Why you've got it all wrong if you think new cruise line Virgin Voyages is just for millennials
Bad news, millennials: Virgin Voyages, the hip new cruise line backed by Richard Branson, isn't just for you.
In fact, you're just a slice of its target market.
As the line's first vessel, the 2,770-passenger Scarlet Lady, prepares for its Miami debut next week, Virgin Voyages executives are saying the often-repeated storyline that it's a cruise brand for the under-40 crowd just isn't right.
It never was, they say -- although some might quibble with that.
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"People kind of got the wrong impression," Tom McAlpin, the president and CEO of Virgin Voyages, told TPG this week during a one-on-one interview on the vessel, which just arrived in Miami on Sunday. "It's not just (for) 20-year-olds. It's not just (for) millennials. I think (passengers in their) 30s, 40s and 50s are our sweet spot, but it's for a wide variety of people."
Sitting on a curving blue sofa in one of Scarlet Lady's sprawling, music-themed RockStar Suites, McAlpin said the vision for Virgin Voyages all along had been as a cruise brand for "the young at heart," not just the young.
That vision may have been lost in translation in the early days after the brand was announced when its website and other marketing material was full of images of young, hip, single travelers, he acknowledges. Back then, the travel press anointed Virgin Voyages the "cruise line for millennials," and at the time, the line didn't push back too hard. It was a sexy story that got Virgin Voyages a huge amount of publicity.
Since then, the line has toned down the emphasis on a younger crowd in its marketing materials. There now are at least a few images of older travelers on its website.
"I think we learned from that," McAlpin said of the line's early young-and-hip marketing, which he suggested was designed to get across how different the brand would be from what other cruise brands offer but may have confused people.
The focus of the brand "has not changed that much. It's just maybe the way we are telling the story" that has changed, McAlpin added.
McAlpin suggested that what Virgin Voyages really is about is having a good time in a setting that is sophisticated and cool and adult-oriented, with people of all ages who want to be with people who "think younger."
That can be a twentysomething just out of college, sure. But it also can be a 75-year-old.
Indeed, McAlpin said initial sailings of Scarlet Lady that Virgin Voyages operated out of the U.K. over the summer drew passengers in their 60s and 70s, and the average age was "in the 50s."
That's quite a bit older than the average millennial, who is someone in her or his young 30s. Millennials today range in age from around 25 to 40. The millennial generation often is defined as people who were born between 1981 and 1996.
Virgin Voyages definitely is different. The line has heavily promoted such unusual-for-a-cruise-ship features on Scarlet Lady as an onboard tattoo parlor and drag queen brunches, and it's promising interactive dance parties, DJ sets, "microplays" and late-night games of dodgeball on the vessel as alternatives to traditional cruise ship theater entertainment.
These are all things that executives say will appeal to the "young at heart" of all ages, not just the younger set.
More than its appeal to any specific age group, the biggest element of the Virgin Voyages product, McAlpin suggested, was its focus on an adult experience. In addition to the above features, Scarlet Lady is loaded with adult-oriented nightspots, bars and eateries. And there will be no kids on board. From the start, the line has said that nobody under the age of 18 will be allowed to sail.
By keeping kids off the ship, McAlpin said the brand could offer a "more adult, sophisticated experience" than any other big cruise brand offers.
That's the true core of the brand, he suggested.
"I can have a more cool, hip pool party without screaming kids," McAlpin said. "I can get in the elevator without kids getting in there and pushing all the buttons, and (the age limit means no) screaming teenagers running down the halls at two o'clock in the morning."
In speaking with TPG, McAlpin also made a point of saying that Virgin Voyages wasn't just a line for non-cruisers. In the early days after the line's unveiling, it often was described as a cruise brand for people who were too cool to cruise. But McAlpin said that, too, was never the intent.
"We've always said we want to appeal to the cruisers," he said. "We're in this business because the cruise industry has been very successful and has enjoyed very high guest satisfaction ratings."
McAlpin suggested the brand was hoping to draw both cruising regulars looking for something hipper and non-cruisers who have shied away from the niche because they thought it was just too uncool.
"We all want to feel young, and this allows everybody to feel young," he said.
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