VIRGIN VOYAGES: VIRGIN ON THE RIDICULOUS
When Richard Branson started his Virgin brand back in 1972, it was with the express intention to be different. Like the difference between an Ibiza nightclub and the Royal Albert Hall. He didn’t go for subtlety, but he did go for value, and fun. Lots of fun.
So much fun, in fact, that his Virgin Atlantic airline almost went bust in 1992, and he had to sell Virgin Records (for a whopping £500million) to EMI to keep his planes flying.
Then came Virgin Trains, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Galactic (aimed at sending tourists into space), Virgin Fuels, Comics, Health Bank, Money, Racing and Biscuits. OK, so we made the last one up, but we think it would be more fun than Fuels.
And now (*Big fanfare*), comes his latest venture in the red Virgin livery: Virgin Cruise Line. Sorry, Virgin Voyages. Because they dare to be different, remember?
Only, there are times when daring to be different can leave you with substantial quantities of eggy substance on your visage. Like this week’s ‘Keel-laying Ceremony’ of the first Virgin Voyages ship at the Fincantieri shipyard in Sestri Ponente, Italy.
Using the now rather tired vessel of social media (why not send up Virgin Galactic with an interstellar fireworks display to spell out your message – now THAT would be different), Sir Richard’s latest venture previewed the event by insisting it would be a #Shiptease of “big surprises,” unveiling a welter of new info and details about the brand.
Shiptease? More like a shipwreck. Surprises? The only surprise was that they kept the ‘live’ Facebook feed going as long as they did, to a mass of online derision and abuse when, first, they lost the sound, and then they returned with a distorted picture that made Branson and CEO Tom McAlpin look like extras in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (see, Loompas, Oompa variety).
It was not their PR office’s finest hour (or even 30 minutes). Those endeavouring to watch via computer or mobile device (hopefully, Virgin Mobile saved their users by shutting it down automatically) were left to guess at what the Virgin bigwigs were actually saying, although the few images of their new vessel showed us a very ‘different’ look.
Had they, perhaps, mixed the design for Virgin Trains with their new ocean-going exercise? Someone may have asked that question, but the ‘live’ audience was none the wiser.
The obvious comments of “We hope the ship performs better than the Facebook page!” were legion, and the social media operators, mercifully, put us out of our online misery by cutting the feed after 30 minutes and 43 seconds, a period of time that could be marked only as “We want our 30mins and 43secs back!”
There were, eventually, some moments of insight, though, and some comments about the cruise world that are decidedly, well, different.
In addition to the whole ‘Voyages’ not ‘Cruises’ thing, McAlpin announced that their new vision for sailing in that watery stuff will not have balconies. Oh no. They will have ‘sea terraces,’ but not balconies. OK, so you, us and the ship’s cat will all still refer to them as balconies, but ‘sea terraces’ they will now be for evermore.
There won’t be passengers, either. So very passé. No sirree. Those paying to travel aboard will be Sailors, not passengers at all. So be ready for everyone in the first port of call to greet those aboard with the inevitable cry of “Hello, Sailor!”
The trio of vessels (launching in 2020, ’21 and ’22) will also be referred to as ‘the Lady Ships’ (apparently it’s a play on the old forelock-tugging phrase, “Your ladyship”), which conjures up another unfortunate phrase of one of the lady ships being docked, or even tendered from behind. Frankie Howerd would have a field day.
The most important piece of news about the first vessel in the Virgin Voyages series, though, was saved for Sir Richard himself to reveal. “We’re going to start without kids, which will make me a very unpopular granddad,” he insisted. “It sends a message. I think there are a lot of people who find that kids running around a cruise ship gets in the way of their holiday. But then I’m sure we’ll become kid-friendly with a ship down the line. We’ll have to – I have grandchildren.”
So, a 2,860-passenger (sorry, Sailor) vessel with nobody under the age of 18 on board. “It won’t be a Spring Break crowd,” McAlpin added (where ‘Spring Break’ is American for the Club 18-30 crowd, which is only slightly reassuring).
There will be some interesting features, though, in addition to the rather strange outline of the as-yet-unnamed Virgin I (with the battleship-grey hull only slightly offset by the semi-naked mermaid on the prow, to go with the bullet-train profile), which definitely doesn’t look like any other sailor-container out there (chalk one up to the ‘different’ column).
McAlpin also insisted there will be no gimmicks, tricks or Vegas-style entertainment. “We don’t need them,” he claimed. “Our focus is the software. We’re creating a platform for a phenomenal experience on board.”
Which is, actually, reassuring. If the design teams can produce an interior to go with the sleek, non-ship-like profile; and if the service is suitably slick and inviting; and if it doesn’t feel like Vegas-on-Sea; and if they can produce a distinctive food and beverage package; then this could, indeed, be a very different cruise proposition.
Just don’t ever, under any circumstances, call us ‘sailor’ at any stage. Treadwell’s mother would have conniptions. And Tenny’s mother would be far, far worse.