-night sailings before we take the ship across the Atlantic for some inaugural events in New York and Miami.
“Next are four- and five-night sailings to the Caribbean from Miami in October.”
He adds: “When we sail from Miami, we are also able to offer stops at Bimini, which is our private island with the Virgin Voyages Beach Club.
“We offer all this at what we believe is a reasonable price point – we are thinking of this as creating value for money, a boutique hotel on the water.
“It is much more relaxed than what cruising has been in the past, it is a different market.”
Looking ahead, Virgin Voyages remains confident the cruise sector will recover the lustre it had going into 2020.
“We have just taken delivery of Valiant Lady, which we will launch next spring and are happy to announce she will sail from Portsmouth for her inauguration,” adds McAlpin.
“There will be a series of short cruises down the canary islands, before that ship is deployed into Barcelona, which will be her home for the summer months.
“We will offer three different itineraries there, sailing to Spain, France and Italy – with each having an overnight in Ibiza, so you can feel the culture and the excitement there.
“In winter, Valiant Lady will reposition to Miami and offer six- and eight-night sailings to the Caribbean.
“Finally, we have Resilient Lady, which will be joining us next year.
“She will operate out of Athens in the summer, offering cruises around the Greek islands and the Mediterranean.
“The UK and wider Europe will be an important sector for us; it is just a short flight to Barcelona or Athens.”
For more information on Scarlet Lady and the Summer Soirée Series of the 2022 schedule, head over to the official website.