Virgin Voyages’ first cruise ship set sail this week after months of pandemic-related delays, looking to offer plentiful dining and entertainment options while cutting back on one thing that has irritated cruise passengers for years: long lines.
When the Scarlet Lady finally embarked on her first voyage from the U.S., departing Miami for the Caribbean on Wednesday at half capacity, it offered its 1,300-plus passengers an app aimed at helping them avoid long physical lines by allowing for digital reservations for its restaurants, dance shows and other activities. It also is staggering when some on-ship events start to cut back wait times.
“One of the things that people told us they hated about cruises was queues,” said Dee Cooper, senior vice president of design and customer experience at Virgin Voyages.
However, reviews from early users of the Sailor app, which include people who took part in shorter test voyages in the south of England before this week’s official launch, suggest physical lines were replaced by equally frustrating digital experiences. The app has a rating of 1.7 stars out of five on Google’s Play Store, where some users complained of the system repeatedly failing while they were at sea.
“We’re learning with the technology how to bed it in and keep it robust,” Ms. Cooper said. The company said it is fixing bugs and continuously making improvements to the app. Guests can still check-in at the terminal and ask crew members to book reservations, it added.
The vessel, part of Richard Branson’s Bain Capital-backed venture into the cruise industry, has been designed to be something of an adults-only playground, with six restaurants, including a dining hall of various vendors; a tattoo studio; a nightclub; a karaoke lounge; immersive modern dance shows; and six additional bars.
The Sailor app also activates the mandatory wristband that acts as their digital cabin, wallet and bar tab, offers 24/7 customer support via chat, and lets guests order food and drink to their location, as well as make reservations, thus avoiding queues in front of restaurants and fitness centers.
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Queuing has become a bigger problem for cruise lines to solve as ships grow larger and there are more passengers to manage, said Bill Panoff, a former cruise ship director and the editor in chief of Porthole Cruise Magazine, an industry publication.
Many cruise lines still manage service in large dining halls by assigning guests set slots, the times of which can be requested, but aren’t always guaranteed. Some offer passes that permit skipping lines and reservation options for an added price. Carnival Corp.’s Faster to Fun Pass, for instance, unlocks perks including priority check-in and disembarkation lanes as well as a dedicated phone extension to reach guest services for a cost of at least $49.99 per cabin. The company said the pass was suspended this year to accommodate additional Covid-19 protocols, but plans to bring it back in 2022.
Cruises in the couple of years leading up to the pandemic have become more reliant on technology to manage passengers, Mr. Panoff said. Many now offer apps that allow guests to reserve dinner tables and check-in slots, in a bid to stagger crowds but still give customers a sense of control, he said.
Walt Disney Co.’s Disney Cruise Line, meanwhile, this year added a “virtual queue” to its onboard Navigator app. Guests must join the digital line when ready to disembark, to maintain social distancing at ports.
Virgin is also employing more analog crowd-control measures to mitigate lines. Take the restaurant, bar and nightlife setup. It ticks the box of providing guests with a wide selection of cuisine and entertainment, but also allows ship managers to program events at different times to stagger dinner service naturally, without mandating set sit-down times or leaving passengers to scramble for reservations within limited windows, Ms. Cooper said.
“We know that some people will go and eat early, but there’s other people that will go into a bar and listen to the jazz band playing, or join in the Ibiza-style sundown party,” she said.
The British test voyages also let Virgin try out other systems, such as Covid-19 testing stations that Scarlet Lady guests must pass through before boarding. Journeys around the south coast of England in August prompted Ms. Cooper to add more stations than previously planned for, and moved them closer to the terminal, after some guests reported waiting for five hours to board the boat. The company said it has since made major improvements to the embarkation experience.
With bigger snags ironed out, the Scarlet Lady’s design team will now observe on-deck how customers navigate the ship and its spaces under real-world conditions, Ms. Cooper said.
“Now we need to ask, do we need to open up this entrance more because it’s a bottleneck? Or do we need to make a couple more cozy nooks for people to hide in?” she said. “How people naturally understand a space, and feel comfortable and confident within it, is something we’ve tried to put in the design, but we’ll still learn.”
Write to Katie Deighton at [email protected]
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