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'Boutique hotel at sea': Virgin Voyages CEO hails Richard Branson's 'biggest endeavour'

The stories you don't know about some of the world's best and little-known brands

Virgin Voyages has three ships in the fleet, with 2,700 passengers.
Virgin Voyages has three ships in the fleet, with 2,700 passengers.

“This is probably the biggest endeavour we’ve done at Virgin,” says Nirmal Saverimuttu, CEO of Virgin Voyages, the kid-free travel brand launched in 2021 by business magnate Sir Richard Branson.

The story goes that Branson, who founded his Virgin brand while working on a London houseboat in the early 1970s, first harboured dreams of starting a cruise line in his twenties. “But he never got round to it and it's a lot of capital involved,” adds Saverimuttu, who has worked for Branson since 2006.

“If you sat down with Richard, he would tell you that he was 30, 40, then 50 and finally got it done in his sixties. And then he had his 70th birthday on one of our ships.”

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Saverimuttu, a former investment banker with Goldman Sachs (GS), created new businesses such as Virgin America and Virgin Hotels before focusing on a cruise line plan in 2012. Virgin Voyages, which has raised northwards of $1bn in equity, took eight years to get off the ground.

Traditionally, it takes around four years from ship design to launch at sea. When they first designed the product, following two years of research, Virgin chiefs thought it would be a more adult-centric, not adult only offering. “We wanted to make sure we got the product and culture right and that takes time,” says Saverimuttu.

The brand took delivery of its first ‘lady ship’ in February 2020 before COVID hit and they launched a year later. There are now three ‘mid-size’ ships in operation, with 2,700 passengers and 1,200 staff, half the size of the biggest ships across the globe.

Virgin Voyages' CCO Nirmal Saverimuttu (left) and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson (right) are seen during an announcement at Pitt Street Mall in Sydney, Tuesday, November 12, 2019. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi) NO ARCHIVING ** STRICTLY EDITORIAL USE ONLY **
Virgin Voyages' CEO Nirmal Saverimuttu with Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson in 2019. (BIANCA DE MARCHI, Australian Associated Press)

On board the ‘boutique hotel at sea’, there are over 20 spaces to eat, with its biggest restaurant set at 200 seats and made-to-order food. On the entertainment side there are 400 seats, as opposed to 2,000 on traditional cruises. There are also no dress codes, buffets or set dining times.

“Richard has been about finding opportunities for these under-served markets which tend to be dominated by a handful of people and overlooking a certain customer segment,” adds Saverimuttu.

“He started an airline because he felt the British consumer was getting a raw deal. Cruises are different. They are a very good experience and value for money but there is a good segment which is getting overlooked.”

Virgin Voyages, says Saverimuttu, takes all the best parts of cruising and adds a twist for more widespread appeal. This includes its ‘fair but flexible’ fares. “We shouldn’t penny pinch. You pay the fare to come on board, everything is included and the audience doesn’t like to be charged extra,” he admits.

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This includes high-speed Wifi, drinks packages, fitness and entertainment. Its flexibility also means there is no charge for name or date changes, the latter up to 45 days before travel.

Its ‘Work from Helm’ programme, which includes four back-to-back voyages, was also inspired by Branson.

“He’s always championed this work from home culture and more flexible working environments," admits Saverimuttu. “He said people love being on our ships so why not give them the opportunity to do so.

“The response was overwhelming and we sold out of some month and multiple month voyages. We didn’t know quite how impactful it would be but I should have known as it was one of Richard’s ideas, which always tend to work.”

Miami-based Virgin Voyages has 1,200 staff on board, with 5,000 employees.
Miami-based Virgin Voyages has 1,200 staff on board, with 5,000 employees. (Virgin Voyages - Content Studio)

There are 80s-style fitness classes while ships have nights such as Studio 72 — based on Studio 54 with circus acts — while its Scarlet Nights sees the whole ship turn red. “People like to be reminded of nostalgia and the kid-free environment allows people to be themselves,” says Saverimuttu.

“There is a misperception with us that we only appeal to people in their twenties and thirties. We have a wide audience who tend to be in their forties to sixties as well.

“When we first launched we got a lot of feedback on entertainment. Some leaned a bit too risqué. People said they just wanted live music and comedy. In some places we probably made some mistakes and leaned too heavily into adult only experiences.”

When Virgin’s third ship Resilient Lady subsequently launched in early 2023, the group’s third ship, it won a best entertainment award. Management also took on board customer feedback on its cabins which were ‘too Ikea like’.

Onboard Scarlet Lady, Virgin Voyages' first ship which launched in 2021
Onboard Scarlet Lady, Virgin Voyages' first ship which launched in 2021. (Melanie Acevedo)

The revamp ended in a best cabin award. "We are open to feedback and Richard and I always see it’s a very important part, to always listen to sailors and crew. It’s part of the Virgin DNA.”

There are now over 100 destinations with 19 itineraries. The growing portfolio allows UK audiences to sail from Barcelona, Athens and, from September, Portsmouth. Overnights at port have also been added. “What we heard loud and clear is that people want to stay longer at destinations,” says Saverimuttu.

Asked what he would do following the recent news when a Norwegian Cruise captain refused to let eight passengers reboard the ship after they were late, Saverimuttu simply says “The guiding principle is that we do the right thing for the sailor.”

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The Florida-based CEO has product tested the ships he oversees, with his wife and friends, and is partial to the outdoor training space with boxing rings and yoga, late night pizza (served until 2am) the Mediterranean tapas and the popular hammocks on balconies.

“The thing that’s magical about cruising is that we tend to forget how wonderful it is to be out on the ocean,” admits Saverimuttu. “We created the ship to celebrate the fact we are sailing. I feel like a lot of the perks of the industry are designed to be inward looking, these ships are designed to be outward looking.”

Behind the brand: Virgin Voyages CEO on…

Leadership

For me everything starts with the people. Richard has a simple saying, ‘If you treat your people well, then they’ll treat your customers well and the business will thrive.’

It’s important we speak to our crew, what’s working and not working. It’s simple things, like being approachable. Leaders tend to lock themselves in the ivory tower. We tell our leaders to be out there with the crew and to roll their sleeves up. In our culture, our crew feel heard and seen and don't feel like a number.

Sir Richard Branson took to the streets to personally hand out 200 free cruises to passers-by, celebrating the start of Virgin Voyages' summer season in the Med.
Sir Richard Branson took to the streets to personally hand out 200 free cruises to passers-by, celebrating the start of Virgin Voyages' summer season in the Med. (Ben Stevens/PinPep)

Working with Branson

Richard is remarkable in how in tune he is with consumers. A lot of times he’s always thinking ahead. Sometimes we struggle to keep up. The ‘Work from Helm’ is a great example and he had been pushing us to launch it for over a year. I always carry a notebook as he always has something to say on how we can improve the experience. For example, he came on board and noticed there were not enough medium weights during work outs. It’s been a great success since.

Watch: Richard Branson 'sails' round London on double-decker bus handing out cruise tickets

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