Virgin Voyages Cruising in Hot Water Over “Tone Deaf” Promotion

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An Australian woman faces an $8000 airfare to claim a “free” cruise trip she won during a trade promotion conducted by Virgin Voyages.

In November 2023 the sea-faring company surprised a planeload of passengers with free cruise trips to celebrate the imminent arrival of the Resilient Lady to Australian ports. Flanked by raucous fanfare at the boarding gate, Virgin’s tycoon founder Richard Branson announced the prize to VA1316’s apparent lucky winners via video call.

The ensuing social media and news coverage proved to be a marketing boon for Virgin Voyages – until it wasn’t.

One winner, referred to as Morgan (not her real name) in this ABC News story, was informed in February this year that her prize was changing considerably. Virgin Voyages had decided to cancel nearly all of their 2024 and 2025 Australian cruises due to ongoing conflicts in the Red Sea.

In order for Morgan to claim her prize, she would now have to depart from Europe or the Caribbean – the latter requiring a claimed $8000 airfare. This was on top of the $150 she already coughed up to fly to her intended Brisbane port from her Tasmanian residence.

While some of the circumstances triggering the cancellation were unforeseen, it also appears Virgin has committed little responsibility in ensuring their winners actually obtain their prize. According to Morgan, Virgin Australia’s PR team, who were handling correspondence for the promotion, “stopped responding” after she queried the situation.

"We were genuinely shocked, we thought Virgin would provide us with an alternative prize like a flight credit… or they would allow us to rebook on a later season," Morgan said to the ABC.

"They sort of gave up on us… like 'you're a bit of a problem now'. It just feels very corporate for a brand that tries not to be very corporate."

Virgin Voyages, a joint venture between Virgin Group and Bain Capital, now faces a potential maelstrom of bad press and negative customer sentiment. Within hours of the ABC story, disgruntled commentators had already surfaced on social media, likely leading to the news outlet closing comments on their corresponding post.

“When running a trade promotion and a prize cannot be provided as intended, clear communication with winners can be the key to avoiding a PR nightmare. It is crucial to reach out to winners in a timely manner to explain the circumstances and provide details of a suitable alternative prize (keeping in mind that this may need to vary from winner to winner). Otherwise, all the beneficial PR and consumer sentiment gained is quickly lost."

Emma Tiberi, Marketing Suite Manager at Plexus

While a destination holiday is the most obvious prize for a cruise company promotion, this situation has again exposed the unaccounted costs associated with these campaigns. It’s a phenomenon confirmed most recently by Devon Rick of IMI International in a “Mythbusting Promotions” webinar hosted by Plexus.

“We’ve seen in the last two or three years that travel within Australia and New Zealand has overtaken travel overseas in terms of prize appeal. People are thinking, ‘If I win this prize, it’s going to cost me two or three grand… I can’t afford to win.’”, said Rick.

Despite Virgin’s attempt to honour the complimentary cruises – now valued at $10,500 versus the $7000 originally anticipated – Morgan describes the requirement for the Australian prize winners to book flights to Europe or the Caribbean as “tone deaf”.

At time of writing, it has not been confirmed whether Morgan or other winners have committed to claiming their free cruise trip.

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