TORONTO — The news reports coming in from Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands are heartbreaking, and the images even more so.
TORONTO — Though Virgin Voyages was founded by a Brit, will homeport in Miami and sail to the Caribbean when it sails in spring 2020, it will also have strong ties to Canada thanks to Captain Wendy Williams.
Born in Sept-Îles, Quebec and now living on Vancouver Island, the veteran voyager was announced as the captain of Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady at a press conference in Toronto’s Bisha Hotel yesterday. Her appointment, said Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group Founder, is being hailed as a groundbreaking move, as less than 2% of the maritime industry is comprised of women.
“Big companies have to be proactive in trying to redress this balance, otherwise the status quo will just continue,” he said. “Hopefully, this is the start of a new trend.”
Being a trendsetter is nothing new to the Virgin Group of companies, which includes a hotel chain, airline and record label, among many others. And now, with Virgin Voyages, it is once again making waves by not only differentiating itself as an adults-only cruise line, but also by putting a woman at the helm of its first ship.
On what it means to be the first Canadian woman to captain a ship for a major cruise line, Williams, who previously worked her way up to Staff Captain during her 15 years at Royal Caribbean, said: “For the longest time, I was looking for something different because while I’m passionate about what I do, I don’t like doing the same thing everybody else does. So for me, the Virgin brand is synonymous with innovation and trying different things. I thought to myself, I need to be riding the wave of something epic with them.”
This wave of change, or what Virgin Voyages refers to as an ‘Epic Sea Change For All’, is based on the fundamental idea of taking care of all those involved: its stakeholders, industry partners, its crew and passengers (also referred to as Sailors), the local communities it sails to, the ocean itself, and of course, travel agents, which the company affectionately calls its ‘First Mates’.
The synergy between all these elements is what President & CEO Tom McAlpin calls the company’s secret sauce: “It wasn’t just about creating a very different and successful cruise product. We wanted to create another travel brand, and in order to do that we had to bring in the right people to set the right culture. So we developed our brand purpose to try to make an Epic Sea Change because that’s what we do so well.”
It was this fresh approach to the business of cruising that appealed to Williams in the first place. Promising that gender will have no place on her ship (“When you walk on the bridge to work, you’re an officer – not a male or female officer – just an officer”), Williams, a trailblazer in quite literally a sea of men, showed absolutely no doubt that she was the perfect candidate – male or female – for captaincy.
“I will be the best captain that this company has ever, or will ever, have,” she said to a rousing round of applause.
Here are more takeaways from yesterday’s press conference:
THE CUBA ISSUE: WHAT NOW?
When U.S. President Trump announced last week that the U.S. is banning all U.S. cruise ships from sailing to Cuba, cruise lines were left scrambling to rearrange itineraries and implement contingency plans. But Virgin Voyages, which had announced last October that Cuba would be its first destination in 2020, took it all in stride.
Speaking exclusively with Travelweek, McAlpin said: “We’ve always been looking at different ports of call and we always have to have backup plans for everything. We knew that Cuba was going to be a risk – Americans haven’t been able to go to Cuba for almost 60 years before it opened up and Trump had made some comments early on that he was thinking of changing regulations – but to start a business you have to be nimble and be able to react.”
In lieu of Cuba, McAlpin announced new five-night Riviera Maya sailings to Cozumel and Playa Del Carmen.
“We spent a lot of time looking at changing the itinerary length – do we go to a longer itinerary that allows us to go to ports further away?” he said. “But the shorter cruise is really important to us because our Sailors told us that’s what they want, to do a five-night combined with a trip to Miami and package it up to seven nights.”
And when asked whether Cuba voyages would be reinstated if/when President Trump’s travel ban is lifted, McAlpin told Travelweek: “It’s hard to speculate, there’s still a lot of people who want to go to Cuba. If it opened up, we’d find a way to get back there for sure.”
