A Day in the Life of Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin Voyages.
A day in the life of Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin Voyages
TOM MCALPIN, A 30-YEAR CRUISE industry veteran, is now overseeing the creation of a whole new cruise line from the ground up. It’s no small task for the president and CEO of Virgin Voyages.
The first of the line’s three 2,700-plus passenger, 110,000 gross ton ships won’t launch from Miami until 2020, but things are certainly already buzzing at the line’s Plantation, Florida, headquarters.
New employees are being hired; creative teams are delivering ideas. You might say a big family is developing. And big families happen to be in McAlpin’s wheelhouse.
LIFE LESSONS _A f if th- generation Miamian, McAlpin has eight brothers and sisters — and most of the family still lives in southern Florida.
“I am number 6, so I consider myself to be in the neglected middle section,” he laughed. “I think my mother has one high school photo of me.” McAlpin said that he loved growing up in a big family and that he learned certain life lessons early on.
“I think it teaches you really important lessons — how to get along with people, how to negotiate and settle conflict, and teamwork. These are skills I brought to Virgin Voyages because I’m a big believer that it’s all about building the right team and culture,” he said. “And, of course, to be competitive.”
More lessons came from Disney, where McAlpin helped launch Disney Cruise Line. As part of the founding management team in the role of vice president of finance, business development, and shoreside travel operations, he spent the final five years of his time with the line as its president. Later he was president and CEO of The World ( Residences at Sea), the largest private residential cruise ship.
When he came to Virgin Voyages in January 2015, McAlpin headed a team of two. By
“How to get along with people, how to negotiate and settle conflict, and teamwork. These are skills I brought to Virgin Voyages because I’m a big believer that it’s all about building the right team and culture.”
August of this year there were almost 70 employees in Plantation, and growing.
At Disney the focus was on the family experience. At Virgin, it’s a little more focused on adults and creating a fun, flexible, nontraditional cruise experience. McAlpin finds it energizing.
“This is the most exciting job I’ve ever had,” he said. “I love the team we’ve created. We all get along really well and we share a passion for delivering an epic sea-change.”
THE BR ANSON FAC TOR
_ Virgin Voyages is a joint venture of Virgin Group, which controls more than 70 companies and is led by British billionaire and adventurer Richard Branson, and Boston-based Bain Capital, one of the world’s leading private investment firms.
“Richard’s strategy is he hires great CEOs — hopefully I fall into that category —and he lets them run their business. He’ll constantly be sending emails with ideas, but we don’t talk daily right now,” McAlpin said, adding that he does meet with Branson a few times a year to bring him up to speed on the business. In September, for example, he visited Branson’s private three-villa estate Moskito Island, in the British Virgin Islands, for a design meeting. And in late October, there was a keel-laying ceremony for the first ship at the Fincantieri shipyard in Genoa.
The cruise line’s executive committee is made up of three individuals (two from Bain, one from Virgin) who meet monthly, in person.
“They are really valuable thought partners who add enormous value to our work,” McAlpin said. “They help connect us with people who can help us on our journey as well as challenge us to deliver something truly different.”
Virgin Voyages’ temporary offices in Plantation will soon give way to permanent offices in the same complex, including space for a big call center. Eventually, when all three ships are operating, close to 400 people will work in the space.
As befits a line that is going after “youngat-heart” travelers, the office is being designed to be open-space, cooperative, and different. A custom-made shuffleboard table has already arrived and a pool table is on its way. Inspirational sayings, such as “To build the most irresistible brand,” decorate the walls and the dress code is casual all the time.
“I think we all need to understand the importance of this business and the very high expectations on us, but we also need to have some fun. We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” McAlpin said.
E X ERCISING THE MIND AND BODY
_ Before he heads to the office, McAlpin exercises, usually at the gym on an elliptical machine.
“I do some of my best thinking when I’m exercising,” he said. “Your mind is just kind of free and you’ve got a lot of oxygen in your blood, and for me it’s very soothing.”
During his 25-minute commute, he gets his news from NPR. “I listen to public radio because I feel I get a more balanced perspective, and it’s also quite educational,” he said.
At the office, the boss grabs a coffee, says hi to everyone, and gets to work. His days are full. McAlpin fires up the laptop he carries from home, and launches into a series of meetings. On Mondays, it’s with the senior leadership team, where the discussion includes strategy, general updates from Fincantieri, and what’s going on in the business. On Tuesday, the products and services team meets over lunch to talk key decisions, program elements, and design of the first ship.
“This is where the big decisions that impact every aspect of our ‘sailor’ experience get made,” McAlpin said. “Everything from how we are going to operate on board the ship with concessionaires to detailed design reviews of individual spaces. It’s the most important meeting we have.”
McAlpin views his job as overseeing the process and making sure the right decisions get made at the right time. It’s a collaborative style that he learned at Disney.
“We’re building that culture of entrepreneurship where everyone thinks every day about how are we going to be different, how are we going to set ourselves apart from the industry, and how are we going to really build the business around what our customers want,” he explained. And Virgin Voyages’ future sailors can only look forward to 2020 to see the initial results of McAlpin’s hard work.
Opposite page: Tom McAlpin with Bain Capital managing director Stephen Pagliuca (left), at the first ship’s steel-cutting ceremony; Below: McAlpin and Richard Branson at a media event in Miami