14 questions with… Tom McAlpin, Virgin Voyages CEO

LATTE talks with the former President of 'The World'

Next month she starts her sea trials, and in less than 200 days Virgin Voyages‘ first of four ocean cruise ships, Scarlet Lady, will enter service under the startup cruise line’s “epic sea change”.

In charge of the company is President and Chief Executive Officer Tom McAplin.

McAlpin’s career in the cruise industry has been vast following a stint in public accounting. He was with Royal Caribbean for eight years before switching to the family-oriented Disney Cruise Line. McAlpin wrote the business plan for DCL as Chief Financial Officer, was promoted to President and stayed with the company for 14 years, ultimately moving on to become the President and CEO of The World (privately owned residential yacht), a position he held for six years.

He joined Virgin Voyages in January 2015 and was responsible for raising US$725 million in equity for the startup cruise company, in addition to writing the business plan and designing the ships. He leads the company which has a growing workforce of over 260 employees, including 30 in Italy where Scarlet Lady is being built.

Has the partnership with Travel the World been a long time coming?

I think we realised when we opened up [Scarlet Lady] for bookings that, wow, we were getting bookings from Australia and New Zealand. I found that interesting and so we started doing a little due diligence and we realised maybe there’s an opportunity here, and if they’re booking us without any marketing efforts, it’s just because of the affinity for the experience and the awareness, then maybe there is something we should do.

So we came down and had conversations and decided to set up a GSA structure to book through. It means we don’t really have to do the marketing here. Now, we’re all about focusing on delivery of the experience and delivering the ship.

Travel the World are great partners. They are really embracing us and they believe in it like we do. 

Virgin Voyages President & CEO Tom McAlpin | &copy LATTE
Virgin Voyages President & CEO Tom McAlpin | &copy LATTE

Were there other parties you were considering for the Australian GSA?

We looked at a couple of folks but Travel the World were the clear winners. They are well known in the industry and well known in CLIA so it made good sense. We did some research and approached the guys that we thought would be the best fit.

Why is having a GSA in Australia important to you?

At this point in our growth we want to appeal to as broad a market as we possibly can. The more bookings and the more demand we get the better off we are.  We’ll take bookings from any place. It just seems the natural fit, people are knocking and wanting it.

We’re not experienced in this market either so we hire people who are up to the job.

Virgin Voyages' Aquatic Club rendering
Virgin Voyages' Aquatic Club rendering

What share of your bookings are coming out of Australia?

Virgin Voyages Chief Marketing Officer, Nathan Rosenberg (NR): It’s a small part of the overall  group but the really interesting thing is it’s the quality of the client we are finding.

Tom McAlpin (TM): From so far away to be getting bookings, it got our attention.

NR: It was also the proportion of the number of Suites which was for us quite exciting. Even though the Australian dollar feels a little challenged at the moment you don’t mind splashing out with us. 

As you know down here, Richard [Branson] is a rockstar. What we has done here with Virgin Australia, Virgin Money and Virgin Active: there is a love for the brand here because it is an egalitarian, customer service orientated brand that doesn’t take itself seriously. It isn’t corporate but we have the principles of being very customer focused.

Tom was talking to Paul Scurrah, CEO of Virgin Australia, just a matter of weeks ago and it was very obvious that this was a market that we had to be in. We don’t want to ignore Australia. Richard loves it but also the Virgin brand is a success down here.

 Are most bookings for Virgin Voyages coming out of the US market?

TM: Yes, the bulk of our market, and the UK. I would say in order it would be the US, then Canada and the UK on parity, and then Australia.

What are the age groups that you are reaching?

Everybody wants that number: from the angle of who we are trying to attract. It is not a specific demographic. It is what we call young at heart. It is people who have the affinity, the aspiration for wanting something new and something exciting, and wanting to come on board and have fun and willing to engage. It could appeal to anyone from 18 to 80.

So you ask how are the bookings coming along. They are coming in kind of what we expected, skewing a little bit younger because that’s just the nature of our product, and that’s okay. We want that. 

You say “younger” but what is younger in the cruise market? Younger than what you already see in the wider cruise industry? 

NR: If you compare us we sit at the upper end of the major brands.  This is a good quality product with a lot of inclusions. It’s not something where you will find teenagers and 20 year olds who maybe won’t be able to afford it.

We are seeing lot of people booking celebrations. People turning 30, 40, 50 and 60 – we are getting a disproportional amount of people booking their celebration vacations onboard the ship which I think is going to be quite cool.

Itineraries are currently just Caribbean specific for Scarlet Lady. Have you announced where the ships will go next, beyond the Caribbean?

We have not as yet. We will move beyond the Caribbean but we have not announced where.

