After more than a year of setbacks and enforced delays, Virgin Voyages chief Tom McAlpin can’t wait to launch the line’s first ship, Scarlet Lady, in the UK. He talks to Tom Parry.
While readying his own vessel for its long-awaited launch, Virgin Voyages boss Tom McAlpin attended a “ship” launch of a rather different variety – Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
The pandemic may have curtailed cruising this past year, but space tourism has taken giant leaps.
Watching the historic journey among an exclusive audience in the New Mexico desert last month, it’s clear the achievement has inspired McAlpin and his team towards new heights of their own.
“There was a tremendous amount of excitement, enthusiasm and emotion,” he smiles over a Zoom call. In true Virgin fashion, McAlpin’s T-shirt even reads: “His [Branson’s] other ship is a spaceship”.
“Richard has spent 17 years working on this [Galactic] – not quite as long as he has on a cruise ship,” he grins.
“The Virgin brand is off to a great start this summer, and we’re its next big launch.”
From the edge of space to England’s south coast; after a much-publicised wait, Virgin Voyages’ first ship, Scarlet Lady, will return to UK waters for six “Summer Soiree” sailings this month.
Following Virgin’s unveiling of Scarlet Lady to the world in Dover and Liverpool in February last year, the line has had to contend with numerous Covid-enforced setbacks and patiently wait for its chance to sail in earnest.
“This past year has been tough, but we’re ready,” says McAlpin. “I’m glad we paused so we’re able to launch on our own terms.”
It’s the last week of July when we chat. McAlpin, who has just flown in from the US, is currently quarantining onboard the ship docked in Portsmouth and, despite the luxury of a Rockstar Suite – with electric guitars lining the wall behind his computer screen, he’s clearly raring to get about the ship.
Tempering his excitement, he reflects on the challenges of the past 16 months and what it’s taken to get to this moment.
“We’re coming from a year where we went into hibernation… survival mode – we had to take tough action,” he says, recalling periods of furlough, pay cuts and unpaid leave across the team.
“It was about shared sacrifice. But now we’re all back and everybody’s excited. I’ve been working on this launch for almost eight years and many of our team have for multiple years – they’re not giving up.”
ALL ABOUT SAFETY
McAlpin cites Virgin’s “tremendous brand recognition” among British customers and the UK government’s willingness to restart domestic cruising amid an impasse in the US as being pivotal to opening the door for the UK-based programme (Scarlet Lady was originally due to operate its maiden season from Miami).
“We were in discussions with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” he says. “This [UK season] became an option to say, ‘hey, we have to get out there, we’ve got to show the world what Virgin Voyages is all about’. What better way to launch than to do it right here and pay homage to our British roots?”
The pause in operations gave the team time to “polish up the experience”, McAlpin explains, and to “create the safest possible way to travel” – Virgin has installed hospital-grade air filters onboard – while not impacting on the guest experience.
Limiting Scarlet Lady’s 2,700 passenger capacity to 1,000 guests, meanwhile, will “create enough excitement and ambiance but offer plenty of room”, says McAlpin.
Central to the line’s thoughts, too, are its crew; the brand aims to vaccinate and protect all its crew, while returning staff will receive a launch bonus as a thank you for their dedication.
“At the end of the day, they’re the ones interacting with our sailors [guests]. They’re the ones bringing this experience to life in ways that have not been done in the industry before.”
The line’s emphasis on team wellbeing can only bode well going into the busy period ahead. After the UK season, Scarlet Lady will return to its Miami homeport and soon-to-open new terminal to begin cruising the Caribbean in October, via stops and showcases in New York and the line’s private island of Bimini in the Bahamas.
Arguably, though, the brand’s most important year is yet to come in 2022 when it triples current capacity.
Joining Scarlet Lady will be sister ships Valiant Lady, debuting in the UK from March before homeporting in Barcelona, and later a third vessel – Resilient Lady – will launch out of Athens.
“It’s a big year,” says McAlpin, succinctly. With two ships in Europe, the opportunity to grow sales and brand awareness from the UK market is red hot.
McAlpin is well aware of how important the UK trade will be and stresses the line’s commitment to its partners, thanking agents for their “incredible support”.
“We’re excited to be able to showcase [Scarlet] this summer so Brits can get excited and familiar with her and then want to come back,” he says.
“It’s a quick flight over to Barcelona and Athens and you get to experience a phenomenal vacation – probably one of the best vacations of your life.”
With such a focus on the British market, might Valiant Lady’s arrival herald the line’s first UK christening? After the year we’ve just experienced, and the cruise and intergalactic achievements along the way, you imagine something unexpected just might be on the cards.
“I can’t kiss and tell,” smiles McAlpin. “We’re going to have to wait and see – but anything is a possibility, right?”