Sneak peek at Virgin Cruises' first ships

Virgin's Richard Branson says its news ships will be modern, fun, with a sassy atmosphere. And of course, it wouldn't be Virgin without some red.

Virgin's Richard Branson says its news ships will be modern, fun, with a sassy atmosphere. And of course, it wouldn't be Virgin without some red.  (Virgin Cruises)

In its first foray into the cruise business, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group in June announced it ordered three stylish ships that will appeal to a new generation of cruiser.

Set for delivery after 2020, the 110,000-gross-ton, 2,800-passenger ships are considered smaller than the industry’s newer vessels but are still bigger than many ships in use today.

Virgin says its new line will offer an intimate experience that will attract younger travelers, especially those already loyal to the company’s lifestyle brand. spoke with Tom McAlpin, the man tapped as Virgin Cruises’ first CEO, about the impact of Virgin’s entry into an already crowded cruise landscape and why these ships are different.  So far, your words to describe the ships have been “casual” and “boutique.” What will the Virgin ships look like?

Tom McAlpin: Our vision is a very intimate ship, with a wide variety of entertainment and food choices. We want to be like no other cruise line. Our guideline is more like Virgin Airlines, for example: Modern, fun and with a sassy atmosphere. It wouldn’t be Virgin without some red.  Are there any surprises already in the plans, or is it still too soon?

Tom McAlpin: Oh, we do have some tricks up our sleeve already. Let's just say they're in keeping with Richard's (Branson) fun and slightly cheeky style.  Is Branson in on the day-to-day discussions?

Tom McAlpin: So far Richard is the visionary, but if we start to think in a new direction we certainly ask for his input. So far, many ideas are coming from our consumers; large focus groups (1000+ people) and smaller ones comprised of fans of the Virgin lifestyle.  You’ve been saying that Virgin will shake up the cruise world. What’s wrong with modern cruising?  Most ships have gotten so big they have to be all things to all people. We want to go the other way. We want to appeal to our own crowd.  Does that include families?

Tom McAlpin: With our focus on mostly millennials, many of them have kids, and bringing them is okay. We will have children's facilities, but we are not focusing on families.  What about the new trend towards inclusiveness of beverages, gratuities and tours? Does that fit in with your vision?

Tom McAlpin: The industry is obviously going that way so we have to discuss it. But here is a funny story; I just took a cruise I won't mention (which one), but the online booking process got so complicated, even for me, that I just gave up and called a travel agent. We want to simplify everything - booking, inclusiveness, the experience, everything. Let’s talk about entertainment. I see you hired Richard Kilman, the former vice president of entertainment for Norwegian Cruise Line and the person responsible for bringing the cult hit show Blue Man Group to ships.  Will Virgin have acts like Blue Man Group?

Tom McAlpin: Well, think of words Richard (Branson) has used to describe this cruise line so far, like "sassy," "active" and "non-traditional." We are looking for entertainment that cruise ships have never even seen before.  What can you say about your itineraries?"

Tom McAlpin: Sailing from Miami makes some ports (in the Caribbean) obvious. Our first ship will do alternating itineraries so European clients can sail back-to-back cruises. But each new ship will offer different destinations so we can add variety and longer cruises. Our main goal is to find truly unusual shore experiences, activities and places that are off the beaten path.  I noticed Virgin owns a Caribbean island. Is that on the docket?"

Tom McAlpin: That is Necker Island. It is rented out, but is actually a private residence of Branson's. We have teased him that he will see 2800 of his closest friends coming every week.  Will the ship's horn play Tubular Bells, the theme from the film “The Exorcist" and the hit for Virgin Records that helped launch Branson’s empire.

Tom McAlpin: Well, I was there when Disney decided to use "When you Wish Upon a Star" - so you never know.

Paul Motter is the editor of, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.