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Virgin Voyages' new commission strategy welcomed by the trade

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'The consumer sentiment to cruise is high,' John Diorio said
Travel advisors have welcomed Virgin Voyages' new commission policy with 'excitement and gratitude,' according to John Diorio, AVP North American sales.

Moving to 16% standard commission is 'a big investment we're making as a company,' an extension of the 'Brilliant to do business with' trade motto, he said. Since the start, Virgin's no non-commissionable fares policy has enabled first mates (travel advisors) to earn pay for the whole cost of the voyage excluding government taxes and fees. Fares include all dining, Wi-Fi, gratuities, basic beverages (water, non-pressed juices, sodas, teas, drip coffee) and group fitness classes.

10% for pre-voyage sales

Plus, the company pays 10% for pre-voyage sales including shore excursions, hotel, bar tab, spa treatments and more. The advisor gets the pre-voyage sales commission even if the sailor (passenger) books items directly.

Diorio said add-ons like the bar tab are particularly appealing. For that, when the client spends $300, they get $350 in value.

Virgin Voyages plans an Oct. 16 'soft open' for Scarlet Lady and, for a limited time, is offering up to 30% off select voyages in the fourth quarter.

For canceled sailings, the line has given a generous 200% future cruise credit, and Diorio said more people are taking the FCC than requesting a refund. Under Virgin's current flexible booking policy, for sailings between Oct. 16 and Dec. 16, final payment is due 60 days from sailing, instead of 120 days, and sailors can cancel up to 48 hours before departure and get a 100% voyage credit.


Virgin's timing for entering service has been challenging and, on top of that, the new brand suffered more than most with the loss of Cuba, according to Alex Sharpe, president & CEO, Signature Travel Network, who said the short sailings with an overnight in Havana had been 'really appealing to non-cruisers.'

Signature found Virgin's initial focus on drawing a 'hipper non-cruising crowd an excellent complement to our portfolio,' Sharpe continued. 'They spent years developing a brand that would be different in every way, even their approach to advisors.' However, their smaller marketing strategy focused solely on e-marketing and their initial 'perfect 10' commission structure, too, was 'challenging.'

If Virgin were bringing a new market to cruising, advisors would have accepted their commission strategy, but when their customer target changed to more traditional cruisers, it was hard to justify moving clients from traditional lines that provide extensive marketing support and 17%-plus commission to Virgin at a lower return, Sharpe explained.

'Evolved' strategy welcomed

So he's pleased that, over time, Virgin's approach has 'evolved for the better. Higher commission tiers and no NCFs has few peers, but managing a start-up, with more capacity already available, will be challenging,' Sharpe said. 'Virgin will have to continue to tell their story, defining their customer base — who they are, but more importantly who they aren’t — selling their value through the advisor community, and driving excitement and demand for this new product.'

Besides Signature, Virgin is a preferred supplier for Virtuoso, Cruise Planners, Travel Planners International, Expedia Cruises and Avoya Travel and, most recently, it bagged Travel Leaders Group following discussions that Diorio said began more than 1.5 years ago.

'We're very excited about the relationship,' he added, noting that Travel Leaders Group is one of the largest cruise sellers and a 'passionate group of travel professionals.'

Building trade relationships from afar

When adapting to the coronavirus situation, 'Our sales crew all work from home so being remote was not a big stretch for the team,' according to Diorio. Since not being able to meet first mates in person makes it harder to forge a personal connection, Virgin aims to compensate with technology.

In the past couple months, the sales team has launched dedicated regional Facebook groups to build local relationships. There are seven in North America, one in the UK and one in Australia.

These supplement the First Mates SeaCiety Facebook page available to those registered on the dedicated trade portal, with the Virgin brand story, ship content, marketing pieces and instant booking capability. Tools include the availability of Virgin Voyages backgrounds for advisors to use in Zoom conferences with clients.

The sales team is also actively involved in Facebook Live events with first mates and their sailors.

Itineraries resonating the most are Scarlet Lady's four-night getaways to Key West that also provide an extended stay at The Beach Club at Bimini, until midnight.

'Voyage Well' content to share

The recently announced 'Voyage Well' also has provided content for first mates to share with clients, and Virgin created customizable flyers about the program that advisors can use.

'Voyage Well is not just cleaning more,' Diorio said. 'It's putting the right systems in place to build confidence.'

Scarlet Lady undergoing work in Genoa

Scarlet Lady is back in Genoa, where the ship was built, having returned to repatriate crew, get retrofitted with the AtmosAir purification system and undergo basic repairs and maintenance that comprise 'standard post-delivery work,' according to a Virgin spokesperson. The ship is currently expected to be there through August.

Right now, as for all travel suppliers, the general climate of uncertainty is the main barrier to booking. 'But we're seeing the consumer sentiment to cruise is high. Those who've sailed in the past are eager to get back on board,' Diorio said.