Sailing beyond borders
They’re movers and shakers. Their contributions have changed and continue to change the nature of travel, both in Canada and around the world. In this week’s issue, Canadian Travel Press’ monthly series of profiles on women in travel continues with Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, the president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises.
For Lisa Lutoff-Perlo – who remains the first and only woman at the helm of one of Royal Caribbean’s multi-billion dollar vacation brands – the pressure of being named president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises in 2014 extended beyond living up to the expectations associated with the role.
“You also don’t want to let people down, especially other women, who are cheering you on – you want to make sure you are successful because you are the first, and you want others to be able to follow in your path and get the same opportunities you get as well,” she tells Canadian Travel Press. “So, when you are the first, you always want to make sure that you live up to those expectations in a way that makes the path easier for those who follow after you.”
Regardless of gender, she says being the CEO of any company where financial performances and targets are public, comes with big responsibilities.
“You constantly need to think about new ways to achieve those metrics, despite some things that might be going on in the world that aren’t working in your favour and so that always comes with its own stress and pressure, absolutely,” she adds.
A little bit of history
After working in the hotel industry in the early 1980s, Lutoff-Perlo’s first foray into travel came after perusing the help wanted section in The Boston Globe in search of a change.
“I found a job that seemed interesting to me and it intrigued me a little bit, which was working for a big travel company at the time, Crimson Travel in Boston, as a group cruise sales person,” she recalls. “It was really all about finding groups – families, corporate – different types of groups, and convincing them to go on cruises.”
During this time, the company was a big producer for Royal Caribbean, and when the district sales manager for her area got relocated to Miami, she decided to apply for the post.
“His position became available and that’s when I thought maybe I should throw my hat into the ring for that job. And, so that was in 1985, I applied for a district sales manager position at Royal Caribbean,” she says.
Not only did she land the job, but four years later it was her turn to make the move to South Florida, after earning a promotion to regional sales manager in 1989.
“The rest is history,” she says. “I’ve been with the company for 32 years, and I’ve worked my way around the entire sales organization across both brands a couple of times and ultimately landed here in this wonderful job.”
To this day, she says her initial experience on the frontline has been invaluable throughout her career, from operations to sales to CEO.
“Being a front-line agent has come in handy in every single job that I’ve had,” she says. “In this role, as I look at the macro strategic things that we do as a brand with my team, knowing what travel agents need from us is always at the forefront of decisions that we make and things that we do – whether it’s through our sales and marketing programs, through the different things that we do on board, or new ships that we’re designing – they are always at the forefront of what is it that they need from Celebrity because I believe they are such a critical part of how our brand is going to win.”
Up at night
Although Celebrity recently set out a very optimistic strategic plan, with the Edge Class set to come on board next year and having fielded positive initial reactions, she says there are many things that keep her up at night, from hurricanes to currency fluctuations.
“Bad things that happen in the world keep us up at night, the crazy geopolitical environment that we’re in right now is scary,” she says. “And just consumer confidence, you always worry about consumer confidence and people’s willingness to travel and have the discretionary income to do so, so those are the things that are probably the most challenging. But I don’t think I’m unlike any other CEO of any company, regardless of the industry you’re in.”
Paying it forward and opening up the world
Although it’s also one of her favourite parts of the job, Lutoff-Perlo says she feels a tremendous obligation and responsibility to pay-it-forward.
“I’ve been given a platform with this job that many don’t get or many don’t have, so I want to use that platform and influence of power, or whatever you want to call it, to also try to make the world a better place for those who find everyday when they wake up it’s not such a great place,” she says. “I get to put our brand out in the world where people understand we are bigger and care more about just what we do for a living.”
Launched last year during the US presidential election as talks of building walls were rampant, she says the brand’s Sail Beyond Borders campaign marked the first big time Celebrity positioned and defined itself as a company that stood for acceptance and opening up the world.
“We were finding that people were more reluctant to travel out into the world and that was troublesome for me on a lot of different levels,” she says. “We are a travel company and we are dependent on people to be open to travelling and open to other cultures and understanding that experiencing other people who are different from us and other cultures that are different from us is enriching and rewarding, and closing ourselves off is not.”
Overall, she says the campaign went over extraordinarily well with the vast majority of people, especially as consumers continue to look for companies whose values and point of views align with their own.
“I see the people that are attracted to our brand, it wasn’t just Sail Beyond Borders, it was other things that we do and stand for, whether it’s sponsoring Miami Beach Gay Pride, having Malala [Yousafzai] be our Godmother for the Edge, we find that we’re really resonating with like-minded people,” she says. “We have this other group of things that we care about, which is being an inclusive brand, that cares about the world and the people in it.”
Despite the challenges surrounding the current political climate in the States, she says she’s reassured by the number of people whose viewpoints and beliefs align with the brand.
“Listen, there’s never a time when everyone agrees on everything, this is probably a time when a lot of people disagree on a lot of things, but when I see the numbers who believe in what we stand for and what the world should stand for, I don’t have a worry that things will change in a way that’s negative for us,” she says.
A day in the life
As Lutoff-Perlo also leads RCL’s Global Marine Organization, ensuring that all of the corporation’s ships run safely, smoothly and efficiently – which, as she puts it, includes six different brands, 49 cruise ships and 20 billion dollars of assets on any given day, each and every day on the job brings something different.
“I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been here for 32 years and one of the reasons I’ve loved every job that I’ve had – that there is no typical day,” she says. “You’re constantly rebooting because you have a different initiative you are working on, you have a different problem you’re trying to solve, you have a different discussion… every day is different, every day is fabulous, there is no typical day and that’s what makes this job so exciting and rewarding.”
