Think of a mode of transport and Richard Branson will probably have invested in it. Since he founded Virgin back in 1970, the tycoon has thrown money at everything from aircraft and railways to hyperloops and submarines. By the time you add Branson’s own personal passions – remember that time he crossed the Pacific in a hot air balloon? – it can be hard to recall a vehicle he hasn’t fallen in love with.

Yet, until fairly recently, the Virgin Group seems to have been reluctant to dip its toes into one of the most popular sectors around: cruising. Virgin Voyages was only founded in 2014, with a new headquarters unveiled four years later. Maiden voyages were finally scheduled for April 2020 – only for Covid to fire a metaphorical missile into Virgin’s prow. Now, however, the pandemic has passed, and Virgin is finally ready to embrace this most dynamic of industries. With two ships already at sea and two more scheduled to enter service this year, Branson’s dream of a ‘rock star’ experience on the waves feels closer than ever.

Certainly, that’s obvious if you talk to Tom McAlpin, an industry stalwart, and president and CEO at Virgin Voyages since the start of 2015. “The past several years have been an incredibly exciting time for us at Virgin Voyages,” McAlpin explains. “Not only have we launched a new brand, we’ve also introduced the world to a new product in cruising with our beautiful fleet.”

Nor is McAlpin stopping there. His Florida-based team are thrusting ahead in a bewildering range of directions, all of which could ultimately bring new life to the industry. Aside from offering a special time to passengers – these adult-only experiences are as elegant as you’d expect from the firm that trademarked ‘Upper Class’ – it runs true from sustainability to crew management to entrepreneurial relationships. Get it right, in fact, and Virgin Voyages could soon become as famous at sea as Virgin Atlantic has become in the skies, offering vast opportunities for employees and punters alike.

Shipping out

Study his biography and McAlpin feels tailormade for Virgin Voyages. A three-decade veteran of international cruising, he’s worked everywhere from Royal Caribbean to Disney Cruises. Before throwing his hat in with Branson, moreover, he was CEO at The World, Residences at Sea, the largest private residential ship in the world.

These varied experiences are just as well, not least because of McAlpin’s awesome list of responsibilities. “I lead a world-class team,” he says, “in all elements of ship design, sailor experience, construction, crew, safety, operations and service delivery.” More than that, you get the sense that the executive is equally reliant on his team, a group he says is there to “establish a bold purpose” for Virgin Voyages, and he’s keen to offer staff a chance to “immerse themselves in a very Virgin kind of experience on the high seas”.

The firm that McAlpin is crafting undoubtably feels just as glamorous as any other Branson brand. That’s true, if nothing else, in the vessels themselves. The Valiant Lady and Scarlet Lady are the two Virgin Voyages ships currently in operation, each offering passengers a range of luxurious amenities. Though initial costs are higher than other options on the market, Virgin provides fitness classes, internet and gratuities as part of a single package, even if shore excursions and booze still cost extra.

Guests can enjoy cost-included meals at nearly two dozen dining establishments, and while aboard the Scarlet Lady, they can feast on everything from Korean barbeque to pizza. Guests should expect similar variety from the Resilient Lady and Brilliant Lady too. Due to set sail in the middle of this year and carrying guests as far afield as the Pacific and Mediterranean, McAlpin says they’re typical of the “continuous momentum” Virgin Voyages is making of late. The 2,700-passenger ships will clearly offer plenty of diversions, with the Resilient Lady’s ‘Mega RockStar’ suites boasting vinyl turntables and electric guitars.

Perhaps unsurprising for a company owned by Richard Branson, – a man who famously hosts guests on his private island in the Caribbean – Virgin Voyages is also investing in ground-based adventures. A case in point is The Beach Club, an exclusive resort wallowing in the warm waters between Florida and the Bahamas.

