Cruising Pioneer

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo overcomes obstacles to create innovation

Celebrity Cruises’ Lisa Lutoff-Perlo is a pioneer as the first female president and CEO of a publically traded cruise line.

She has held a variety of roles during her 31-year tenure with Royal Caribbean Cruises, the parent of Celebrity, Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises. In addition to her role at Celebrity, she leads the marine organization for all of Royal Caribbean Cruises’ brands.

Before being appointed Celebrity’s CEO in 2014, she was executive vice president of operations for Royal Caribbean International. She oversaw marine operations, directed hotel operations and developed the Quantum class of ships.

As Celebrity’s senior vice president for hotel operations, she spearheaded the introduction of the Solstice-class fleet. She also served as Royal Caribbean International’s associate vice president for product marketing, strategic alliances and multicultural marketing.

She spent 17 years in the sales organization for both Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, holding progressively more-senior roles that started with district sales.

Lutoff-Perlo has served on United Way of Broward County’s board of trustees for four years. She is on the international board for Best Buddies and is chairwoman of the advisory board for “Extraordinary Women Leading Change.”

She was interviewed by SFBW Chairman and CEO Gary Press at the Polo Club Boca Raton. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Some observers say Celebrity sailed into political waters with a new ad campaign, “Sail Beyond Borders,” which has references to “far from the rhetoric of fear” and “far from the talk of building walls.” What’s the strategy behind the campaign and is it political?

It turned out to be, and it was really a declaration of our philosophy. If you are in the travel business and want people, especially Americans, to continue to experience the world, you have to encourage them to open themselves up and not shut themselves off, and unite vs. separate. We thought long and hard about how we participate in a cultural moment that would give us a significant amount of attention.

We put together our “Sail Beyond Borders” spot. We did use some of the language that’s going on. It’s a declaration of our philosophy of what we believe in. We travel to seven continents and visit all the cultures you can think of. We believe that people are enriched by opening themselves up. We have seen in our business where people from America have raised their hands a little less to travel around the world.

I am also president of a company with a population from over 50 countries around the world. These people come to these ships to work. They leave homes, their families and their friends. They come to make a living and see the world. You would think history says they shouldn’t get along. Yet they come to these ships as strangers and quickly become family. They unite around keeping each other safe and our guests safe and happy.

All of that is so inspiring to us that we chose to run this ad after the first presidential debate.

It was perceived in a political way. It didn’t completely surprise me. I got some of the most beautiful, beautiful letters and emails from people that said, “Thank you! What you did was subtle and beautiful and necessary.”

I think it worked extraordinarily well. We looked at the results the other day and they were awesome.

You’ve said how important the LGBTQ market it is to you. It seems important to any company that wants to be socially consciousness and to the bottom line.

Openness and inclusiveness is important to me personally, to our company, to all our brands, especially Celebrity. We have long been always welcoming to the LGBTQ community. We are finishing up the finalization of being the official sponsor of the Miami Beach Gay Pride event in April. We have won multiple awards from the community.

Celebrity has five pillars: destination, design, service, culinary and accommodations, and those all resonate really, really well. We are a highly decorated cruise line. The LGBTQ community has always recognized us in that way. They love Celebrity and we love them.

One of the first decisions you made as president and CEO was hiring the first female captain of an American cruise line, Kate McCue. Can you tell me about that move?

There have been women captains before but none from the United States and none for Celebrity. In my last job as executive VP of operations for Royal Caribbean, I had the great fortune and pleasure of meeting Kate.

She came to one of our captain and hotel director conferences, and from the first time I met her, I knew she was special. I found out she had received the highest performance evaluations of all the staff captains in the Royal Caribbean fleet for 13 contracts in a row and hadn’t been promoted to captain.

I would speak to the gentleman I worked with who ran that division and kept asking, “When are you going to promote Kate?” I didn’t tell him to do that. I try to be one of those leaders that encourages and doesn’t tell. I had the good fortune that he never did that, because the first thing I did when I came to Celebrity is I knew I needed to diversify our culture on our bridges. Diverse cultures are strong cultures. Different people at the table makes the conversations better and the ships better and safer.

I got Kate to say yes and join Celebrity. The day she said, “How will I be able to thank you for making all my dreams come true?” was one of the most special days on my job. She’s just awesome.

