Damian: Hi Shane, thanks so much for talking to me. I know our customers, both travel agents and cruise lines, are really excited about Virgin Voyages so it’s great to get an insight from you.
To start with, who can sell Virgin Voyages, is it open to everyone?
Shane: You’ve got to think about where a business is going and what it’s trying to do, we want to find like-minded partners. We’d love for every travel agent to sell us and understand us, and it’s not about not wanting them to sell us, it’s about not every travel agent has the right type of customer.
D: Of course, and you’ve only got so much time to go around training a travel agent on your brand.
S: It has to work both ways, people have to want to learn it, and we want to have the time to go through it with them and it’s our job to make sure that people are properly educated about it.
D: Is the price point working? It’s a reasonably expensive cruise, but it’s also got a lot included in that fare. It’s kind of stuck between, higher than Cunard, lower than Holland America, in that mid-to-high end area.
S: Yes and being in that price point is deliberate based on what our customers want. We had a pre-sale period where we were able to understand what people were booking, based on that price, so I think for us it was key to know what was included in the holiday.
Our Future Sailors in our research told us that they didn’t want to have extras added on along the way and find all these hidden charges. There’s nothing worse than going “the ship looks amazing but when I got on board I found out the restaurant is actually $50 extra”, they don’t want that.
People want to go on board and have an incredible time without worrying about any hidden costs. So things that they told us were really important to have included were firstly gratuities and service charges - it’s our job to look after our crew. Richard Branson is very famous for saying your customers don’t come first, your staff do. If you look after your staff, they look after the business.
People said that basic beverages such as soft drinks water etc should be included; don’t be charging $4 for something that costs you 6c to make. Another important thing they wanted included was Wi-Fi.
D: How much Wi-Fi?
S: It’s all unlimited Wi-Fi. We don’t reduce peoples’ balances. It’s every cruise, every voyage.
D: So how do you absorb that cost, because potentially that cost is enormous?
S: It is, but we made those business decisions very early on - equally you could say why do you not sell water? There’s companies out there that will charge you for that.
D: I think it’s ridiculous to sell water!
S: You can make a lot of money selling water packages, but is it the right thing to do? No. Also by having all of these single-use water bottles on the ship, it’s not what we would want.
The other thing people said to us was that they wanted a choice of restaurants, they don’t want to find that the restaurant they want to go to is extra, and for us we all say that amazing food doesn’t have to cost extra, because you’ve got over 20 different places to go and eat.
D: And they’re all complimentary?
S: All complimentary, all included in the cost of the holiday. The benefit is that everything is made fresh from scratch as well, so every restaurant isn’t a mass of 1000 people at once, so you can move away from banquet style things pre-plated.
D: It’s not a massive 5000 passenger ship is it, it’s mid-size.
S: It’s 2700 sailors that will be dispersed throughout the ship rather than all going to the same place for dinner. Our restaurants are open later, so it changes the whole ethos of the ship.
Dinner no longer has to be 7 - 9pm, you could go dining earlier or later.
If you go to New York for example: we booked a table for 7:30pm and the restaurant was dead. By the time we were leaving at 10pm it was heaving, but people there eat later. Times are changing, you do have different patterns and life changes, there’s different routines across countries and we’re trying to cater to everyone.
D: Where do you think Virgin Voyages sits within the cruise industry?
S: We consider our experience Rebellious Luxe; more elevated than premium and not quite in the luxury sector, but we think we’ll pull from both. Our motto is ‘we don’t want to fit in’, we didn’t look to go ‘right this is what you do in premium to get in that category’ and so sometimes I think that’s what people struggle with, it’s a new brand, with new ships and whole new segment of cruising that hasn’t really been tapped into before.
D: Do you find that travel agents are enthusiastic on the brand or are they trying to pigeonhole you? Are they trying to fit Virgin into what they sell at the moment?
S: It depends, I think finding the right partners is really important for us. We know we’re not for everybody and we built a product that isn’t necessarily for every single customer that wants to take a cruise holiday, but what we have done is create a product that is aimed at that particular audience that may have never considered a cruise holiday before, so it works.
D: So is ‘new to cruise’ a big focus of your market?
S: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say the majority of people that will sail with us may have never considered a holiday at sea before, but some of them may have sailed on other brands because that was the best fit for them at the time, Virgin’s come along and they see Virgin Voyages as a better fit for them now.
We respect the industry, it’s got some amazing products already and some amazing things going on, but we just didn’t look to those for inspiration, we looked elsewhere. We looked at what happens at the best cities in the world: so when you go to Miami, what’s it like to dine and what’s the experience like? When you’re in New York? and so on and so on. They’re the things that inspired us, more than ‘this is what happens on a ship’.
When it comes to dining, as I said there’s over 20 different dining venues on board the ship, so rather than having one main dining room where you get a third of the passengers trying to eat at one time, when you have that many different eateries throughout the ship you completely change the vibe and the experience of what it’s like to be onboard.
