Tourism & Cruises

Virgin Cruises will now be Virgin Voyages, with promise to shake up cruise industry

In a coy nod at what may be the cruise industry’s next disruptor, Virgin Cruises announced Tuesday it is rebranding as Virgin Voyages, promising “to change cruising for good.” But the company revealed few details about how it would do so when the line debuts in 2020.

“The name cruise is pretty awful so I don’t like that. I don’t know why people call their companies cruise companies,” Virgin Group founder and billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson told guests at the Faena Hotel Miami Beach, the venue for the company’s press event.

Unlike Virgin’s previous press announcements, when Branson arrived by helicopter, the ever-flamboyant Branson’s appearance was relatively subdued. Tuesday, he appeared onstage as a cabana boy bearing champagne for two bikini-clad dancers.

Virgin Voyages’ mission is to attract travelers who may never have considered cruising — like Branson himself.

“The only reason we ever go into a new industry is if we feel it’s lacking in something and I think the cruise industry, there is a lot of people who just would never go on a cruise ship,” Branson told the Miami Herald in an interview Tuesday. “We basically decided, ‘Let’s have a blank sheet of paper, let’s create the kind of voyage company that we would like to go on,’ and that’s what we’ve done.”

What they’ve done is still under “lock and key,” said Branson and Virgin Voyages President and CEO Tom McAlpin, who revealed few details. The line has been collecting traveler feedback since June 2015, when it first announced its cruising venture, and said it will has created its offerings around those suggestions.

“A lot of the things I’ve heard is you get onto cruise ships and you’ve got these massive rooms, big buffets and you feel a little bit like you’re cattle or sheep being herded on and herded off,” Branson said. “We think we can create something that is really fun.”

In a promo video for the new line, Virgin Voyages promises a “holiday you can’t predict” that will “celebrate your curiosity, not force you to follow one itinerary.”

Travelers will get a chance to try it beginning in 2020, when the first ship is delivered. Virgin announced last year it would homeport its first ship in Miami. Schedules for subsequent ships, set to launch in 2021 and 2022, have not yet been announced.

Tuesday, McAlpin said the company has officially signed a “multi-billion dollar” ship building contract with Italian shipyard Fincantieri for the three 110,000-ton, 2,700-passenger ships. Steel cutting for the ships will begin in February.

The ships will be considered mid-sized compared to the behemoth 4,000-passenger plus ships that sail from South Florida on the three major lines, Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line.

“We don’t see ourselves as a big player in the industry,” McAlpin told the Miami Herald. “We see ourselves as a small boutique line that will offer different experiences.”

Branson and McAlpin hinted that those experiences may take some cues from other successful Virgin ventures, such as Virgin Hotels. The hotel offshoot of Virgin offers minibar drinks at street prices, privacy doors that allow guests to continue about their business while room service drops off requests, free WiFi and pet-friendly amenities with no size or weight restrictions.

“Everything that works in our Virgin Hotels, we will obviously gain from that wonderful experience,” Branson said. “I’ve seen the first renditions of the bedrooms on the Virgin cruises and they are fantastic.”

One ship feature that is confirmed: a new clean energy system in partnership with Swedish company Climeon Ocean.

Virgin Voyages would be the first major cruise line to partner with Climeon, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions by converting the heat generated by ship engines into electricity for onboard use. Each Virgin ship would have six Climeon units, creating a savings of 5,400 tons of carbon dioxide annually per ship.

Reducing shipboard emissions is a major trend in the cruise industry. Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International have ordered vessels powered by liquified natural gas, considered the cleanest burning fossil fuel. McAplin said Virgin considered LNG but opted for Climeon because it is more “productive.”

Where the new Virgin Voyages may take travelers has not yet been announced, but Branson did mention one destination that is on his list.

When asked if Cuba was a potential port, Branson immediately replied, “Yes!”