While she’s had her fair share of career highlights (see the side story for five prime examples) seeing the culmination of the Edge Class come to life is next on her agenda.
“My next big milestone is a little over a year from now when that ship comes into the market,” she says. “I want to continue the growth for Celebrity, I want to continue to improve the financial performance of the brand, I want the brand to get the recognition it deserves globally and more importantly in the core markets that we’re in.”
Oh, the places you’ll go
Talking travel with Celebrity Cruises’ Lisa Lutoff-Perlo
Do you keep track of how many countries you’ve been to?
There aren’t many that I haven’t been to. I’ve been to New Zealand, I haven’t been to Australia, but I’m supposed to go in October, so I’m excited about that. I do keep track of them and every time I think of them, I think about how grateful I am that I have been able to see the world and meet so many different people from so many different parts of it.
What’s your favourite place to visit?
The world is so different, and it’s hard to pick one. Italy is among my top favourites because it’s a great combination of history, wine, food, people, scenery, coastline, vineyards, gondolas on river; it’s just a beautiful country and the people are just welcoming, happy and vibrant. I was just in Iceland and it was beautiful. One of my really special countries that I’ve visited was Vietnam.
What’s your pick for an up-and-coming port of call?
Iceland does come to mind because tourism is the No. 1 industry in Iceland right now and that is the up and coming destination. We’ve increased our number of cruises to Iceland next year significantly. They are among our most popular in the summer.
How often on the road for work?
Probably 30 to 40%, I’m on the road travelling somewhere.
What’s still on your bucket list?
I’d like to visit Antarctica.
Share a special travel memory:
One of my special travel memories was a trip to the Galapagos this past April. It was the first time I’ve ever done a girls’ trip with my sister and my two nieces. One of my nieces was graduating from high school, so this was my gift to her – she is going to be an environmental engineer, so taking her to the Galapagos was really special. Seeing all of the beautiful scenery and creatures was just wonderful. Then I also celebrated a big birthday, so that was a very special memory. That was a lovely trip and one that we’d never done before, and one that we might never get to do again.
I hear you have some Canadian ties?
Canada used to be part of my territory when I was a district sales manager from 1985-1989. I covered from Ottawa-east including The Maritimes, so not only was being a travel agent important to me, Canadian travel agents were always really important to me. Especially when I began my career because I was in Canada a lot, covering Canada.
What’s an important lesson you learned in your career?
One of the things that’s probably the biggest lesson for me as, I have navigated my career, is that you have to be willing to do different things and take yourself out of your comfort zone. Many people are trapped in their own thinking about what their path is and what they need to do to get there and it oftentimes limits what you will try and what you will do or different opportunities you should force yourself to take. Even though you don’t think they’re part of your path. Even though you don’t think they’re going to get you where you want to go. You need to move and you need to get out of your comfort zone and you need to expand your experience and the things you are responsible for because as you navigate your career, those things help make you a more well-rounded candidate and a more desirable candidate either within your company or outside your company.
With a career spanning more than three decades across Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo has had her share of memorable experiences.
“I look back sometimes and think just how fortunate I have been in my career. I’ve been here for 32 years and have been able to do so many different things. While many of them are highlights I probably have a handful that are really special to me,” she says. “What’s just been wonderful about this job is that there has been so many of them, so I always say I wake up grateful everyday.”
Aside from working her way up the ranks to being named the CEO of Celebrity Cruises, here she reflects back on a few defining accomplishments:
Unleashing the Solstice Class
Having launched the Solstice Class for this brand, when I was here at Celebrity the first time from 2005-2012, was a really special time in my career for a few different reasons. It was my first time in operations and that was a big thing to have to do for a brand, launch a whole new class of ships for a brand when this was your first experience in operations. Also the Solstice Class really transformed Celebrity back in the mid-2000s, and when the class of ships was so well received in the industry, it was really a proud moment for all of us.
Positive feedback on the Edge
Now getting ready to launch Edge Class, having introduced it into the world last March was a really proud moment for all of us because we weren’t sure how we were going to be able to transform Celebrity once again with a new class of ships having done what we did with Solstice. Those are always hard things to do, to do it once is unbelievable, to do it twice is pretty extraordinary. So, the reaction that we’ve got to Edge is one of the proudest times in my career because it’s exceeded every expectation that we had, and that I had and my expectations were pretty darn high.
Partnering with Malala Yousafzai
Having someone who our chairman described as an honest to god hero, like Malala be the Godmother for Celebrity Edge was a very proud moment for me because these aren’t things that Malala does and the fact that she and the board of her fund agreed to work with Celebrity was great validation for me personally, and our brand, that the things that we do in the world are as important as the vacations that we offer our guests.
Naming Kate McCue as the Captain of Celebrity Summit
Captain Kate was a really proud day for me as the first woman CEO to be able to six months later announce that Celebrity was not only getting its first woman captain ever, which was long overdue, but she was the first American woman to ever be the captain of a passenger cruise ship, which was a really proud moment for me.
Hiring Cadet Nicholine Tifuh Azirh
We’ve just hired our first cadet from West Africa, the country of Ghana. Nicholine [started on the] Celebrity Equinox on Aug. 27. I met her in 2016, and she told me her story of how despite two masters degrees, teaching and working, she was unable to get a job on a cruise ship… and she didn’t want to give up her dream, so because I get to work with amazing men as well, Patrik Dahlgren, SVP of global marine operations found a way a year later to hire Nicholine, but we had to do a lot of different things to make that possible, including the most difficult, which was getting the Ghana Regional Maritime University recognized by the flag that operates our ships, but also recognized in the international maritime world. Being able to accomplish that was also something that I felt was really important not only for women, but for African American women.