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Scarlet Lady in Dover (Photo: Dover Strait Shipping)
Scarlet Lady in Dover (Photo: Dover Strait Shipping)

Virgin Voyages Boss Talks Vaccines, U.K. Launch Plans And Extending the Cruise Season

Scarlet Lady in Dover (Photo: Dover Strait Shipping)
Scarlet Lady in Dover (Photo: Dover Strait Shipping)

April 14, 2021

Adam Coulter
U.K. Executive Editor

(1:15 p.m. EDT) -- Virgin Voyages originally debuted its first ship, Scarlet Lady, in the U.K., with a handful of preview cruises in March 2020.

Now the ship will be coming back to Britain for its first season of passenger cruises. A very short offering of three-to-four- night "cruises to nowhere," with vaccinated adults, will sail roundtrip from Portsmouth, beginning in August 2021. 

We caught up with Virgin Voyages' CEO Tom McAlpin on the day bookings opened in the UK to ask him a few questions about this summer's deployment, whether vaxxed passengers still have to wear masks onboard and if the tattoo parlour, Squid Ink, will be open.

Why Base A(nother) Ship in the U.K.?

Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady Britain
Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady Britain

Scarlet Lady will join a somewhat crowded market in August. At last count, at least 14 ships -- most of them large vessels -- will be sailing around Britain this summer.

The ship has long been marketed as a Caribbean-based ship, sailing out of PortMiami to the sun-kissed islands of the Caribbean (and its own private beach club in Bimini). The line's next two ships will be based in Barcelona and Athens.

So why start here where -- let's face it -- the weather is not reliable, even in August?

"The reality is our ship is in Italy right now, so we thought why not do something while we're on the other side of the Atlantic," McAlpin told Cruise Critic.

"The U.K. market is perfect for us, this is like a homecoming, there's incredible brand awareness so it's an easy launch. And it gives us a chance to work out kinks before we get to full service."

The Eastern Mediterranean would be the natural spot, and it's one that a number of other cruise lines, notably Celebrity, Royal and Norwegian, have picked.

But the UK cruises will be good for people who want to stay closer to home, even if they are vaccinated McAlpin said.

"We've got a huge base in the U.K. -- the awareness for the Virgin brand is huge there," he said. "People don't have to fly, it's a quick getaway, everyone is vaccinated and the U.K. is open and willing to start cruising again."

He added: "It's a very safe experience because we're in a bubble, so it makes perfect sense to be there and to showcase it.

"So all the stars kind of aligned for us."

"Incredible Pent-Up Demand"

Interior shots of The Sea Terrace Cabin on Scarlet Lady
The Sea Terrace Cabin on Scarlet Lady

Sales opened in the U.K. on Tuesday (13th) at a lead-in fare of £499 per person for the three-day sailing for a Sea Terrace (what Virgin calls a balcony cabin).

While not breaking the internet (as P&O Cruises' did), the sales were "strong," according to McAlpin.

"Initial reports are strong, stronger than expected. I think there's incredible pent up demand.

"People want to get out and travel... that's the thing people miss -- we haven't been able to do anything -- and so this is a nice way for people in the U.K. to do a short cruise.

"There's so much to do on the ship. And we need this, especially as we launch the second ship, Valiant Lady, out of Barcelona, so this is a way for us to tease that market for people to experience what Virgin is all about."

He added: "Rather than waiting and waiting and waiting for the Centers for Disease Control, this is a chance for us to get out there and start sailing."

He also emphasised the line's need to have reviews (no doubt on Cruise Critic) from travellers and to get the word out that the ship is sailing.

Why No Port Stops?

scarlet lady exterior
Scarlet Lady (Photo by Cruise Critic)

Most of the lines that are offering round-Britain cruises are stopping in at least a handful of ports. Liverpool -- Scarlet Lady's last official port of call last year -- is proving to be the most popular.

But McAlpin said that he doesn't think the ship needs it. "I think there is a lot to do to experience the ship," he said.

"Could we eventually add a port? Yes we could, but let's see what happens. This is a dynamic situation and we'll play it by ear. If we can add a port, that's a bonus, if we need it.

"I also don't know how important a stop in the UK would be. It's about getting away, getting out there and experiencing life."

What Will Life Onboard Be Like?

Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady Spa
Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady Spa

McAlpin hopes that life onboard will be as normal as possible with all venues open, depending on government guidelines.

"We've agreed plans as have all the lines on what we would do in an environment pre-vaccine," he said. "What we don't know is how much we will be able to relax those given the fact that our intention is to have everybody onboard with a vaccine.

"We hope we can relax those standards so we don't have to wear a mask, but I don't know what the requirement will be from UK health authorities.

"Personally I think if everybody is vaccinated, I don't see the need for everybody to wear masks."

In terms of capacity, the 2,770-passenger ship is likely to start carrying travellers at the  mid-60 percent range, McAlpin confirmed.

Isn't It A Bit Crowded Out There?

Shot of the stairs and seating area at The Roundabout on Scarlet Lady
The Roundabout on Scarlet Lady

There are a lot of lines sailing around the U.K. this summer, but McAlpin isn't worried about the competition. He said that Virgin's brand awareness and positioning in the market as a hip line for adults only will work in their favour.

"It's a big enough market, it's a short cruise, I think there's incredible pent up demand," he said.

"There are different lines that are out there, but we're different.

"This is 'set sail, the Virgin way.' If you want to try something different, more of a premium experience, then that's what we're all about. We're OK competing on that -- we're not for everybody."

Where Next?

Virgin Voyages' Beach Club at Bimini (Image: Virgin Voyages)
Virgin Voyages' Beach Club at Bimini (Image: Virgin Voyages)

McAlpin is hopeful that after the summer, the ship will be able to sail from the U.K. to the U.S., and finally get to the Caribbean.

"We hope the CDC will have the right guidelines in place by September... if the CDC does not open up for whatever reason -- I don't know how they could not -- then we'll look at other options.

"Could we extend the season in the U.K.? Maybe. Could we do something else in the Caribbean? Maybe.

"We could do a little bit more in the U.K., but then the weather gets nasty from October."

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