Tourism & Cruises

Virgin Cruises to base first 2,800-passenger ship in Miami

Virgin Cruises announces a trio of ships, the first will be based in Miami

British billionaire and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson made a grand entrance at the Pérez Art Museum Miami to announce a new Miami-based cruise venture. Video by Jessica Bal / Miami Herald staff
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British billionaire and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson made a grand entrance at the Pérez Art Museum Miami to announce a new Miami-based cruise venture. Video by Jessica Bal / Miami Herald staff

At a spectacle-filled press conference, newcomer Virgin Cruises announced plans on Tuesday for a trio of ships, the first of which will be based in Miami.

True to his habit of arriving in distinctive style, Virgin Group founder and billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson turned up at the event at the Pérez Art Museum Miami in a helicopter accompanied by nautically dressed models, his approach heralded by a burst of red smoke at PortMiami.

“Very happy to share that we’re full steam ahead,” Branson said during a news conference inside the museum, which boasts expansive views of the port.

Representatives for the cruise line, which has an office in Plantation, said that they had signed a letter of intent with Italian ship builder Fincantieri for three 110,000-ton vessels that will carry about 2,800 passengers each. The ships are scheduled to start sailing in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

British billionaire and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson made a grand entrance at the Pérez Art Museum Miami to announce a new Miami-based cruise venture. Video by Jessica Bal / Miami Herald staff

McAlpin would not say how much the new ships would cost, though Branson said the total was “under $2 billion anyway.”

Miami was “without a doubt the best fit” for the brand, said Virgin Cruises president and CEO Tom McAlpin, describing the destination as “vibrant, red-hot, sassy, sexy and obviously international.”

He and Branson also said they would be interested in sailing to Cuba when it becomes legal.

The proximity to the Caribbean and port infrastructure also made Miami the prime choice, he said. County commissioners will vote next week on a five-year preferential berthing agreement with the cruise line, which will have the option to extend another five years. The timing of that vote prompted Tuesday’s event, as the agreement would have become public knowledge as soon as the county’s meeting agenda was published.

Destination promoters cheered the news.

“Clearly, Richard Branson is one of the most famous tourism icons in the world today,” said William Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And today to announce in Miami that he’s launching his first ship in the cruise capital of the world — PortMiami — that’s great.”

Tuesday’s announcement differed from earlier statements about the company’s planned fleet. When Virgin Group said in December that it was forming Virgin Cruises in a venture with investment firm Bain Capital, the company said it intended to operate two ships. In interviews, Branson said those ships would be large.

But in an industry where 4,000-passenger vessels are the norm — and the largest hold 5,400 guests at double occupancy — a 2,800-passenger ship is more mid-sized.

McAlpin said the decision about size came out of conversations with potential cruisers and travel agents and would allow the cruise line to offer a variety of activities in an intimate setting.

“While megaships may be right for some companies, it just didn’t make sense for us based on what our customers desire,” he said. “Virgin is not about being the biggest, it’s about being the best for our customers.”

McAlpin said the change was unrelated to a lawsuit filed by former Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Colin Veitch, who accused the company of stealing his ideas for two 4,200-passenger “ultra ships.” That lawsuit, which was filed in March in federal court in Miami, is still active; Virgin has filed a motion to dismiss.

“We are fully confident that this lawsuit does not have any merit,” McAlpin said. “It is not going to slow us down.”

Attorneys for Veitch declined to comment Tuesday on the company’s latest plans.

While Virgin executives said they wanted to “make some waves” with a cruise product unlike anything in the market — as they have with Virgin airlines and Virgin Hotels — they had few details on how they would deliver on that promise.

McAlpin said the company is asking the public to weigh in on what they want the cruise line to offer at virgincruises.com.

“How can we design your ideal ship, your most irresistible vacation ever?” he said. “We’re committed to taking people on that journey with us.”

Branson did let one detail slip during an interview after the press event: a potential color scheme.

“If something is successful, the world is a big place,” he said. “I think it needs more red cruise ships.”

Renderings were not available and the design process is ongoing, but a spokesman said by email: “It wouldn’t be Virgin without some Red.”

If Branson’s attire at the event is any indication, formal nights will likely not be on the agenda. Outfitted in a casual skipper style with a red captain’s hat, untucked white shirt and red shorts Tuesday, he declared his distaste for suits and ties.

“They’re so uncomfortable,” he said before taking a pair of scissors to the neckwear of port director Juan Kuryla, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Fincantieri chairman Vincenzo Petrone.

“I would have worn a cheaper tie,” Gimenez said. “It’s a good tie.”

Colleen McDaniel, managing editor of the website CruiseCritic.com, said the antics could shed a bit of light on the onboard experience.

“We know size, we know deployment of one ship, and we know that Richard Branson is not a guy who likes ties and formality,” she said. “So, certainly, I think that’s something we can expect to see on the ship.”

Despite the focus on offering people “a new way to cruise,” industry watchers said they didn’t expect the old guard to be nervous. The world’s largest cruise companies, including Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, are all based in South Florida.

“They don’t care,” said Miami-based cruise expert Stewart Chiron, CEO of CruiseGuy.com. “Right now, it’s a non-entity.”

In a statement, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said he believes his company has something to offer for everyone, but the addition of a new player brings welcome attention.

“This gets people talking about cruising and generates a lot of interest in cruising,” Donald said. “Their first ship won’t be delivered until 2020, so all the publicity they can gain for cruising is helpful.”

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