2700 people no longer feels like 2700, it becomes a completely different type of experience. Whereas if you’ve got 1000 people going to a restaurant and then all going to the theatre, you do have a kind of herd mentality, and our future sailors said they wanted to avoid that feeling of mass.
D: What was the idea behind not going family-friendly by having that 18+ restriction?
S: Purely the research. When doing the research people said to us that they were looking for an experience that was more elevated, that was catered to a more adult audience. That’s not to say it’s hedonistic or anything like that!
We made that decision very early on, and we say ‘adult by design’ rather than ‘adult only’ because we literally designed the product from the ground up, so when it came to designing the ship, it was designed without kids clubs and children’s things in mind. When you haven’t got kids on board, it automatically becomes more of an elevated experience because you don’t have to worry about the ship schedules changing at half terms or school times, you don’t have to worry about those anomalies.
D: When we first met, you had an idea of the percentage of your market that would come from the UK, obviously it’s still early days but how much are you looking to sell here?
S: Well the number that we talked about before was always a kind of best-guess, based on our experiences and what worked for other cruise lines: what would you get from the UK based on these itineraries sailings out of Miami.
I think it’s safe to say that we have surpassed that, we’ve already readjusted what our expectations are, because our expectations are based on what happens for other cruise lines, but for us we’re seeing that the UK is a really strong market, and we are seeing that people are looking to take back to back voyages which is really encouraging.
We’re seeing people doing 4 and 5 nights added together, we’ve also seen people doing wider packages with our tour operator partners, going to Vegas, then across to join Scarlet Lady, so there’s a variety of different experiences that people are looking to do. The benefit of offering the 4 and 5 night itineraries is allowing people that time to try a holiday with a brand that they know and love like Virgin, but also not necessarily dedicate their whole holiday to it, so they’ve got the best of both worlds.
D: I have to ask, just to clear up the question that we always get - so you don’t have to book with Virgin Airlines?
S: You don’t have to no, but we think it does make sense to! Virgin Atlantic is obviously a sister company, we are completely separate but the on board experience of Virgin reflects the nature of the Virgin brand, so we think that the majority of people will want to choose to fly on Virgin to come out, and that’s what we’ve seen so far.
We’ve got tour operators that work with lots of different airlines and they’ve said that people are wanting Virgin through and through. So we’ve also got Virgin America Trains, which gives people an opportunity to go from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and beyond; Miami is becoming quite a Virgin hot-bed.
D: What about the Virgin stores, are they doing quite well? Do people walk in just presuming it’s part of the whole brand?
S: So we’re a totally separate company, we don’t have any shared management or shared investment as such, but they operate as a ‘First Mate’ like the rest of our travel agent partners do, and naturally they get have the positive effect of having the Virgin name above their door.
The public don’t know any different or that they’re two separate companies, and they walk in wanting to book, sometimes they say ‘I want to book your cruise’ and expect Virgin to be sold through the Virgin stores. So they stores are doing very well, and they’ve done a great job of educating their teams as well which is key, I think the more you know about the product the more you can sell it, and I guess the relationship with Widgety is exactly that, it allows people to not only share the content but understand more about who we are.
D: From your personal point of view, you’ve gone from working for Carnival to Virgin. What’s the whole experience of changing company and culture been like?
S: It is very different to go from a company where you have all of the answers, and all of the resources at your fingertips, to a company where we are still creating and deciding things, but that for me was the most exciting opportunity. I loved my time at Carnival, absolutely adored it. The people were brilliant and I had an amazing time, and I said that the only way I would leave that building was either in a box or to Virgin, so to go to Virgin Voyages was a real dream come true.
D: At the moment you haven’t got a brochure, which again is very non-cruise line. Are there plans to produce a brochure, or any piece of consumer-facing marketing material?
S: We like to take a digital lead on everything that we do, partly because it feeds into our sustainability message.
Not only have we banned single-use plastics on board Scarlet Lady, even our cabins actually go to sleep - when you leave your cabin the blinds will close, it turns the lights down etc, everything we’re doing has got careful consideration and thought process behind it, our partnership with Intelligentsia for coffee allows us to trace the bean right back to source, so to do all of that great work and then produce a brochure that ends up in the bin seems a little bit of the wrong thing to do for us, but we’re always listening for what people are asking for and what our trade partners are looking for.
We don’t get calls from our future sailors saying “I can’t make a booking because I haven’t got a brochure”, and to be honest with you, we know that the Virgin Voyages experience isn’t for everybody. Some will love it, a lot of people will find it incredible, and those people who particularly want or need a brochure to book a cruise might not necessarily be people that would love our experience. We as a brand are digitally-led so our experience will be digitally-led and I think people are getting used to that now.
Thanks so much for talking to us Shane, we all can’t wait to see Scarlet Lady when she launches next year!
For more information you can contact Shane and the team at: firstname.lastname@example.org
To become a First Mate and sell Virgin Voyages, you can sign up here.