Virgin Voyages has set its prices much higher than a typical Caribbean cruise, but the operator is including more perks in the price — and insists it will be anything but typical. Will fans of the brand pony up?
Startup cruise line Virgin Voyages started selling its first sailings to the general public Thursday, and one thing was clear: The adult-only, buffet-free, mid-sized ship launching next year won’t come cheap.
Prices for a standard balcony room on the Scarlet Lady — called a sea terrace — in May of 2020 start at $3,650 per cabin for a five-night cruise that includes Havana. That’s significantly more than a weeklong cruise on mass-market lines or trips on famously pricey Disney Cruise Line, and even steeper than a weeklong trip that includes Cuba on high-end Oceania Cruises.
“We don’t think about the other cruise operators when we do our pricing,” said Virgin Voyages President and CEO Tom McAlpin at a press event Thursday in New York City. “We try to create something that is much more inclusive. Everything we do is about being different.”
Wi-Fi, for example, will be included in the fare, and gratuities won’t be required. None of the ship’s more than 20 restaurants will carry an extra charge, and activities such as fitness classes will also be complimentary.
“It means that Bain and the Virgin shareholders won’t make any money,” joked Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group and the cruise line, referring to the cruise line’s investors.
Alcohol, retail, and shore excursions will still cost extra, but offering free Wi-Fi and dining is unusual for all but luxury lines.
“This is a premium experience, it will be a premium price,” McAlpin said. “But we want our sailors to come away thinking that they got an incredible value.”
Branson compared the approach to Virgin Atlantic, the airline now owned by Delta, Air France-KLM, and Virgin Group.
“We were offering a first-class product at a business-class fare,” he said. “That’s in a sense what we try to do with every new business we set up. We want everyone to leave Virgin Voyages thinking wow, we got our money’s worth.”
The price sets expectations high, especially for Caribbean itineraries that leave from Miami. Stewart Chiron, CEO of CruiseGuy.com, said in an email: “To exceed Disney pricing, they better deliver a cruise experience second-to-none.”
Executives have been releasing information in bits and pieces — called “ShipTeases” in cheeky Virgin parlance — that they believe will set the brand apart.
Thursday, some of that new information included entertainment, which the company has dubbed “Events & Gigs.” Rather than a Broadway-style show, the Scarlet Lady will offer six original shows that include “interactive dance parties and off-the-wall participatory acts.” There will be no cruise director, but Virgin has tapped entertainment pros including choreographers, producers, and theater and circus companies.
“We heard from our sailors that they weren’t really looking for a watered-down version of a Broadway show,” said Nirmal Saverimuttu, chief commercial officer and head of sailor experience.
Virgin also revealed Thursday that sailings will call on Bimini, a tiny Bahamian island. Resorts World Bimini, an existing property, is building The Beach Club at Bimini to the cruise line’s specifications. Guest DJs including Grammy winner Mark Ronson will perform at the club on specific dates throughout the year.
Matthew Upchurch, CEO of luxury travel agency network Virtuoso, attended Thursday’s event and said he thinks Virgin is giving travel advisors plenty to work with.
“When you have a brand like this join the industry, we absolutely believe this brand is going to generate new-to-cruising people that just hadn’t even considered it,” he said. “I think it’s going to help everybody, I think it’s going to help — the entire sector — people pay attention to it.”
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Photo credit: The first Virgin Voyages ship, Scarlet Lady, is shown under construction in a recent photo. Sailings went on sale to the public Thursday. Virgin Voyages