Q&A with Visionary President and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo | CSQ

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It’s easy to describe Lisa Lutoff-Perlo’s current high-profile position at Celebrity Cruises as a “dream job,” given the regular international travel that it involves, as well as the opportunities to bring some of the most talented and intriguing designers, chefs, and business leaders on earth to new ocean cruising to define and refine. But before she became one of the few American women to run a multibillion-dollar corporation, she apprenticed at the cruise line (and parent company Royal Caribbean) in a variety of roles for nearly three decades.

In fact, Lutoff-Perlo’s list of accomplishments since taking over as President and CEO suggests that she has prioritized the dreams of others — cruise passengers and a diverse group of executives and crew — based on how she’s approached Celebrity brand transformation. The jewel in her crown is the birth of the Edge series of ships, which began in 2018 with the launch of the Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Apex. Her long journey includes enhancing already award-winning guest service and operational expertise, as well as finding ways to staff the line’s high-performing, culturally inclusive teams.

Edge ships, including Celebrity Beyond (whose maiden voyage was in April 2022), have expanded the definition of luxury cruising, between the implementation of premium The Retreat and AquaClass decks and varied dining options that reflect changing and expansive tastes from vacationers. There’s more refined interior design in all staterooms, better implemented fitness and wellness programs, culturally significant excursions (including the epic “Chef’s Market Tours” led by top chefs from Celebrity Edge), and to top it all off, the appointment of Captain Kate McCue as America’s first (and only) female ship captain.

It’s no surprise that, under Lutoff-Perlo’s leadership, Celebrity Cruises has experienced unprecedented growth, including accelerated financial performance — even during the stormy times brought on by the pandemic.

A restaurant onboard a Celebrity Cruises ship

HOW HAVE JOB OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN MANAGERS IN HOSPITALITY IMPROVED SINCE THEY ENTERED THE CRUISE INDUSTRY IN 1985?

I will speak first for our company and Celebrity as I have spent the last 37 years of my career here. We’ve come a long way, but we always have to go further. The gender imbalance is just too big to stop. But for Celebrity, we’ve increased the number of women on our bridges from 3% seven years ago to 33% today. This is an enormous achievement. Women in management positions on our ships are more numerous than ever before. Beyond celebrity, more women are running cruise brands and more women are in leadership roles in all aspects of the business. More women are choosing these careers, more women are advancing in their careers, and they are earning and maintaining the opportunities available.

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, President and CEO of Celebrity Cruises

HOW CAN YOUR SUCCESSES MOTIVATE AND INFLUENCE YOUNG WOMEN WHO AIM FOR HIGHER RANKS in hospitality and beyond?

I hope that my achievements will greatly motivate and influence them – both young women striving for higher positions in any industry, and women in my own company finding their way and their way to achieve their personal and professional goals. I want to make things easier and take others with me. Other than that, everything I’ve been able to achieve doesn’t mean that much. As our Captain Kate says, “If you can see it, you can be it.” I’m just one of many women who have done great things, and more of us are growing every day. Never give up and reach for the stars.

HOW DID YOU KNOW ABOUT CAPTAIN KATE MCCUE?

I will never forget the day I met Captain Kate. I was Executive Vice President of Operations for our sister brand Royal Caribbean. She was a staff captain attending a hotel managers and captains conference. I think she may have been the only or one of very few women in the room. So she definitely stood out in that regard. But what really impressed me was when she took the time to come and introduce herself. We had a brief conversation and I remember saying to myself, “This woman is special.” Despite my encouragement, the Head of Marine Operations did not promote Kate to Captain before I left that position and was named CEO of Celebrity.

Captain Kate McCue

WHAT WAS INVOLVED IN THE VERIFICATION PROCESS TO POSITION YOU AS THE FIRST (AND STILL ONLY) AMERICAN CAPTAIN ABOARD CELEBRITY?