We’ve announced that the second ship will be coming to Miami in November of ‘21 and it will sail half of the year out of Miami but the other half year we haven’t revealed as yet. You can probably figure it out. In December we’ll make an announcement on its deployment.

Virgin Voyages ship two, ______ Lady, as shared on Virgin Voyages' Facebook profile recently
Virgin Voyages ship two, ______ Lady, as shared on Virgin Voyages' Facebook profile recently

Have you announced the name of the second ship as yet, and will it be identical in design to Scarlet Lady?

We’re close. It will be another lady ship. It will be a series of where we will use “Lady” in the name. 

They are sister ships, so yes, because the cost of engineering of a new design, and you get huge economies of scale from the shipyards. They don’t want to do prototype ships. Shipbuilders like a second and a third ship as they improve construction efficiencies.

In terms of will they be exactly the same, we may make some little changes, but we don’t really need to. The difference is I can have a ship here and a ship there and a ship there. The restaurants may be a little bit different, but they could be the same because you are going to those different places for their itineraries. The way that we’ve designed our ship is that there is more to do on board than you can experience in five, six or seven days. That opens up the opportunity for sailors to come back and see it again.

Virgin Voyages initially ordered three ships with Fincantieri, and then the order was increased to four. Is it too early to consider ship five?

Richard would love to do it now. My point to him is that a fifth ship would need to be a new design. We couldn’t do a fifth ship exactly like Scarlet Lady because regulations have moved on. We’d have to do a new design.

We are focused on delivering this business and that’s a priority. I don’t want to get distracted with that. Our fourth ship is really our growth opportunity. 

Will shore excursions be included in the cruise cost, or additional?

Not included as part of our package but we’re in the process of developing those and we’ll have some really cool excursions. Different levels. We’ll have a signature series that’ll be called Shore Things. We’ll have a combination of a lot of different layers of what they look like. They won’t be for the mass but they’ll be for bigger groups. We’ll have some really intimate experiences.

Bimini Beach Bar
Bimini Beach Bar

With the Trump Administration stripping your plans for Cuba, what other destinations are you excited about?

We’ve got some great itineraries to Dominican Republic, and Bimini, to Costa Maya and Bimini and Cozumel/Playa del Carmen and Tulum. But Bimini is going to be I think the jewel of offering.

Bimini is an island that is absolutely gorgeous. White beaches, turquoise water, lots to do, water sports, and it’s small enough – it’s too small for a big ship, but it’s just right for us. It gives our sailors the flexibility of doing all those things and really explore.

It’s just one road and with a population of just 1,500 people. We’ve created the Virgin Voyages beach club here. It’s nine acres [3.6 hectares] and is Mediterranean themed. Think Saint-Tropez meets Ibiza. A really highly curated experience with DJ mixing from the likes of Diplo and Mark Ronson. A place that you can go and chill in a really cool environment. And we’ll stay late frequently. Some nights we’ll stay to midnight, have a sunset soiree and bonfire experience. It’s just a cool way to sample all that Bimini has to offer, mixed with this really cool, chic, adults-only beach club.

How focused is Virgin Voyages on delivering a sustainable cruise product and program?

Sustainability is part of our DNA. Our brand purpose is an epic sea change as we create this business. It’s the hallmark of the five pillars. First is our passengers (our sailors), it’s also our crew, our communities, its our travel partners and its our oceans.

We’ve done a lot with focusing on a ban on single use plastics but even more than that. It’s reducing waste. No buffets, that creates a lot of waste, we’re reducing all of our disposals.

Building a ship that is using the latest technology and LED lighting everywhere and whole form design. We are partnering with a company like Climeon to put new technology into better utilise the exhaust gases and convert them to clean energy.

Virgin Voyages has partnered with the sustainable company Intelligentsia Coffee as its exclusive coffee provider
Virgin Voyages has partnered with the sustainable company Intelligentsia Coffee as its exclusive coffee provider

Partnering with sustainable focused companies like Stream to Sea which is a reef-safe suncream, and working with companies like Intelligentsia who responsibly sources coffee and makes sure people receive living wages where they buy it from.

It’s part of our DNA. Richard has created ocean elders and oceans unite and saving the oceans is a big part of his focus and we’re working with Oceans Unite as kind of our NGO to help us craft what our strategy is long, and how do we focus on helping save the oceans.

It’s not just something that is a requirement. We do it because it’s who we are. People today almost demand it and it fits naturally for us.

Could you see the Virgin Voyages brand evolve to river cruising? 

Not thinking about it.

What about expedition cruising?

Love them, but there’s a lot of people doing it right now. There’s huge growth in that market. I think its probably a little bit too much growth right now.

The beauty of our business is that we can grow and we have a great brand. I wouldn’t say no forever, but not now. But I love expedition. If I were to go on a cruise, that’s what I would choose to do. 

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