Traditional luxe, experiential luxe, aspirational luxe -- there's more than a few categories for so-called luxury travel. But Virgin Voyages CEO Tom McAlpin may have created a new one.
"We don't fit into any one travel segment," he said. "We'd like to consider ourselves in a segment all our own. One that we like to call 'rebellious luxe.'"
McAlpin was on stage in a packed downstairs room at an event space in New York's Chelsea neighborhood. He sported a green velvet jacket. There was Champagne in coupe glasses for the crowd, but also shots of Korean soju. Richard Branson's name was evoked. A video showed renderings of sophisticated dining venues on the Virgin Voyages' upcoming ship the Scarlet Lady.
"We're putting a twist into luxury," McAlpin said.
He described the concept of the ship's onboard tattoo parlor, Squid Ink, and referenced Virgin's rock 'n' roll heritage, adding, "there's a little bit of rebel in all of us." Later that night, a bevy of drag queens danced and sang while well-heeled guests -- more than one woman was in stilettos -- noshed on pancakes and rose wine, and Joan Jett performed at the finale. It was a heady, devil-may-care evening with bawdy entertainment, Instagram, extra calories and rock music.
Later, I caught up with McAlpin, and he explained "rebellious luxe" this way:
"We see an opportunity for a young-at-heart crowd who don't want that stuffiness" of a more traditional luxury vacation. "They want to have fun, they want to celebrate, they want to have a romantic experience. And we see ... a way to be luxurious and a way without the pomp and circumstance; they love the concept of being able to be above the premium [cruise] category but be edgier and a bit more sophisticated."
The ship will carry about 2,700 passengers, which puts it on par, size-wise, with premium lines. But in a twist, the experience will be adults-only. There won't be formal nights per se, but the twist will be that passengers would simply feel like dressing elegantly. The line has been collaborating with a series of design firms to create different dining, drinking and lounging on the ship, spaces that McAlpin said would "look modern and feel modern" and with the focus on "good, quality food." But again, in a twist, there will be no upcharges for the best or most exclusive venues, nor for exercise classes or bottled water.
McAlpin brought up a small detail: that all the restaurants on the ship will have a bar within the restaurant, just like restaurants do on land, and passengers will have the option of eating at the bar. "People want flexibility; they don't want to be told what to do," he said. They want to experience restaurants like how you would on land: to relax, socialize."
Will Virgin Voyages truly play in the luxury cruise space? From a practical perspective, McAlpin appeared to position the line a little above the traditional premium lines but below the luxury grande dames like Silversea and Seabourn. He said the cruise line would offer value the Virgin way: a company that gives its customers an upper-class experience at a premium rate.
But since the luxury category in travel and lifestyle overall has expanded and grown and taken on a life of its own, there's no reason Virgin can't be luxury if its guests deem it so. McAlpin didn't name brands in the travel business beyond Virgin (and Disney, with some caveats) that he thinks practice "rebellious luxe," but perhaps a W, Kimpton or SLS would occupy a similar space: a travel company that caters to grownups who equate luxury with buzzy, playful, fun surroundings.
Let's have fun! (??)