Captain Kate was Staff Captain for nine years. Upon further investigation, I learned that Kate was the top rated staff captain for 13 consecutive contracts. Needless to say, my first step was to have the Head of Navy for Celebrity call Kate and ask her if she would be willing to join Celebrity as our first female Captain. Her answer was “damn yes”. The rest is history. And by the way, I was right. She is special. She is an extraordinary captain, leader, role model and person.

WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE PARTNERSHIP WITH CAPTAIN KATE (AND THE OTHER HIGH PROFILE WOMEN LINKED BEYOND THE CELEBRITIES) AS A COLLABORATION TO ATTRACT MORE WOMEN TO INDUSTRY AND LEADERS IN THE FLEET?

I believe that attracting more women to the industry, to leadership positions and especially to Celebrity is the result of doing the right thing and creating a more diverse and gender balanced organization that understands that different cultures are strong cultures and produce better business results . Our partnerships and the high profile of our female executives and women on the bridges in our fleet also speak to a culture of welcoming those women who decide these are careers that interest them and who know they are welcome and given equal opportunities have, regardless of gender. Getting dressed is one thing. It’s even more important to keep all these great women.

Picture of the food in the restaurant

A look at the celebrity edge

HOW DO YOU SEE THIS PUSH BENEFITS THE CRUISE AND HOSPITALITY SECTORS AS A WHOLE BEYOND CELEBRITY CRUISES?

I’m always proud to see others follow in our footsteps. I think we started a movement and a trend that is just beginning but is definitely underway. Other hospitality sectors are doing the same. And it’s long overdue.

WHO WERE YOUR EARLY MODELS?

My early role models were always people who did good and made a difference. As a child, the nuns taught me in the Catholic school. In my youth (and really forever after) it was Bruce Springsteen – a storyteller who always stood up for the underdogs, telling American history and making us think about important things. As I got older, they became Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, RBG – people who stood up and gave a voice to those who weren’t heard and who were the catalyst for change that advanced equality.

The Retreat Sun Deck on Celebrity Beyond

HOW HAVE YOU AND YOUR TEAM EMPLOYED AND MOTIVATED DURING THE PANDEMIC TRAVEL CLOSURE?

Oh my god, this answer could fill a few pages. To make this long story short, I, my team and crew focused on the whole world and encouraged everyone to think about the future. I refused to give in to how we all felt like we were completely shut down and our industry was out of business. While I didn’t know when it would come back, I knew it would come back and we all needed to be better and stronger when it did. Our experience is better and stronger in terms of health protocols. Our guest experience is better because we’ve added even more relaxed luxury options for our guests. Our brand became Always Inclusive and we added two new spectacular Edge series ships to our fleet. My role was not only to get us back in business, but also to give people hope and confidence. And to get our crew back to work. Now we build back stronger and stronger every day.

WHAT ARE SOME INNOVATIONS THAT HAVE COME FROM THE SETBACKS OVER THESE TWO YEARS?

The always-inclusive pricing strategy [is one of them], and includes the top items our guests have told us are included in the price. This, in turn, helped us enter the luxury segment of cruising. We continued to define our guest of the future, thereby developing branding and messaging that repositioned our brand and how we speak to our target guests. We have also enhanced our retreat experience (suite accommodation) and focused on becoming the leading category of cabins we have been selling for the past two years. People treat themselves. We’re building on that next year with the launch of the fourth new ship in the Edge series.

DESCRIBE YOUR EARLY TRAVEL EXPERIENCES AND HOW THEY INFORMED YOUR CAREER.

I stumbled into the travel industry in my mid-20s trying to find myself and was like, ‘What the heck? Sounds really interesting. Let me try.” It all worked out. Sometimes you don’t have a plan and that’s okay. As long as you do what you think is right for you at the time and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way or that you seek, the plan will eventually become obvious. What I would like to say about working in the travel industry and visiting so many parts of the world is that discovering and appreciating new people and cultures enriches us as human beings in immeasurable ways. And it’s extremely rewarding to be able to offer these experiences to millions of guests.

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