Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson certainly loves to make waves, and this past week’s big announcement was no exception. Sir Richard announced the launch of Virgin Cruises, the group’s first foray into the crowded field of floating vacations. As you would expect from anything Virgin branded, the new entrant aims to break the stereotype that cruises are only meant for older travelers, aiming to provide a hip, cool product targeting milennials. Details so far are sparse, but Virgin is targeting a launch date of 2020, utilizing a fleet of three, 2,850-passenger ships based out of Miami. Routes have also not yet been announced, but given that Miami will be the line’s home port, the Caribbean is the most likely destination. For what it’s worth, Virgin Cruises CEO Tom McAlpin seems to really, REALLY want to sail to Cuba; it’s probably a good bet that cruise ships will be cleared to travel to Cuba by then, so I’d say Havana is an almost certain port-of-call.
Virgin certainly has a tall task ahead of it. Ships are expensive to buy and/or build, the cruise industry is already highly competitive, and the business is littered with past entrants who have either gone bankrupt or were swallowed up and eventually killed by the mega-players in the industry. It’s also an industry where the average customer is 49 years of age, and that has a reputation of not being particularly attractive to younger travelers. If anyone call pull the feat off, though, it’s probably Virgin. The Virgin brand is widely viewed as cutting edge and “cool”, so sticking the Virgin name on a ship should at least get peoples’ attention. The size of the ships, which puts them squarely in the “midsize” range, should allow for more personalized service than the 5,000+ passenger megaships currently being floated by the mass market cruise lines, yet provide enough space for a variety of activities. And though ship design and details are yet to be released, the general idea seems to be providing activities and entertainment, whether at sea or on land, with a distinctive Virgin stamp – that is to say, fun and out-of-the box. I could see, for example, eschewing the usual Broadway-style theater shows for a mass audience participation dance production at the muster drill, a la the Virgin America safety video.
Of course, challenges do abound. For starters, there already is a cruise line targeting a younger demographic – the “Fun Ships” of Carnival. Can Virgin attract more upscale customers in the same age range that perhaps don’t care for cruising now, or will they end up having to launch a price war against Carnival to attract the same “booze cruisers”? If so, I’m not sure that the hipster vibe sure to be a part of Virgin Cruises would appeal to people just looking for a raunchy party cruise. Perhaps the larger issue, though, is the nature of cruising itself. On a typical 7-day cruise, you might visit 4-5 ports, but only spend 6-12 hours in each. It’s going to prove challenging to put together unique, small group experiences in such a short time frame without extracting a price premium, and I don’t exactly see Virgin’s target audience being fond of the usual 100-person bus tours providing half an hour of free time at a tourist site.
In any event, I’m looking forward to seeing details of Virgin’s offering as we get closer to launch date. In the meantime, you can sign up for a free newsletter and announcements at virgincruises.com.
Photo at top: Emerald Princess docked at the Istanbul cruise ship port, June 27, 2015.