If you had a hunch that the world of commercial cruises was hyper-competitive, you’d find confirmation from industry veteran Tom McAlpin. The former executive of Disney Cruise Lines, and now the CEO of adults-only Virgin Voyages, McAlpin used the same playbook to help design two iconic brand spaces—despite the fact they serve two very different customer bases.
How did he do it? By understanding “the gap in their [customer’s] experience,” McAlpin explains.
“You have to spend the time and resources to truly know your audience and what matters to them,” he explained in the podcast. “And then you have to decide what it is you are willing to add or give up to fill the gap in their experience.”
That’s easier said than done in an industry McAlpin says often errs on the side of trying to be all things to all people—a strategic softness that results in many of the players looking pretty much like everyone else. At family-oriented Disney, McAlpin learned that women felt their husbands spent too much time in the ship’s casinos instead of with their kids. So he advised the company to toss the casino business overboard, giving dads more time with the kids and keeping their primary customer, mom, happy with programs that included plenty of family togetherness.
At Virgin, he used this same intensive focus on understanding customers and learned that adult-centric couples wanted the opposite of their Disney counterparts. “I found out that at Virgin, it was about not having kids around,” McAlpin noted. “The customers loved their kids, but wanted time away. So our cruises have no kids aboard, and this allowed us to create a more sophisticated and romantic journey for adults.”
Taking the risk of not being all things to all customers has paid off, with 30-35 percent of those who choose Virgin becoming repeat customers. In the podcast, McAlpin shares some of the practices that enabled Virgin to earn industry awards as well as more five-star ratings than any other ship on TripAdvisor. Lessons include:
• How to differentiate yourself from the competition in three steps.
• How to hire people who can execute on your vision of differentiation.
• How to take care of (often overlooked) partners that are critical to your success.
McAlpin believes in self-reinvention, but only when it serves and unites all stakeholders. “At Virgin, we created what we call an epic sea change for all that we wanted Virgin to be,” said McAplin. “That means crew, customers, business partners, community and the environment.”