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Branson’s Virgin Voyages Courts First-Time Cruisers, Cures Inhibition

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 11/19/2021 Fran Golden

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Amid the flashing lights, blaring house music, and gyrating dancers at a sea-goddess-themed bash on the 2,770-passenger Scarlet Lady, single mom Kylie Story felt so uninhibited that she jumped into the pool. She didn’t even pause to remove her long crimson dress or butterfly wings.

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Story, 32, and a friend had booked a cabin on Richard Branson’s first Virgin Voyages ship, which began adults-only sailings in October after 18 months of delays. “This is living life a little on the wild side,” she said, dripping wet, somewhere between Miami and Nassau.

Branson says Virgin goes “where no other cruise company has gone before.” With that, he’s challenging the industry’s sleepy reputation. On Scarlet Lady, the first of three ships setting sail by the end of 2022, Broadway revues are swapped for tattoo parlors and pelvic-thrusting dance classes. “Sailors”—Virgin-speak for “guests”—can cool down at the “Lick Me Till … Ice Cream” shop and heat up at sex seminars that urge audience participation. “If you believe sex is good, say yes. If you don’t, get the f--- out!” a resident “sexologist” shouted at a rowdy crowd of about 135. (Nobody got out.)

Other lines, such as Viking Ocean Cruises, don’t allow children but are geared toward seniors. As a seasoned cruise writer, the main differences that I saw, aside from mean age, was that there was more day drinking on Scarlet Lady, more dirty chat, and more PDA, especially in the hot tubs. The main sentiment I heard during my four-night cruise: It’s great to not have to deal with other people’s kids. Hard to argue with that.

Luxury, as Virgin Voyages sees it, is about letting your guard down and enjoying what happens when others do the same. In 2021 that means requiring vaccines and preboard testing—but no masks. Rates start at $1,550 per double-occupancy cabin for four-night sailings to the Bahamas or five-night trips to Mexico. That’s more than three times what a comparable voyage on Royal Caribbean costs but only a fourth of the price of a one-week itinerary with Seabourn, which starts at about $6,200.

“A certain segment coming onboard thinks it’s a swinger’s cruise,” says Gene Sloan, 52, cruise writer for The Points Guy, who on the maiden voyage was asked by an older couple in an elevator why no one was getting naked. But Frank Weber, Virgin’s senior vice president for hotel operations, dispels that notion: “It’s sipping Champagne and listening to a DJ.”

Instead of millennials—the target of the young, attractive nonconformists in Virgin’s early branding—most bookings are coming from those in their late 40s and early 50s. The inaugural crowd ranged all the way from 20- to 80-year-olds, including frequent cruisers, first-timers, singles, gay couples, Jerry Garcia lookalikes, and women in black leather.

Hairstylist Justin Hipp, 32, who was honeymooning with his new husband, Bren, said he thought the ship would be “more inclusive than family-oriented cruises.” The thigh tattoo he got onboard (of the ice cream shop’s “Lick Me” logo) is one sign he felt embraced. Among Virgin’s free-spirited crew, many sport their own ink, nose rings, or dyed hair.

Scarlet Lady throws out a lot of cruise conventions. There’s no main dining room, and the six restaurants replacing it are all included in the fares. At Test Kitchen, the five-course menu features a perfectly cooked egg yolk with caviar and peas that arrives in a smoking orb. Servers at the Korean barbecue Gunbae prepare meat and seafood on electric grills while leading drinking games; the first round of soju is on the house.

Entertainment is similarly nontraditional. Duel Reality, created with Montreal’s 7 Fingers collective, is a jaw-dropping spectacle of acrobatics and faux fighting. A wild nightclub, the Manor, is in a sultry duplex space created by Roman & Williams, designers of New York’s Boom Boom Room. You get theater tickets and dining reservations using a Virgin Voyages app—which kept crashing on my trip. When it works, you can shake your phone to get a bottle of Moët & Chandon Champagne ($95) delivered anywhere by a server wearing a red ice bucket sling.

The cabins are almost beside the point, but they have some creative design details, such as Walter Knoll beds that convert into L-shaped couches by day. Swinging hammock chairs on balconies seem to float over the water.

Whether these perks attract new-to-cruising millennials—or alienate the fiftysomethings who are booking—will be the test of Virgin’s conceit. It may not be Mr. Right for any of them, but it sure is fun for right now.

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