Interview: Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, President & CEO, Celebrity Cruises
(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2019 edition.)
A champion of diversity and inclusion, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo is elevating not just the Celebrity brand but what it represents.
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up?
I’m a Boston girl and went to Bentley College. I like to say I grew up on the sea and now I make my living on the sea.
How did that happen? I mean – how did you wind up in the cruise industry?
It happened by accident. I started in the hotel industry, and one Sunday morning I was sitting in bed reading the Boston Globe and decided to look at the Help Wanted section and see if there was anything in there that might interest me. I found a job as a travel advisor for a company called Crimson Travel. They were looking for someone in their Boston office to sell cruises to groups – people with things in common who wanted to travel and convince them they needed to take a cruise.
We represented all cruise brands, and about a year later the person who had the sales job for Royal Caribbean was promoted and, because we were such a big producer for them, he asked if any of us might be interested in his job. So I thought, “Wow, that would be a really cool job,” and I got hired as a District Sales Manager and that was in 1985. That’s how I came to Royal Caribbean.
So you’ve been with Royal Caribbean for what, 34 years?
Yes, 34 years. I moved to Miami four years later when I became Regional Sales Manager, and since then I've held pretty much every role in sales and a lot of different roles in other parts of the organization. I started at Royal Caribbean and went over to Celebrity to run hotel operations – the first woman to do that – from 2005 until 2012, and then I went back to Royal Caribbean as Executive Vice President of all our operations, so the first woman to ever run both marine and hotel. I did that from 2012 to 2014 and now I’ve come back to Celebrity for the last four years as President & CEO.
I always credit these different experiences and roles with my ability to lead the brand – because I know so many aspects of the business from first-hand experience.
The new Celebrity Edge – let’s talk about that. Why is she so important to the brand?
Lots of reasons. It’s our first new vessel in a really long time – about six years. So it was an opportunity to redefine and elevate how the brand was going to be perceived and transformed by this particular newbuild. We took a whole different approach to how we could magnify and amplify the five pillars of the brand, which is exactly what Edge does. It might be a change for the brand relative to design, but it's not a departure from anything we stand for.
Okay, let’s look at what we call the five pillars of the brand – at how we do things. First, destination, where we go and how our guests engage in the destinations. We have more than 300 ports of call and 200 overnights. and we took an approach quite a few years ago where we started staying in place longer so our guests could explore more and have a more meaningful experience in the places we visit.
Design is a very important pillar and that’s why we brought world-renowned designers into the project. Take the “Magic Carpet,” for example, which is one of the first things you notice about the ship. Located on the starboard side, it rises from Deck 2 to the very top of the ship – Deck 16. It started out as an architectural feature designed to solve a problem – tendering our guests to ports where we couldn’t dock – but we wanted to elevate the experience even further, so we designed the “Magic Carpet” in such a way that it serves not just as a platform for our guests to depart the ship on Deck 2 but has openings on Decks 5, 14 and 16 as well where it serves as an extension of two of our restaurants and the pool deck. It’s very special.
Then there’s culinary. We’re the culinary brand. It’s in our DNA. We’ve won 46 Wine Spectator awards. We won 170 culinary awards last year. On Edge we have 29 food-and-beverage experiences. Every restaurant on the ship is new. Every single one is a new concept. So that's what's special about the ship as well because we've taken this great culinary pillar and evolved it yet again.
Then there’s service. I don't believe luxury only exists on small ships. We’re not luxury and we’re not premium. We’re somewhere in between. We give our guests more of a luxury experience than a premium experience. We believe that's where the consumer market is going – they’re more into approachable and comfortable luxury versus pretentious or even small luxury. So we’ve carved out a beautiful niche we own all by ourselves and, based on how our guests are reacting and the industry is reacting and the awards we’re winning, I think we’re onto something.
We’ve now partnered with Forbes magazine to help validate luxury. They’ve never worked in the cruise industry before. But because of Celebrity, because of our reputation, because of our awards, because of sailing on our ships they are now very interested in rating the cruise industry and Edge will be our first Forbes-rated ship in 2019.
After service comes accommodations, which is all about where our guests live when they're not traversing our beautiful ships and how comfortable we make them feel. So whether it’s how the staterooms are appointed or the amenities or the cashmere bedding – whether it's silver ice buckets with tongs or plastic ice buckets or no ice buckets – we take great pride in the details. We’re putting stateroom automation on all our ships, and Edge will be the first ship to have it, and it is terrific.
What’s your biggest challenge right now?
My biggest challenge right now – and something that really bugs me after 34 years in this business – is how some people can still say, “Cruising is not for me.” How anybody who knows what is going on in this industry and the experience it delivers – and Celebrity in particular delivers – can say cruising is not for me just bugs the heck outta me. You can quote that.
So how do you change it?
Listen, obviously I’m still trying after 34 years! I try to change it by introducing ships like Edge because I think they are unique in our industry. People probably think about cruising in a certain way and don’t realize you can cruise on these beautiful, comfortably elegant, boutique hotels around the world with the best spas, best service, best design and the best crew on board to take care of you.
Other people might think that cruising isn't for them because they see other very successful brands, our sister brand Royal Caribbean being one of them, that are very family-oriented with a lot of high adrenaline, a lot of big features like water slides and flow-riders and simulated skydiving. And that is just a terrific experience for a lot of families and a lot of people.
We offer an alternative to that type of cruising that is much more boutique hotel and elegant and offers people in our target audience – the affluent vacationer who cares about those five pillars that we focus on and who sees cruising as a way to travel that reflects their lifestyle – what they want and expect. So if you're someone who’s looking for a vacation it's hard to say cruising isn't for you unless you understand what's available.
You are recognized as an advocate of diversity and inclusion in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. Tell us about that and your passion for change.
I call it championing diversity. For me it’s all about diversity and inclusion, and it’s not just women but it starts with women. It’s been a natural thing for me as a rare woman in this business and particularly as one on the operational side of the business. There are a lot of amazing women who hold very high positions in sales and marketing in our industry but not so much in operations.
So I decided when I got this job to take advantage of this opportunity to give women a bigger voice and elevate women in an industry where there just aren't enough of us. I’ve partnered with the people I work with and we’ve gone from five percent women on the bridge to 20 percent women on the bridge in a little over two years. On Celebrity Edge, women will represent 37 percent of the guest-facing crew and 30 percent of the total crew. The average for women crew members is 17 to 20 percent.
So that's a big deal because finding women in this industry is hard, which brings me to the second thing I try to do – go out there and convince women that they should raise their hands for these jobs.
How do you do that?
I speak a lot. I go to the maritime academies. I talk to a lot of girls in STEM. I talk to high school girls. I love young people. They give me hope. They inspire me when a lot of days it's hard to be inspired or have hope, so whenever I get the opportunity to be with them or speak to them I draw a lot of energy out of that.
I recently spoke at the Girl Scouts Annual Luncheon where there were a lot of women in the room including my two nieces and I tried to convince them that they have a lot of opportunity in industries and businesses they might not have previously thought of. So I try to do it the grassroots way and get out and encourage young people – and especially young women – to get involved.
Do you have a final message for our readers?
I hope when they read this they will realize that Celebrity is a beautiful, “modern luxury” brand that sells amazing vacations across the world and we do it built on a foundation of the things we care about – whether it's the environment or diversity and inclusion or opening up the world versus closing the world or promoting gender equality in an industry that has been very gender-imbalanced.
I believe consumers care more and more about that now when they engage with brands or give their money to brands, and it’s what we tried to do with Celebrity Edge. – MarEx
Tony Munoz is Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.