Fledgling line’s bosses tell Lucy Huxley about its trade strategy for ‘First Mates’

Q. Are you pleased with the level of interest from potential agent partners?
Shaw: The excitement from travel professionals, or ‘First Mates’, from around the world has been overwhelming. We’re still a few weeks from opening and we’ve far surpassed registration expectations.

Q. How has the UK fared within that? Are those who have registered mainly existing sellers of cruise, or others?
Shaw: We have tripled the size of our UK team based on the reaction from First Mates and ‘Sailors’ [customers]. Many partners say customers are asking for us by name – some are pre-registering clients so they’re ready to go as soon as we ‘set sale’ [February 14]. We’re seeking First Mates who sell premium and luxury land and cruise holidays. We’ve designed our experience to appeal to people looking for something different who may not have considered cruising with a more traditional product [line]. Cruise sellers also have plenty of customers who are looking for something different and/or better suited, so we’re getting love from those partners too.

Q. Many agents were really angry when Virgin Holidays went direct-sell. They felt ‘stabbed in the back’ and pledged never to sell Virgin Voyages as a result. Have you managed to win their confidence?
Shaw: This isn’t something that comes up with First Mates. Our sales strategy is based on their feedback and designed to remove long-standing pain points. Our UK sales director, Shane Lewis-Riley, has done an exceptional job and his team is now growing to better support the overwhelmingly positive reception we’ve received.

Q. Are you paying better commission rates than other cruise lines?
Shaw: Everything a First Mate sells is commissionable – nothing is deducted or excluded. On their request, we’ve introduced a simple programme that rewards them for all the hard work they do. When you compare apples to apples, our approach pays more in total dollars than other programmes that appear to pay a higher rate or percentage but set aside certain things as non-commissionable or don’t allow a partner to earn on every component of the sale. Percentages don’t matter, total dollars do.

Q. What else are you offering the trade to win favour?
Shaw: We have an annual ‘Red Hot Bonus’ that rewards partners who send a ton of Sailors our way. Everyone has the same deal; no special agreements required; completely transparent. First Mate agencies can earn up to an additional 6% on voyage fares every year by reaching certain sales thresholds. While we don’t yet have a ship [first ship Scarlet Lady launches in 2020], we will be taking select First Mates to Virgin properties to experience Virgin hospitality. We think it’s the perfect setting for us to “talk ship”. We’re also engaging with First Mates via initiatives such as the sweepstake we are running. All individual First Mates who register prior to February 14 can enter a draw to win afternoon tea with Richard Branson.

Q. Where do you see your ‘Rebellious Luxe’ categorisation sitting within the cruise hierarchy? Which cruise lines do you align most closely to?
McAlpin: We haven’t looked to the cruise industry for inspiration. Our goal is not to become a leader within any existing cruise category, but to create an entirely new category and be the only company in it. In customer and partner research, people expect our experience to be positioned somewhere between premium and luxury, but with our own cheeky style.

Q. What non-travel brands do you take your inspiration from?
McAlpin: We are inspired by brands from the Virgin family. They’ve always been great at disrupting the status quo to put customers’ needs first. Like Virgin Money, which brought approachability and fun to banking. Outside of Virgin, we were inspired by brands such as Uber and Airbnb, which have changed the way we travel.

Q. The language you are using has a very tongue-in-cheek, nautical tone. Why have you chosen this approach?
McAlpin: Our brand ethos is the ‘Modern Romance of Sailing’. You see this in the design of our ship and in our marketing. We want to bring back the glamour of a sea voyage but, in true Virgin fashion, we enjoy a bit of playfulness.

Q. Will you be strict on how agent partners promote your brand?
Shaw: Yes, we will have guidelines partners must follow. We’ll be very protective of the brand, particularly when it comes to pricing. Our elevated ‘Adult-by-Design’ experience includes tremendous value, based on what our Sailors told us was important. So we will actively seek to work with First Mates who sell on value rather than price.

Q. Will you always sell cruise‑only or will you offer cruise-and-stay?
Shaw: When we open for bookings on February 14, we will sell only voyages. We expect to have air and hotel products in the near future that First Mates can add, which will all be fully commissionable. We know that UK First Mates already do a great job of bundling and packaging complete holidays themselves.

Q. How many ships would you like to see in the fleet?
McAlpin: We have four ships on order, including Scarlet Lady, for delivery each year between 2020 and 2023. Naturally, we’re interested in growing, but we don’t want 30-plus ships. We want to continue to be boutique and offer something distinct.

Q. What proportion of sales in year one do you expect to come from the UK?
Shaw: There’s a strong affinity for the Virgin brand in the UK so we have high expectations. Naturally, with Scarlet Lady sailing from Miami, many Sailors will come from North America, but we’re building an enticing experiencethat we know UK Sailors will find worth crossing the pond for.

Q. Is Virgin Voyages planning overnights or private islands?
McAlpin: We will overnight in Havana on our voyages to Cuba. We will be sharing more on our itineraries soon and may have a few surprises.

Q. Tom, you were part of the founding team at Disney Cruise Line. Has that helped you create Virgin Voyages?
McAlpin: Absolutely. It’s not easy to take an idea from a blank sheet of paper to marketing a ship. Barriers to entry in cruise are extremely high, hence so few new cruise lines coming into existence. What I learnt at Disney is that we had to create something with a distinct attribute to anchor us to – for us, that is Adult-by-Design. Much like Disney, we are distinct because we have the Virgin brand behind us.

Q. Back in 2015 you said other cruise brands were “vanilla” while yours would be “sassy and sexy”. Have you achieved that?
McAlpin: You see the sassy and sexiness in the sleek design of our ship, inspired by superyachts. You see sassiness in our marketing, with our cheeky and playful nature. We aren’t afraid to be bold and do things differently and you will see more of that ahead of the launch of Scarlet Lady.