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A few weeks ago, Sir Richard Branson rode a chopper through a puff of red smoke over Biscayne Bay before landing at Miami’s Museum Park. The characteristically dramatic entrance was in honor of Virgin Group’s latest endeavor. Soon after, Branson — decked out in red shorts and a red skipper’s cap — planted a Virgin Cruises flag on the waterfront alongside Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of the cruise line.
Branson went on to announce specific plans for the company’s initial three 110,000-gross-ton ships. The first ship will begin sailing from PortMiami in early 2020; each sleek vessel will carry more than 2,800 passengers with a crew of 1,150. The company signed a binding letter of intent with Italy’s Fincantieri Shipyards for deliveries in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
The founder of Virgin Group aims to redefine the cruising experience in ways that will appeal to both non-cruisers and those who already love the industry. According to Branson, market research shows that 85 percent of people who have never been on a cruise would strongly consider it — if it were a Virgin cruise ship.
“We’re going to sail against the trend and build smaller, more boutique vessels,” McAlpin said. “Megaships didn’t make sense to us, based on our customers. We have deliberately chosen a size of ship that allows us to offer an excellent variety of experiences but in a more intimate environment.” McAlpin additionally noted the Caribbean as one of the best places to cruise and expressed his approval of Miami as the homeport of Virgin’s first cruise ship.
“It’s vibrant, red-hot, sassy, sexy and obviously a very international city with so much going on,” McAlpin said.
PortMiami has good infrastructure, and the new tunnel allows easy access for passengers, he added.
Virgin is planning a variety of weeklong cruises with Sunday departures, and itineraries will be detailed in the next year or so. When asked about Cuba, McAlpin and Branson agreed it would be a wonderful destination for Virgin to sail to if it becomes legal for U.S. lines to enter. McAlpin also mentioned the demand for Mediterranean cruises.
Branson first started planning a cruise line when he was 27 years old and had envisioned a ship for passengers under 30. But now that he will soon be turning 65, Branson joked that Virgin Cruises will be for cruisers under 65 years old.
“We believe there is a large, underserved market and strong growth prospects for a cruise line that delivers a superior experience for young-at-heart customers,” said Ryan Cotton, a managing director of Bain Capital, Virgin Cruises’ lead shareholder.
Virgin’s service, customer-centric approach and creative marketing are expected to appeal to travelers, including the huge millennial market, according to Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer and co-owner of Cruise Planners in Coral Springs, Fla.
She sees McAlpin as the ideal leader for Virgin Cruises because he “values the travel agent community and recognizes that we are the best way to reach consumers.”
McAlpin most recently served as president and CEO of The World, Residences at Sea, and prior to that was president of Disney Cruise Line and a member of its founding executive team. His cruise industry career began in the finance department of Royal Caribbean International.
And nothing will slow him down, not even a lawsuit brought forth by Colin Veitch, former CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line. Branson noted that the suit, in which Veitch claims to have developed the concept of Virgin Cruises, has no merit. Veitch asserts that he presented a plan for a pair of large “Ultra Ships” in early 2011, assembled a team and financing and lined up shipbuilder Meyer Werft, all before being cut out of the company.
Branson ended the Miami event on a lighter note, pulling out scissors and snipping off the neckties of Juan Kuryla, director of PortMiami; Vincenzo Petrone, chairman of Fincantieri; and Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County — emphasizing the fun and distinctly Virgin style of doing business.