Virgin Voyages sets sail with experience data using Qualtrics

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 15, 2023
As a new business, Virgin Voyages has made it a priority to invest in experience from the start. Key to this has been the use of experience data from Qualtrics.

An image of a virgin voyages cruise liner
(Image sourced via Virgin Voyages)

Virgin Voyages has said that its aim is to ‘reinvent the cruise ship experience’ by blending technology with super yacht luxury. The company only has two ships in operation and has only been active for a short few years, but it already has the most 5 star reviews on TripAdvisor for a cruise company and has been given awards by the industry for its service and experience. 

Key to the company’s success thus far has been its use of experience data from Qualtrics, as well as its prioritizing experience management across the organization - bringing teams and different functions together to ‘connect the dots’ of what works and what doesn’t. 

diginomica got the chance to speak to Tamara Pluviose, Virgin Voyages’ Director of Digital Strategy and Optimization, at Qualtrics’ user event in Salt Lake City last week, where she explained why the experience is a priority for the cruise company. Pluviose said: 

I think the core reason we started the business as a whole was to really change the game of what people think of typical cruising experiences. There are misconceptions around cruising. 

One, there's a bucket of people who probably don't know anything about cruising. And then there’s people who have never cruised in their life and think that it's crowded places, buffets, older people, waterslides and kids. And to some degree, depending on how you vacation, what your lifestyle is, it can be. 

What we were trying to show is that a good cruise or voyage is really rooted in your overall experience. It doesn't matter how you like to vacation - you could be loving parties every night, you could love exploring the ports and spending all day soaking in the local culture, or it could be you just hanging out on the ship. 

But it really is about how before you even start with the sailing, your experience learning about us, your experience interacting with our content and our digital platform, what that post-booking experience looks like when you're planning, is as seamless as possible on the app. And then lastly, once you're on this ship, making sure that that entire experience is as seamless as possible. So we're very technology-led. 

Virgin Voyages gives their ‘sailors’ (customers) the option to interact with the brand via analogue means, but it has placed a heavy emphasis on digital capability to enable a seamless experience for those on board (before, during and after a cruise). For instance, the cabin is controllable via a tablet, and the Virgin Voyages app allows sailors to control their booking, whilst also letting them book dining options, shore excursions, and spa days. 

The app also has options to speak with customer service and is really meant to be the central connecting experience for a sailor’s whole trip, without being obtrusive. Pluviose said: 

And so a lot of what the business and the ship experience was designed around is touching on that unmet need of: what do we know people don't think very positively about cruising, and how do we flip it on its head and make sure we alleviate those things?

How do we bring it all together? How do we see that full picture? Which I think is the desire of any brand, no matter what industry you're in.

Pluviose is in charge of the digital experience for Virgin Voyages, but she also spends a lot of time partnering with other functions. She adds: 

I partner with the brand team who manages our socials, to get those insights and listening as well. And then we partner with sailor services, our contact center essentially, and they own end to end experience from when you're trying to book, servicing your booking. 

And then even the people who are frontline on the ship as well, connecting with them on a regular basis - what insights are we getting? Are there gaps in the digital experience that they're complaining about on the phone? 

We want to make sure we're meeting expectations - so even if we’ve failed somewhere, or there’s a sense of frustration or disappointment, how are we helping to meet that so that you're still left feeling satisfied and happy with the experience and you're still wanting to come back? 

Sailing data

Pluviose explained that Virgin Voyages does an “intense” post-voyage survey that aims to speak to the customer’s overall satisfaction with the experience. And this data is analyzed cross-function. She said: 

What drove that satisfaction? What was it about it that you loved? What is it about that you didn't love? What was probably falling in the middle? I think we live it, really hardcore, that we're customer obsessed. 

We're constantly meeting together across these different business units and trying to get insight. Because even from a post-voyage standpoint, there are things that maybe we didn't set the expectation correctly. So, how should we look at it from a messaging standpoint on the site, or as a brand, or upper funnel? 

And so the way that we're looking at it is right now we're meeting, we're making sure we're talking to each other, but also, how do we make that more efficient? How do we make it more holistic? And then how can we all look at the same thing and see that full journey? 