Similarly child-free like Virgin Voyages’ ships, McAlpin and his colleagues are battling to develop more sophisticated shore-side experiences than those offered by the competition. Among other things, this includes offering guests nights away from their cabins, party evenings bookended by world-class DJs and bonfires on the beach. More broadly, that’s echoed by the spread of Virgin’s itineraries. Described by McAlpin as “incredible”, they span the gamut from the salt-white villas of Santorini to Tasmanian rainforests.

A sea change

A few times during our conversation, McAlpin returns to a single striking phrase. Beyond satisfying customers on land and sea, he argues that a broader aim of Virgin Voyages is to support “transformation for the better” – which in his words, is to promote an “epic sea change for all”. Of course, anyone familiar with industry terminology is obliged to be suspicious of such a phrase. But beyond the slick marketing tone, there is some evidence that Branson and his team really are trying to do right by their social and environmental obligations.

Consider, for instance, the way Virgin Voyages relates to its crews. Before it even started hiring, the firm put out a survey to thousands of cruise workers, asking what they wanted in an ideal employer. Their answers have been reflected in what Virgin offers its employees; for example, its ships have more single-occupancy staff cabins and additional laundry rooms that mean workers aren’t fighting for dryers.

The number of ships Virgin Voyages will have in service by the end of 2023.
Virgin Voyages

It’s a similar story with Virgin’s sustainability work. Yellow Leaf hammocks, hand-woven in Thailand, are offered on board Virgin ships – a scheme that not only gives guests somewhere to relax, but also helps fight deforestation. Virgin Voyages also shows off its green credentials in the way it sells sunglasses by Coral Eyewear, which are made from recycled plastic, and 25% of its retail partners have pledged to bolster social or environmental causes.

These efforts, in turn, are reflected in what Virgin Voyages employees have to say themselves. According to a 2022 survey, 70% of past sailors “acknowledge that Virgin Voyages takes its commitment to social and environmental responsibility seriously”.

McAlpin, for his part, is keen to emphasise the ways that Virgin Voyages is trying to remain sustainable, especially when it comes to the fundamentals of the vessels themselves. One aspect involves establishing partnerships with sustainable marine fuel providers. “In order to significantly reduce our carbon footprint further,” McAlpin stresses, “we must transition to lower-carbon fuel sources as soon as possible.”

And though more sustainable ‘drop-in’ fuels are often unavailable at Virgin’s port of calls, or are unprofitable at current costs, the CEO emphasises that the engines can take them whenever current circumstances change.

Together with other technical innovations – Virgin ships include hybrid scrubber systems to remove sulphur dioxide from the exhaust, as well as platforms to cut nitrogen oxide emissions – and it seems hard to disagree with McAlpin when he says that Virgin’s “commitment to environmental responsibility is in our DNA”.

Land, air and sea

Asked about the future of Virgin Voyages in 2022, Richard Branson was characteristically optimistic. Noting that there was a time when Virgin only had four aircraft – now Virgin Atlantic boasts a fleet of nearly 40 – he suggested that his cruise operation could one day grow dramatically too.

“We think ten is probably the right place,” he said of the number of ships Virgin Voyages could one day have, “but we’ll do it very systematically and at the right pace and at the right time as we continue to build awareness of the brand”.

That mixture of caution and excitement can arguably be detected in McAlpin himself. As he himself concedes: “There’s no doubt that the past several years have proven challenging for the industry.” A fair point – not least given how his own operator’s launch schedule was derailed by the pandemic.

 All the same, McAlpin seems buoyant about what comes next for him and his company. “But now, more than ever, we’re seeing a significant comeback and are seeing this in consumer demand and bookings,” is how he puts it. “It’s an exciting time to be a new brand in this incredibly resilient industry and as we continue to grow our fleet, we know that the sky’s the limit for Virgin Voyages.”

The percentage of Virgin Voyages’ retail partners that have pledged to bolster social or environmental causes.
Virgin Voyages

 Given just how iconic the Virgin brand and name has become in aviation, that last metaphor feels wholly appropriate.