Stalled by the pandemic, Virgin Voyages now has two ships in the water and plans to launch two more by the end of 2023. John Diorio, Virgin Voyages' senior vice president of North American sales, spoke with cruise editor Andrea Zelinski about booking strength, Wave season and how the brand plans to scale up.
Q: How are bookings?
A: Q3 bookings more than doubled over Q2, which is a testament to the brand awareness we're building but also to how engaged our First Mates (Virgin Voyages' name for travel advisor) have been with promoting us. That momentum is carrying already into Q4, so we are extremely excited about where 2023 is headed.
Q: Virgin Voyages will double its capacity by the end of 2023. How do you scale up that quickly?
A: All four ships have been on sale now for a bit. We are seeing the booking curve obviously tend to favor into '22 and all of 2023. We're going to scale it with an increased marketing presence globally. We're going to be working stronger with all of our partners in North America, Europe and Australia to bring more brand awareness and increased co-op marketing. We have to still bring that brand awareness in the marketplace. People might know Virgin; Virgin Voyages is a new brand. We're having to educate consumers on what that experience is like, and we'll do that with marketing messaging, commercials and such but also really leaning on and investing heavily in the trade to get that awareness out there.
Q: What do you mean by "heavily"?
A: More co-op marketing, more events and more cruise nights -- anything we do to bring our brand to the advisor community and bring them in. They are our partners to bring the customer in. We're seeing great success with that already, but we know we have to do a lot more of that, so we're going to expand the sales team going into 2023 and make more of an investment on the co-op marketing side to build more brand awareness both on the trade side and the direct consumer side.
Q: Are you seeing a rise in direct bookings? And if so, what does that mean for travel advisors?
A: We've basically given every travel advisor their own dedicated URL at Virginvoyages.com. There are a couple of purposes for that. One, they asked for an easier way to book or have their customers book for themselves. This link enables them to go to Virgin Voyages to book on behalf of their customers. But better yet, from a marketing perspective, advisors who lean into social media or email marketing can promote us now and embed the link in their promotions. When that customer clicks on the link, it takes them to Virgin Voyages and has the advisor's name and email and phone number at the top of the page. The customer then can do it themselves and book at home, and the advisor gets instant credit, full commission, and now they're managing the booking on the back end. We rolled that out in early September, and it's been a huge success for us thus far. It's that way of creating that little bit of balance of, "Yeah, you can do it yourself, but you can do it yourself and still have the support of an advisor along the way." In the past eight weeks, we're seeing almost 20% of our bookings from trade come through this technology. It's really amazing. We're seeing advisors that really lean into social media and using our promotions and telling that story about Virgin Voyages. They're embedding the link, and it's been a huge success for us.
Q: What are you expecting for Wave season?
A: We're preparing for an even bigger Q1 booking season than we've ever seen, probably bigger than any quarter booking season than we've ever had before. Q3 as a company was our biggest quarter ever in terms of bookings, which isn't traditionally the best quarter that you would have the most bookings. But in Q1, we are expecting tremendous growth with our brand.