Richard Branson hates cruise ships, so why’d he build one?

When you step into the Scarlet Lady cruise ship, you know immediately you’re on Richard Branson’s ship.

There’s a record store on the left selling limited edition Sex Pistols and Lady Gaga on vinyl. The crew has cooler outfits than you. And there is red, red, red everywhere — lest you forget this is a Virgin-branded endeavour.

Then there is Branson himself, back from space and joining his executive team in New York City to show off Virgin Voyages’ first ship before it starts sailing from Miami on October 6.

Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady
Passengers will note Virgin’s signature red throughout the ship. (Virgin Voyages)

It finished a short run in the United Kingdom, where strict vaccine and testing requirements kept major COVID-19 problems at bay.

The 1408-cabin ship is hip, alternating luxury with a casual vibe that beckons guests to come as they are if they happen to be very cool kinds of people. The adults-only ship has luxurious gold fixtures and bannisters, ultrachic, boutique-sized restaurants and double chaise loungers absolutely everywhere that seem destined for guests who want to canoodle the day away.

Everything on the cruise ship screams, “This is not a cruise ship!” And that’s because Branson said he hated the idea of ever being on one.

So why get into an industry that was already serving 29.7 million happy customers in 2019 before the pandemic?

“Before I started Virgin Atlantic, I didn’t fancy flying on other people’s airlines because they were stuffy, not fun,” Branson told CNN Travel from one of the ship’s Rockstar suites. “That’s the perfect time to go into business and [ask] could we create the kind of cruise company that myself, my family and friends would love to go on?”

Virgin Voyages wellbeing space with pool
The billionaire Virgin founder wanted to design a cruise ship that he and his family and friends would enjoy. (Virgin Voyages)

Floating nightclub

That apparently means having guitars and turntables at hand in the two premium “Massive” suites, peekaboo showers in many of the cabins so you never have to lose sight of your loved ones and Richard’s Rooftop — a private bar and cocktail area for guests (or “sailors” as they’re called) who’ve sprung extra for suites.

To create all this, Virgin Voyages pulled together a team of designers who are more accustomed to working on land, such as Roman and Williams, who are known for New York’s Ace Hotel.

Among other things, they designed the Manor, a theatre that turns into a nightclub. You enter it by way of a massive tunnel drenched in stars. The space has a stage that moves around so audiences can interact and a bright neon sign on the wall that says, “If you want to dance, dance! If you can’t see something, move! If you want a drink, grab a drink!”

The Manor entrance: Theatre that turns into a nightclub onboard the Scarlet Lady
The Manor’s sparkly entrance. (Virgin Voyages)

There’s no massive dining hall or buffet, no neon amusement rides and no cruise director here. Instead, ship activities and “happenings” are run by staff who are experts at what they do; workout with real fitness gurus, play games with real gamers and dine with avowed foodies.

The Virgin team did, however, include some major cruise industry veterans such as Frank Weber, senior vice president of hotel operations. Weber couldn’t help but dance through the hallways while touring the ship for press. He’d had new ideas pent up for nearly three decades while working at companies such as Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.

“Every time I wanted to change something, you had to jump through hoops because your loyalty customers say, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you changed this!’ ” Weber says. “This is my baby, and I’ve put a lot of effort and work and passion in.”

Scarlet Lady offered Weber and the team an opportunity to do everything from scratch and that’s fully apparent when eating and drinking. For one, Weber thought drink packages were “the devil,” so guests can buy prepaid bar tabs; a $300 tab comes with a $50 bonus.

‘Not your grandma’s cruise’

You don’t get set times for dinner, and you won’t be stuck at large tables with guests you don’t know (unless you ask to be).

The ship has more than 20 eateries, including a bright, open food hall. You can also dine at one of the six specialty restaurants any time you want; just add yourself to the wait list, and an app tells you when your table is ready.

Have an Impossible burger while sipping an old fashioned topped with salty-sweet popcorn at Razzle Dazzle, home of the drag brunch. Play Korean drinking games at Gunbae while grilling your food right in front of you. Or go high-end and order a seafood tower at The Wake.

Virgin Voyages Rockstar 'massive' suites
Virgin Voyages’ premium Rockstar “Massive” suites features turntables, guitars and a private spa. (Virgin Voyages)

It’s all part of your package, and there are no upcharges for your dining choices. Tips are included. Weber points out that on a traditional cruise ship, all the food often comes from one central galley, but that’s one of many ways that cruising has lost its way. But Scarlet Lady goes for authenticity.

“Each restaurant has their own kitchen,” says Weber. “Each restaurant has their own executive chef, which is more expensive than doing it in other ways, but you improve the quality.”

Virgin executives admit this kind of made-to-order individual attention goes contrary to normal cruise industry thinking where meals are mass produced so a ship’s thousands of guests can all eat on time.

“It’s tougher on the staff …” Branson starts to say.

“But that’s what makes us so different,” finishes Tom McAlpin, CEO of Virgin Voyages who sits beside Branson. “Those are the types of things that say — this is not your grandma’s cruise.”

But grandmas and grandpas are a huge and loyal chunk of the cruise market. Adults in their 60s are the largest passenger group, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, and they’re even more powerful when bringing along the grandkids. To keep growing, the industry needs those grandkids to turn into customers when they grow up. The industry worries that’s not been happening quite enough and COVID-19 just made things worse.

Sip, the new Champagne and caviar lounge onboard Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady
Sip, the new Champagne and caviar lounge onboard Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady (Virgin Voyages)

Tattoos at sea

Virgin Voyages seems to be doing all it can to appeal to that younger, discerning crowd.

Like many new cruise ships, they’ve made Scarlet Lady environmentally friendly. The engine converts heat waste into electricity, and they shun single-use plastics. Many ingredients come from sustainable or local Florida sources. The coffee is from Intelligentsia, a company that relies on “direct trade” over “fair trade,” meaning it guarantees farmers a minimum price for crops.

Entertainment is “choose your own adventure” and reminiscent of some hot new thing you couldn’t snag tickets to in New York or London. There’s a participatory night show called “Never Sleep Alone” run by a sex therapist, a series of plays that pop up throughout the ship called Phantom Folktales and new productions by Randy Weiner, who created “The Donkey Show” and “Sleep No More.”

There’s the usual casino and shopping, but Weber said the tattoo parlour was booked up during the ship’s UK run (must have been smooth sailing.)

McAlpin says he would love it if Scarlet Lady showed a larger market that there is a “new way to cruise” but says Virgin Voyages is not necessarily focused on wooing younger crowds. They’re going after people who are a lot like Richard Branson.

“We’re really focusing on the young-at-heart, people who want to come have a good time,” says McAlpin. “They don’t want all that formality but still want luxury … and luxury your way.”

Scarlet Lady starts officially sailing on October 6 with trips through the Caribbean, stopping at Virgin’s private beach club in Bimini (in the Bahamas).

Cabins range from $1000 to $8100 and were still selling as of September 18. Virgin Voyages plans on launching the second of its four planned ships, Valiant Lady, in 2022, which will sail throughout the Mediterranean.


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