You know you’re on Richard Branson’s hates cruise ships the moment you step on the Scarlet Lady cruise ship.
On the left, there’s a record store offering limited edition Sex Pistols and Lady Gaga records on vinyl. The remainder of the group outstrips you. And, lest you forget, this being a Virgin-branded venture, there’s red, red, red everywhere.
Then there’s Branson, who’s returned from space and is in New York City with his senior team to show off Virgin Voyages’ first ship before it sets sail from Miami on October 6.
It had a brief run in the United Kingdom, where tight vaccination and testing standards prevented severe Covid-19 issues.
The 1,408-cabin ship is cool, combining luxury with a laid-back feel that invites visitors to come as they are if they are cool people. The adults-only ship features opulent gold fixtures and banisters, ultrachic, boutique-style restaurants, and double chaise loungers aplenty, all of which appear tailor-made for visitors looking to canoodle the day away.
“This is not a cruise ship!” yells everything aboard the cruise ship. That’s because Branson has previously stated that he despises the idea of ever being on one.
So, why enter an industry that already had 29.7 million satisfied clients in 2019 before the pandemic?
“I didn’t like traveling on other people’s airlines before I founded Virgin Atlantic because they were stuffy and not enjoyable,” Branson told inside one of the ship’s Rockstar suites. ‘It is now a wonderful opportunity to start a company and to [ask] to establish the type of cruise line that I, my friends, and family want to take.’
In the two pricey “massive” suites, guitar and turntables, peekaboo showers on many of the cabins that keep you away from your loved ones and Richard’s Rooftop, a separate bar and drink area for passengers (or “sailor” as we know it) who splurge in suites.
Virgin Voyages assembled a team of designers who are more accustomed to working on the land, such as Roman and Williams, the architects behind New York’s Ace Hotel.
They designed the Manor, a theater that transforms into a nightclub, among other things. A huge tunnel with stars leads to it. The room contains a moving stage for audience interaction, as well as a bright neon sign on the wall that reads, “Dance if you want to dance! If you can’t see something, get out of the way! Grab a drink if you want one!”
There is no huge dining hall or buffet here, no neon entertainment rides, and no cruise operator. Instead, expert supervision of ship operations and events;’ you’ll work out with actual fitness gurus, play games with true gamers, and dine with true gourmet.
However, certain big cruise industry professionals, like Frank Weber, senior vice president of hotel operations, were part of the Virgin team. While touring the ship for the press, Weber couldn’t help but dance along the corridors. While working for firms like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, he’d had new ideas brewing for over three decades.
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“You had to jump through hoops every time I wanted to change something because your loyal customers would say, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you changed this!'” Weber explains. “This is my baby. A lot of time, effort, and passion have been spent in it.”
Scarlet Lady supplied Weber and the team all that is evident for eating and drinking from scratch. For one thing, Weber considered drink packages to be “the devil,” so guests can purchase prepaid bar tabs, with a $50 bonus for a $300 tab.
‘This isn’t your grandmother’s cruise’
There are no regular supper times, and you will not be seated at enormous tables with strangers (unless you ask to be.)
There are over 20 restaurants onboard, including a large, open food hall. You may also eat at one of the six specialty restaurants whenever you want; simply sign up for a waitlist and an app will notify you when your table is ready.
At Razzle Dazzle, home of the drag brunch, order an Impossible burger while sipping an old-fashioned topped with salty-sweet popcorn. At Gunbae, you may play Korean drinking games while seeing your meal grilled right in front of your eyes. Alternatively, treat yourself to a seafood tower at The Wake.
It’s all included in your package, and there are no additional fees for dining options. There are several helpful hints offered. Weber notes that on a classic cruise ship, all of the food is often served from a single central kitchen, but this is just one of the many ways that cruising has lost its way. Scarlet Lady, on the other hand, strives for genuineness.
“Each restaurant has its own kitchen,” Weber explains. “Every restaurant costs more than alternative solutions to have an executive chef, but the quality is increased.”
Virgin executives agree that this type of personalized, made-to-order service runs counter to the cruise industry’s standard practice of mass-producing meals so that all of the ship’s thousands of passengers can eat on time.
“It’s more difficult for the employees…” Branson begins to speak.
Tom McAlpin, CEO of Virgin Voyages, sits next to Branson, “But that’s what sets us distinct. “That’s the kind of stuff that says, ‘This isn’t your grandmother’s cruise.'”
Grandmas and grandpas, on the other hand, make up a sizable and loyal segment of the cruise market. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, adults in their 60s make up the largest passenger demographic, and they’re even more powerful when they bring their grandchildren along. The industry needs those grandkids to become clients when they grow up if it is to continue to develop. The industry is concerned that this isn’t happening frequently enough, and Covid-19 has just made matters worse.
Tattoos on the water
Virgin Voyages appeared to be going to great lengths to appeal to that younger, more discerning population.
Scarlet Lady, like many new cruise ships, was built with the environment in mind. They prevent single-use plastics and use the engine to convert heat waste into power. Many of the products are sourced from Florida’s sustainable or local sources. Intelligentsia is a coffee company that supports “direct trade” over “fair trade,” which means it guarantees producers a set price for their products.
The entertainment is “choose your own adventure,” and it reminds me of a hot new show that I couldn’t get tickets to in New York or London. There’s a sex therapist-run night show called “Never Sleep Alone,”. A series of performances called Phantom Folktales that spring up throughout the ship. And new shows by Randy Weiner, the creator of “The Donkey Show” and “Sleep No More.”
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There’s a casino and shops. But Weber said the tattoo parlor fully book during the ship’s visit to the United Kingdom (must have smooth sailing.)
McAlpin says he’d want to do it if Scarlet Lady shows to a larger market that there’s a ‘new way’ to travel. But Virgin Voyages isn’t just about luring younger customers. They’re pursuing folks who are similar to Richard Branson.
“We’re really focusing on the young-at-heart, people who want to come and have a good time,” McAlpin continues. ” “They don’t want pomp and glam, but they do want luxury… done their way.”
Scarlet Lady will debut on October 6 with Caribbean voyages that include a stop at Virgin’s private beach club in Bimini (in the Bahamas) Cabins varied in price from $725 to $5,875 and were still available as of September 18.
Virgin Voyages wants to set sail through the Mediterranean in 2022 with the second of four ships it plans, Valiant Lady.