Virgin Voyages aims to disrupt the cruise line industry by offering a land-based, inspired beverage experience at sea. While its inaugural sail has been postponed several times due to the pandemic, the company, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has developed a world-class beverage program that provides passengers with affordable luxury and choice. It’s our 2021 BevX winner for Best Overall Hospitality Beverage Program.
The first ship in the fleet, the 2,750-passenger Scarlet Lady, was initially scheduled to launch in March 2020 and is now preparing for a fall departure from Miami. What makes her, and Virgin Voyages, different?
For one thing, there are no buffets, no dress codes and no kids: Passengers must be 18 or older to sail on Scarlet Lady. The company also aimed to remove the barriers to explorations that traditional beverage packages create.
That means fares include all basic drinks, and guests pay for alcoholic beverages a la carte, just like on land, says Charles Steadman, Virgin Voyages’ senior manager, beverage and bar development and operations. The cruise line does have a Bar Tab that guests—which the company refers to as “Sailors”—can pre-book and purchase for $300 and receive $50 or more on top of that as credit for any beverage purchase.
The ship’s eateries include The Wake, a steak/seafood restaurant with classic cocktails and whiskey flights poured tableside; Test Kitchen, an exploratory restaurant with an immersive bar experience; Gunbae Korean BBQ restaurant with drinking games, table-top cooking and a soju-centric cocktail list; Extra Virgin Italian trattoria featuring an Aperitivo Hour, classic Italian cocktails and wines by the half-glass and full glass; Pink Agave Mexican restaurant with the largest selection of mezcals and tequilas at sea; Dockhouse, which offers Mediterranean-inspired tapas and beverages with a strong rosé program; Razzle Dazzle, a vegetable-forward restaurant with whimsical drinks such as a Grasshopper cocktail that has an actual edible grasshopper garnish; and The Social Club, with Coney lsland-esque fare.
And there are plenty of beverages to choose from. Scarlet Lady boasts more than 25 bars on board, each with its own curated program. “It’s a well-rounded program that caters to the wine, beer, spirit, cocktail, proof-free cocktail, non-alcoholic and wellness-orientated drinking crowd,” says Steadman, who came on board with Virgin Voyages in 2018.
Drinks-only experiences include a Champagne bar called Sip; Draught Haus, which has a beer focus with shot drinks and boilermakers; mixology bar On The Rocks; the Casino Martini bar with retro Las Vegas cocktails; and nautical-themed drinkery Loose Cannon, among others.
With the Shake for Champagne experience, Sailors can shake their phones and immediately be directed to an order screen in the Sailor app that will place an order for a bottle of Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut to be delivered to them anywhere on the ship.
The cruise line worked with several beverage industry leaders on cocktail development, including famed Chicago mixologists Charles Joly and Julia Momose, and hospitality management companies Bar Lab and Cocktail Cartel. Guests that don’t drink alcohol have plenty of options, from specialty pressed and extracted juices and smoothies to hand-crafted coffees and teas.
What did Steadman and his team do when Scarlet Lady’s maiden voyage was pushed back for more than a year due to Covid? They took advantage of the challenging time to focus on making the beverage program better, he says.
“We had a transatlantic voyage with Sailors on board before the closing of the industry, and were able to look at that data to improve on service areas and standards,” Steadman says.
“There was a lot of support from the industry with free e-learnings and classes with accreditations. We focused on learning more and growing skill sets and knowledge.”
What beverages have been popular so far? Steadman says that Sailors have been raving about One More Thyme, served at On The Rocks Bar. It’s made with Tanqueray 10 gin, Aperol, Carpano Antica vermouth, lemon juice and grapefruit soda, served over ice with a grapefruit peel and a sprig of thyme.
Another hit is the Sh-oct-a-pus cocktail at Loose Cannon, with Bacardi Superior rum, Coconut Cartel Coconut aged rum, Malibu rum, pineapple, lime juice, grenadine and Hella Cocktail Co. ginger bitters. It’s served as a deconstructed punch bowl in small glasses displayed on a large metal octopus.
Charting a sustainable course
Despite the headwinds of the past 18 months, Virgin Voyages plans to move full steam ahead in 2022. Two ships will be coming to market: Valiant Lady, which will do sailings out of Portsmouth, U.K. in mid-March, and then Barcelona in mid-May; and Resilient Lady out of Piraeus, Greece, at the end of the year.
The company plans to focus on a number of areas in 2022, Steadman says, including further embracing rosé wine, mezcal and tequila; proof-free cocktails and distillates; detox/retox lifestyle choices; local-sourced items and direct trade offerings; and sustainable packaging in wine and ready-to-drink cocktails.
Virgin Voyages also wants to find ways to work with brands to reduce waste and carbon footprint. For instance, Steadman says, “Our house Bloody Mary mix, made by Filthy Foods, uses leftover salsa factory water that would normally go down the drain and cause an acidic water issue in Vero Beach, FL, as a base.”
Sustainability is key to the cruise line’s mission. Every point of production is accounted for with the best in sustainable practices throughout the beverage program, says Steadman. These include initiatives such as solar power, wind power, soy inks, water capture and reuse to organic and biodynamic farming practices, alternative packaging options and working with estate-owned/family-operated producers that fully embrace stewardship of the land.
Perhaps most important, “We offer our Sailors total control over their voyage by creating a beverage experience that responds to their ever-changing moods along their journey,” Steadman says. For the fledgling cruise line, the Virgin Voyages guest experience “will always be a journey and not a destination.”