Cruise stalwart vows new line will ‘go against the grain’ and says ‘the trade is very important’. By Hollie-Rae Merrick

The speculation had been rife for months, so when Richard Branson announced plans to order ships for Virgin Cruises in Miami last week it didn’t come as much of a surprise to many.

Branson joined Tom McAlpin, the president and chief executive of Virgin Cruises, to reveal that a letter of intent had been signed with Italian shipyard Fincantieri for the delivery of three mid-sized ships. The new-builds, which will be delivered in 2020, 2021 and 2022, herald a new era in cruising, according to the pair, who claim to want to “shake up” the industry.

Start-up pedigree

McAlpin, who joined Virgin in January, has a history of working on start-up cruise lines. He was part of the founding team at Disney Cruise Line and worked for the brand for 14 years, five years of which he spent as president. He’s also previously worked for Royal Caribbean International, but most recently was president and chief executive of residential ship The World for five years.

“Start-ups are what I love doing the best,” he said. “It means I can really put my stamp on things.

“The Virgin Cruises project is particularly exciting because this is a very fun and cool brand.”

Speaking in his first UK trade interview, McAlpin says the Virgin brand will look to differentiate itself from other cruise lines.

“Because of the profile of the Virgin brand we can have a little fun with what we do and we can be cheeky,” he said. “Our ships will be sassy and sexy.

“A lot of other new ships have all these cool features but for the most part what they are actually doing is making their brands vanilla. Our ships will be more boutique and reflect what we are which is a lifestyle brand.”

Target markets

Initial details about Virgin Cruises are scant. All that has been announced is that the first 2,800-berth ship will sail from Miami on seven-night Caribbean itineraries, departing on Sundays.

Miami was chosen because of its proximity to the Caribbean and because the line plans to focus initially on attracting guests from the US market. However, McAlpin says that after the line has built a following in the US, it will then look to entice Brits and Europeans. And he doesn’t rule out having a ship in the Mediterranean in the future.

“Virgin Cruises will be for the young at heart and we will be very focused on the customers we want to attract,” he added.

“Too many of cruising’s larger brands try to be something to everyone and end up not standing out and diluting their message and focus. We’re going against the grain because we’ve decided not to build larger ships; instead, we will have mid-sized ships that will be very intimate.”

Selling through trade

When quizzed on how Virgin Cruises would be sold, McAlpin said the trade would be vital to the success of the new brand.

“The travel trade is very important because it’s a very efficient way of reaching travellers,” he said. “They know cruise well and they know how to sell cruise. Working alongside the travel trade is important.”

McAlpin said the brand wouldn’t be “priced at the bottom of the barrel” and claimed the line would offer great value but not at cheap prices.

He believes Virgin can use its leverage to offer packages combining flights from Virgin Atlantic, land-based holidays from Virgin Holidays and cruises.

“I can’t see why we wouldn’t use the synergy we have in Virgin and the leverage to create more opportunities,” he said.

“We are committed to making waves in the cruise industry.

“We’ve gone out to our customers to ask them what they want to see from our ships. We’ve designed the shell and the skeleton of our ships and we have plans for what might feature on each deck, but we’re really keen to get feedback to see what people want us to create.”