Virgin Voyages has carried out two voyages so far (it didn’t start operating until October 2021 in the US), but it is already learning from these early experiences and adapting to how to please its customers. The focus is getting the insights and then making sure it is “tighter” with its end-to-end funnel communication and experience strategy, for prospective sailors. 

It began using Qualtrics in early 2020, right before the pandemic. One of Virgin Voyages’ biggest challenges was that it didn’t have any benchmarks to work from. Pluviose said:

 We're a new company, we only opened for sale in 2019 - we didn't even have a ship! Imagine that, you're trying to sell this product that doesn't yet exist. But then on top of that, how do you do that in a digital way? 

And so, one thing that we wanted to make sure from a product innovation standpoint was, let's tap into what people are experiencing, digitally, what we're doing on the site. What do they love about the experience? What did they hate about the experience? What can we improve on? What are we missing? 

And then, what is your overall satisfaction? Because we do need the benchmarks. And what we wanted to be very thoughtful about was not necessarily looking at our competitors. They've been around longer than us, they’ve got a lot more money than us, they’ve got a lot more manpower than us. And they are catering to a specific audience that might also be very much interested in our product, but still different. 

And so it felt like we would be cutting ourselves short looking at it that way. So that was part of the reason we wanted Qualtrics. 

The first thing that Virgin Voyages utilized was Qualtrics’ site intercept surveys, where it allowed the team to analyze the different stages of the digital journey, to get a better understanding of when and why people abandon the funnel, what they’re engaging with from a usability standpoint, and what their overall booking experience is like. Pluviose added: 

That was a big part for us, that even when the world had stopped, we wanted to continue to innovate on the site. And it actually helped us with product roadmap development. 

Operationalizing experience management

Virgin Voyages is trying to operationalize experience management, where its digital team, product owners, web optimization analysts, call center staff, and people on the ship are in regular communication about what is working and what isn’t. 

Central to all of this has been Qualtrics. Pluviose said: 

I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that Qualtrics offers these fluffy metrics and you can't really quantify them. And so what we start with is, what is going on with our performance week over week and how's that changed? And then we go into the survey insights. 

We're not just looking at a spreadsheet of reports or dashboards, we're saying: okay, is our satisfaction this week up or down? And then: what drove this? What are people talking about right now? What did they love or what did they hate? 

Virgin Voyages is also utilizing a tool called Quantum Metric, which has an integration with Qualtrics, which deepens the experience analysis. Pluviose said: 

Even though everything's anonymized, no one's stalking anybody, what I can see is that if someone has rated us badly, I can now look at what their replay is individually and tie back to it. Or we know exactly what goes wrong - maybe it was a tech issue, maybe it was a communication issue. 

And so it's a great visual way to make it real for a product owner, so that they know what to keep in mind, which could be something simple as changing texts on a page to make something more clear. 

Another example took the organization by surprise. Pluviose said: 

“This one's a funny one. One of the number two reasons when we first launched the survey, why people were hesitant to book with us, was because we tried to make the booking experience as seamless as possible - where you didn't have to add your additional guest until after you booked. 

And people were not happy about it! We didn't get Qualtrics until like a year in and that was one of the huge reasons why people wouldn’t convert with us. We would never have known, how are you gonna see that in Google or Adobe? Those are still helpful and good, but this tells you what people are saying. 

So we thought, let's alleviate the anxiety that we're not thinking about - they were just scared that they wouldn't get the right cabin, even though that had nothing to do with anything. But if this is something that's a friction point for you, let's make this as simple as possible. 

So first we started with messaging, and then we got to prioritizing it pretty highly because it was literally the number two reason - we built it out and we have never seen anyone say anything again. And we've seen this movement in conversion because of it, the drop off is not as high as it used to be. And so that was like a huge big piece for us that we didn't have that Qualtrics really helped us with at first. 

It’s still early days for Virgin Voyages, but the company is prioritizing data collection across the entire user journey and user experience and is integrating the analysis of this into cross-functional teams. This isn’t easy, but the benefits are being seen by the cruise liner’s customers. Pluviose said: 

One of the hardest parts of this is organizational change. How do you operationalize this and get people to understand how to look at this? How to use it, how to get them to meet and talk and share information with you…

Depending on what you do in an organization, you focus on the thing that you do and how it impacts the immediate. But if you can tie it all the way to how the person who's actually using your experience is impacted by it, I think it makes it more real for people. 

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