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Virgin to keep shipbuilders busy

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Branson wants Virgin to keep Fincantieri 'busy for decades to come

Richard Branson, left, and Tom McAlpin turn a wheel to flood the drydock for Scarlet Lady's assembly as Bain Capital's Stephen Pagliuca looks on 

It sounds like Virgin Voyages isn't stopping at three ships, and it's possible the fourth could be of a different design.

'It's great to be involved in this new venture. It's ridiculously exciting,' Richard Branson said Friday at Fincantieri's Sestri Ponente yard on the occasion of the steel-cutting for the second ship. The third will follow soon and 'We're pushing. Hurry up with the fourth!' Branson said.

To which Virgin Voyages president and CEO Tom McAlpin responded: 'I feel your pressure.'

McAlpin elaborated there might be a fourth ship in the series or 'opportunities for a different class of ship as well ... We don't know yet.'

Meanwhile, Scarlet Lady is taking shape, and the company unveiled its innovative 'Vitamin Seas' wellness program.

All the tables must be strong enough to stand on

'We love to create real quality products which are fun, fun, fun—and make sure all our tables on the boat are strong enough to stand on,' Branson quipped. Virgin Voyages' product will be 'cool and fun' with every little detail thought through—in the same way that made the Virgin Hotel Chicago Condé Nast Traveler's No. 1 US hotel (and it's the first one stateside) and how the airline has won many awards.

'Everything's going to be five-star, really, really great quality and not five-star prices,' he said.

Branson expressed distaste for the little things people hate being charged for, like a bottle of water. 'You bought the cruise—you don't want to be ripped off,' he said.

Pricing will be more inclusive than that of others in the marketplace but shore excursions won't be bundled in, according to McAlpin, who added the tours will be curated and very different.

Some day, a Virgin ship for kids

The first three ships are likely to stay adults-only, but 'at some stage we'll definitely have cruise ships with kids,' Branson told reporters.

He compared the no-kids policy to Virgin Atlantic's no-smoking flights decades ago: 'People thought we were mad ... [but] everyone all over the world came to fly on us.'

For its cruise venture, 'We wanted to do something fairly radical,' hence the 'adult by design' concept. On Virgin Voyages, people will 'like to go off on their honeymoon or meet other people and fall in love and party.'

'By not having children, it really allows us to elevate the product,' McAlpin added. Virgin can deliver a much more sophisticated experience in a child-free environment. No screaming kids in the pool or 'gangs of teenagers running around.'

'If you're not having kids, your nightclub can be oriented to adults,' Branson chimed in. 'The experiences when you come to cities can be more adult-oriented.

'In a few years' time,' he added, 'we'll have a lot of fun creating a kids' ship: Virgin Kids.'

While he may have been joking, Branson did seem serious about going beyond three Lady Ships. As he put it: 'We want to keep this yard busy for decades to come.'

Virgin Voyages is not a millennials' cruise line, as many have speculated. Rather, it's for the young at heart. 'We're for people who want an elevated, premium experience that's a bit edgier,' McAlpin said.

Bain Capital's research determined 'We can open the market for cruising massively to millions and millions who'd never consider going on a cruise ship,' Branson stated.

Second ship to the Mediterranean

It's likely the second ship will be deployed seasonally somewhere other than the Caribbean—probably the Mediterranean—and return to Miami in the winter.

'We have a lot of different options,' McAlpin said. 'We're looking at the Med, the Baltic, the Southern Caribbean. We've looked at Barcelona. The Mediterranean is a fun place to go.'

He added that sailors (passengers) want to visit the big-name places but also places off the beaten track. 'Hidden gems' are going to be in the itineraries.

Scarlet Lady will be a 'sunshine ship,' though, sailing in warm-weather destinations so sailors can get the most of the 85% balcony cabins.

Following Scarlet Lady's delivery, Virgin might show her off in the UK—popping up the Thames (a bit) or maybe in Southampton—but probably won't cruise from there.

'I think most people in the UK would rather get out of the UK and go somewhere else, whether Italy or Spain,' Branson said. Unfortunately, he noted, the collapsing pound and Brexit make it more costly for Britons to cruise abroad. (As an aside, Branson views Brexit as a 'dreadful mistake' because it will impact people's earning power: 'The pound is below $1.20. We had the strongest GDP in Europe; now it's the weakest.')

Imitators expected

As the newly announced 'Vitamin Seas' programming shows, Virgin Voyages intends to stand out in every area. Competitors will certainly be looking to copy some aspects, but that doesn't bother Branson.

'We'll have five or six years when our cruise ships are unique, then other people will start copying them, and by then we'll have reinvented it,' he said.

With reporting from Italy by Luca PeruzziVirgin

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Interesting!  I thought that Branson was just working on his first, and it's interesting to know that he is going for 3 or 4 right away.  It will be nice for those who want a quieter and more romantic time on their cruise.  Can always pick another like Carnival or Disney to bring the kids with.

Edited by Shari2
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Virgin sounds like it's going to be very innovative, and with an adults-only concept, they have more freedom to be creative. I'm thinking they will wait and see how marketing and sales go with the adult version before they roll out a family ship.

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