MORE NEW ITINERARIES
For those who prefer a quick getaway, McAlpin also announced that Virgin Voyages’ four-night sailings will now become ‘Fire and Sunset Soirees’ that will include a sunset departure from Key West and a midnight departure from Bimini in the Bahamas, home to Virgin Voyages’ private beach club. The highlight of these sailings will be an exclusive late-night bonfire soiree inspired by the fireball sculptures on Branson’s Necker Island.
Also just announced and created in response to passenger demand for longer voyages, the cruise line will offer special seven-night sailings for the 2020 holiday season. ‘Holidaze and Nights’ and ‘New Year’s Ahoy’ will fall over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, respectively, and feature stops in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic as well as late-night sail aways in both Bimini and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“We’ve been getting a lot of requests and suggestions from our friends in Canada – we know it gets cold up here – who said they needed a break in 2020,” said McAlpin. “So we’re going to open up and put on sail two seven-night special cruises, back to back for the holiday season.”
THE MAIDEN VOYAGE & WHERE TO NEXT
Virgin Voyages first scheduled sailing on the Scarlet Lady is set for April 1, 2020 on a four-night ‘Fire and Sunset Soiree’ itinerary departing from Miami.
“That’s the first sailing that we have opened up based upon the delivery of the ship as we see it,” McAlpin told Travelweek. “But you never know, if we get the ship early, maybe there’ll be more sailings.”
When asked whether the company would consider sailing beyond the Caribbean like the Mediterranean, McAlpin said it’s a real possibility.
“We’ve committed the first ship to sail out of Miami, so it won’t sail to the Med due to the fact that it would be long-haul,” he said. “But we’re looking at the Med and other itineraries to do for our second ship (coming in 2021). The world is our playground because our ships can go anywhere.”
INVESTING IN TRAVEL AGENTS
“The travel agent community is a huge part of our business, which is why we’re investing in them,” said McAlpin. “We call them First Mates. Why? Because a first mate is a captain’s right hand, and the travel agent community is our right hand.”
McAlpin also noted that Virgin has invested as much money into FirstMates.com, its dedicated website for travel sellers, as it has in its other websites. Plus, Virgin Voyages’ commission structure, referred to as ‘Perfect 10’, puts the cruise line ahead of the curve as it eliminates non-commissionable fees (NCFs) and pays agents a 10% commission on everything they sell.
“We talked to our First Mates and they told us their #1 pain point was the way the industry paid commissions, which is they take the commission and take deductions out of it. So we came up with a slogan called NCF NFW, meaning ‘Non-Commissionable Fees No Flipping Way’. You can insert another word if you want to in there,” he laughed.
Stacy Shaw, Vice President of Sales & Business Development at Virgin Voyages, who also spoke exclusively to Travelweek, added that the cruise line made sure to consult with agents during the development phase.
“We did years of research with potential Sailors and First Mates to understand what they were looking for, not only from a product and experience perspective, but also how they expect to work with us on a travel advisor side,” she said. “We’re very confident that our First Mates will help us find great Sailors in Canada who will love what Virgin Voyages has in store for them. We also have a great sales crew that are eager to help our First Mates across Canada – we encourage all travel advisors to go to FirstMates.com to connect with our crew.”
BOOKINGS IN CANADA
According to Shaw, bookings in Canada have been strong since Virgin Voyages launched in February. “But with four ships on the way and as the head of Sales for a startup brand in the early stages, what can I say? There’s always room for more!”
The foundation for success has already been set in Canada, added Shaw, “because companies like Virgin Mobile and Virgin Radio have been providing service in Canada for a long time.”
Plus, the cruise line is banking on Canadian winters to help fuel bookings.
“Canadians love to get away to the sunshine and warm weather and they love to cruise, especially to the Caribbean,” she said. “We expect a lot of love from Canadian travellers, particularly those who may not have considered a more traditional cruise experience and certainly those looking for an experience designed for adults that feels a little luxe – with a bit of the unexpected.”