Opinion: Virgin Cruises is welcome, but will it match the hype?

Opinion: Virgin Cruises is welcome, but will it match the hype?

Following last week’s announcement of the launch of Virgin Cruises, David Selby argues that it will be a challenge to 'redefine the cruising industry', even for Sir Richard Branson

So it’s finally happened. Last Tuesday in Miami, Sir Richard Branson confirmed the introduction of three mid-sized ships for the new Virgin Cruises, to be introduced into service yearly from 2020 to 2022.

He arrived at the press launch in typically flamboyant style by helicopter, accompanied by a number of nautically-dressed female assistants, as the media waited below.

Each vessel will be sized at around 110,000 gross tonnes and have 1,430 cabins carrying in excess of 2,800 passengers, catered for by 1,150 crew. The first ship will sail 7-night cruises from Miami.

Branson announced that the line would "redefine the cruising industry for good". There is little doubt that Virgin Cruises will be welcome in the market, is likely to be profitable and deliver high levels of customer satisfaction, and will possibly help to reshape a number of people’s ideas about cruising, but to redefine an industry experience for good? That’s pushing it.

Last week’s news was a little different to what was confirmed initially early last December, that being the initial introduction of two vessels, rather than three.

In March, former Norwegian Cruise Line chief executive Colin Veitch and his team decided to sue Virgin for $300 million (approximately the amount Mr Veitch and co would have made if long-term projections were met), claiming it stole his business plans to enter the cruise industry – principally his ideas for two 4,200-passenger “ultra-ships”.

While this action is still ongoing, it would appear to be weaker following last week’s conference. Virgin Cruises chief executive Tom McAlpin stated that the change in the ships was unrelated. “While megaships may be right for some companies, it just didn’t make sense for us based on what our customers desire,” he said.

So let’s examine where things are.

The first Virgin ship will be based in Miami. Miami is “without a doubt the best fit” for the brand, said McAlpin, describing the destination as “vibrant, red-hot, sassy, sexy and obviously international".

This is very true, and also gives its UK tour operation and agents at large something to get their teeth into, using Virgin Atlantic to fly down to Miami.

There is also the added incentive of Cuba, which thus far has been a no-no for most cruise lines, as any ship calling there is forbidden to subsequently call at a US port for six months.

In January, however, Barack Obama lifted certain travel restrictions to Cuba and many in the industry feel it is only a matter of time before Miami-based cruise ships are seen in Havana harbour.

However, there’s some hefty competition on the doorstep.

Assuming two people per cabin, by 2022 the three Virgin ships will carry around 8,600 people at any one time. Royal Caribbean ships currently carry around 68,000, which is a similar number to Carnival Cruise Lines. Carnival Corporation’s total current capacity is over 200,000.

While the Virgin view was to go “against the trend of megaships” Carnival Cruise Lines already operates six ships of 110,000 gross tonnes carrying similar numbers of passengers and roughly the same crew. Celebrity Cruises ships that carry 2,850 passengers are actually slightly larger with a more generous passenger to crew ratio.

As for ships on order, by the end of 2022 when Virgin's third ship will have come into operation, Carnival operating brands will have introduced 17 more.

Other cruise lines appear to be more pleased than concerned about this new competition. In reaction last week, Carnival Corporation chief executive Arnold Donald said that the addition of a new player brings welcome attention.

This is surely an understatement. The likes of Sir Richard Branson talking up the cruise industry, five years before anyone is going to see a Virgin Cruises ship in operation, must be music to his ears.

So what now? Although already claiming “a new way to cruise”, Virgin is seeking ideas from potential customers and agents through feedback at virgincruises.com, which has gone down well. Updates will no doubt be periodically released to the media to “keep the excitement building” to 2020.

When easyJet founder Stelios launched easyCruise in 2005, one actually got the sense that here was someone going against the industry establishment to change some of the traditional rules of cruising.

Even the new “Fathom” operation announced earlier this month – whether it works or not – appears to be something quite new and different in the industry and is to be applauded.

What lies behind the hype of the Virgin Cruises launch is a sensible, considered and fairly conventional programme planned to operate in the world’s largest cruising playground.

I have no doubt Virgin will succeed and there will be a number of innovations, but when 2020 comes around, I really hope it is a genuine case of Virgin Cruises over Déjà Vu-ises. We’ll watch this space.


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