From Clubhouses to cruises. Talking design with Dee.
Dee Cooper is the design genius behind Virgin Voyages and their gorgeous ships. She's also played a massive part in our story here at Virgin Atlantic.
Before taking on the job of designing all the physical spaces and the whole customer experience at Virgin Voyages, Dee used to do the same job here at Virgin Atlantic, (for 16 years she adds). During that period, she was responsible for some of our most iconic features, including the first iteration of our Upper Class Suite, our space at Heathrow's Terminal 3, the Upper-Class Wing and our Heathrow Clubhouse.
We caught up with Dee to find out how life has been treating her since her move from one Virgin company to another. She explained how our brand flows across the different organisations. We discovered how she went about developing a cruise ship from scratch. We also asked her what it's been like to be at the epicentre of launching one of the most radical and exciting Virgin ventures, making one of Richard's dreams come true.
Designing a company
Richard at the start of the Virgin Voyages journey
On the wall in her office in Miami, Dee has an art deco poster of a passenger steamship from the 1950s. For her, it represents the excitement and sophistication of those early ocean crossings. That was one of the inspirations that Dee, along with Virgin Voyages CEO Tom McAlpin, and their team of cruise industry experts, used when creating Virgin Voyages. They set about bringing that romance back to the cruise world - however this time doing it the Virgin way by offering something different and better. They called it 'an epic sea change for all'. Along the way, Dee, who had never been on a cruise before, fell in love with sailing and the sea; she also discovered shipbuilding.
Scarlet Lady – designing a ship from the ground up
Scarlet Lady cuts an impressive figure as she wows Portsmouth on her recent Summer Soiree season
"In the same way everyone at Atlantic loves aircraft, we now admire the structure of our ships," said Dee. "Scarlet Lady was created and built by the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri, with input from Dixon Yacht Design, a superyacht company who helped us develop that distinctive outline of the ship from the bow over the funnels and through to the back of the ship". The result is a striking looking vessel that is recognisable even when it's miles out to sea. But if you think it looks amazing on the outside, wait until you step onboard.
Fitting out the ship
Grounds Club - The coffee shop
Vitamin Sea - fitness with a view
The Catamaran Net
test descriotion of suite image
This type of ship is known as a tower ship where the cabin decks are narrower than the lower decks. The result is a ship with 93% of the cabins with sea views or balconies. That is unique in the world of cruise ships. "When you go back to your room, having that sea view gives you the privacy, and that excitement of just being able to lay there and watch the waves roll by. It's awesome. And you don't have to be in a millionaire to do that," says Dee.
"With over 48 public spaces across the ship, we knew that modern customers or sailors as we call them wanted variety, both glamourous and relaxed things to do," said Dee. "Building on our learnings from Virgin Atlantic we decided to work with different boutique design agencies across the ship, who would help us to ensure every square millimetre of their spaces, were considered. We had great time briefing and taking them to the ship, and they'd be crawling all over it fascinated because the enormity of it is truly astounding."
You'll discover thoughtful design touches throughout the ship
Designing a cruise ship is in many ways similar to designing a city, along with everything that happens there. Dee's team set out with that idea, to cater for their customers in a way New York, London, Sydney, or San Francisco do. That means fascinating spaces both inside and out, and an excellent quality of choice when it comes to eating, drinking, shopping, and entertainment. That design ethos is epitomised by The Dock, one of Dee's favourites areas on the ship. It's a place she describes as being like a waterside outdoor café or bar which you might find on a ferry pier in Greece; a place you can enjoy the salty air and where you might find yourself at 11 a.m. ordering a Bloody Mary after the night before and munching on freshly grilled prawns.
As in all cool cities, there has to be a very cool coffee shop. Here Dee talks about how the coffee shop is a great example of physical design and customer experience coming together. "An excellent coffee shop is somewhere you get great coffee but can work or relax but most importantly where you can watch the world go by. Ours does all of that but with the ocean framed and ship in the huge windows behind," says Dee. While sipping high-quality coffee, those with a keen eye for design might notice a nearby wall light decorated with the numbers 132 and 149, an example of the myriad of tiny design touches waiting to be discovered by you throughout the ship. "The structure of the ship includes numbered frame lines which are like giant ribs or steel frames across the vessel. These became a navigation system for our drawings of the vessel," explains Dee. "So we had a bit of fun with that and created frame line lights with the numbers on. A tiny detail that many people won't notice, but when they do, it can be a great hook for a conversation with the crew. And it's those small friendly interactions that can create a memorable cruise." And that brings us to the other part of Dee's job. Customer experience.
The Virgin Voyages customer experience
An early decision in the process was to focus on adult-only customers, which means everybody onboard has to be over 18 on the ship. "This meant that we could make it very discerning and fun for that group of people," said Dee. "We know that people live a crazy life in this modern world. Some nights you go out, some nights you stay in. Sometimes some nights, you dance; other nights, you go to bed early and get up early and exercise. That's what the ship has to do for our customers. One night they can spend three hours enjoying fine dining in 'The Wake' at the stern of the ship. It's very glamourous. But the next day, you might fancy sushi or a slice of pizza. But it's got to be very good pizza. The aim was to steer away from the traditional cruise ship way of doing things, where 600 people sit down to a 'sitting'. "We don't live like that," said Dee. "Instead, we've got seven formal restaurants and over 20 eateries of different types across the vessel."
'Vitamin Sea' is the Virgin Voyages health and fitness offering. You'll find a gym looking out to sea, a running track around the top deck and beautiful swimming pools. There's even a boxing ring. There are outsidebars and eateries on the ship's decks and plenty of other innovative design features. A particular favourite of Dee's is the catamaran net. Stretched out over a gap on the top deck, is an area of for sailors to relax on. And for those brave enough to venture to the very tip of it, the reward is a view straight down to the sea, many decks below. Even though there is so much to discover throughout the ship, the magic really happens when customers interact with the crew. "The reality is that it doesn't matter how beautiful the ship or the restaurant is. Same at the airline with the Clubhouse or onboard. What makes the difference is our crew and our people, and that humanity. It's that helpfulness, that service, their behaviour, which makes the customers feel great," says Dee. "Of course, it's also great to remind you're connected with the sea, on board a ship."
So what advice would Dee give to someone setting off on a Virgin Voyage for the first time? "Relax. Just go and have a lovely holiday, enjoy escaping and being spoiled, and have time to do the things you love. Whether it's time to do the glamorous, like drinking fantastic cocktails as you watch the sun go down on the back of the deck, or if it's time to go to the gym and go for a really good run or do a yoga class. So for me, to be looked after by our crew is a wonderful thing. Just indulge yourself. That is what the ship is all about."
Delighting the first customers
Bringing Scarlet Lady into service has been a real labour of love for the Virgin Voyages team, and it hasn't been without its challenges (yes, you, Covid).
The customer experience and design elements which flow through the whole customer journey are Dee’s proudest features. "We had lots of fun, as you can imagine, creating spaces and experiences that modern consumers, which we know Virgin attracts and who love us, would enjoy," she says.
Whether you're enjoying the spaces onboard, chilling in one of the bars or restaurants, in the port terminal at Miami or on the Beach Club in Bimini, you'll find those extraordinary touches and gorgeous designs. And now, with the first customers disembarking from the Summer Soiree cruises, the first verdicts are in, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
One of the first customers was Nick Johnson from our sales team, who came back full of praise -
"Scarlet Lady is genuinely AMAZING, and the crew fantastic. Her design is outstanding pure luxury, with unique relaxing indoor and outdoor spaces which have been well thought through with high end finishes. The restaurants are five star quality with so much choice and variety, and the presentation is impeccable. The cabin is spacious, fun and funky, and we loved having the sofa in the daytime and a fantastic bathroom and products. We loved the shops, and the entertainment is weird (good weird) and wonderful. They are super talented."
Now the Summer Soiree season is over, Scarlett Lady will be heading across the Atlantic for a charter cruise and a few events in New York before heading to her home in Miami to begin her Caribbean season. There’s so much more to discover onboard than we could ever write about in a blog post. To explore the ships further and find out what all the fuss is about, sail over to the Virgin Voyages website.
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