Tell us about your role as president and CEO at Celebrity Cruises and how you spend your days.

We have 12 ships. They start at 16 passengers and go to 3,100. We just purchased two smaller ships. One is a beautiful catamaran at 16 passengers in the Galapagos. I’m going on my first Galapagos cruise in April.

Our ships sail around the world. I also run the entire global marine organization for Royal Caribbean. I don’t just run Celebrity Cruises. That’s 45 ships under six different brands. That’s about $30 billion in assets that have to stay safe and reliable. The things I talk about and plan about are quite diverse on any given day.

Celebrity is building four new ships, the Edge class. The first will be introduced at the end of 2018. We’ve very heavily involved in designing, planning, itineraries and how we are going to launch it. The days are busy. It’s 24/7, but it’s exciting and wonderful and energizes us all every day.

What is the biggest career risk you’ve taken and how did that work out?

In 2001, I had spent about 17 years in sales. When I started at Royal Caribbean, I started as a district sales manager where I was from in Massachusetts, calling on travel agents in five states and eastern Canada.

In 1989, I had to make the decision on whether to find a new job or move to Miami, because the only way you could move up in the company was to move to South Florida. Back in the late 1980s, that wasn’t necessarily an exciting proposition, especially for a young woman from Massachusetts whose whole family was there. Fast forward, they have all moved down here.

I came to Florida and then my path was to be the head of sales. That was my only career aspiration. I spent 17 years working my way through every region, every job with the sole intent of becoming head of sales when my boss decided he was done. In 2001, the head of sales and marketing took me out of sales and put me in marketing.

That was probably my biggest risk and probably the unhappiest I have ever been, because I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. I felt like I was never going to achieve the only dream I ever had. That worked out pretty well for me actually.

One of the lessons learned was to take risks. Your path isn’t linear; go with the flow.

Then I went into operations after that. Take a sales and marketing girl for her career of 21 years and plop her into operations where there were no women – they didn’t want women. They had no use for women and no respect for women. That was a big jump and change for me, but I survived and plugged along.

How did you survive?

I didn’t let anyone see that the disregard and disrespect for me bothered me. I had a boss that had an 8:30 operations meeting every day with the operations team and I was one of those people. I was his vice president and he didn’t invite me. I had other colleagues that would shake their head and figure I was just a nuisance that was going away soon. I just did my thing and got great results.

The person that put me in the job had the utmost confidence in me and put me there for a lot of reasons – changing the culture was one of them. I just persevered. I was kind of the last man standing. You build your credibility one interaction at a time and eventually gender becomes a nonissue.

The same thing happened when I went over to Royal Caribbean, because then I took over the marine organization. So how do you lead these captains and chief engineers, people who build ships, when I have never built a ship or fixed an engine? You find a friend who can help you because you are not a subject-matter expert. At the end of the day, people are just looking for strong leaders who will support them vs. people who have actually done the job.

What is something that you can point to that you really put your stamp on over the course of your career?

I think the new ships – the Solstice class, certainly. Those ships are a labor of love. They tell who you are in so many ways. How we crew the ships, the people we choose, the attitudes we choose, the environment we create for them. Now, designing the Edge class for Celebrity is something I’m committed to.

The stamp I’d like to leave in the world is that you are defined not only by what you do for a living, but are defined by what you do to help and give back. I take my role and opportunity with a big responsibility to help make sure I help people and pay it forward. I hope that is something that people say about me – that I actually did my best every day to pay it forward for people who want to get ahead in their careers and people who don’t have a voice and need one.

What’s your advice to women coming up against obstacles?

You can’t give up. Patrik Dahlgren, vice president of marine operations at Celebrity, has taken the percentage of women on our bridges from 5 percent to 20 percent in 14 months. That’s an amazing guy I work with.

I work with people who share the vision and share the mission. My boss, who tells me every day not to thank him because I earned it. He’s right, I did, but “thank you” is still something you should say.

There are a lot of people, regardless of your gender, who will tell you why not. I live my life ignoring that. When someone tells me no or I can’t do that, it just continues to motivate me to prove them wrong.

How does Celebrity differentiate itself among the RCL brands and its many competitors. I know “modern luxury” is one of your catchphrases.

Modern luxury is a moniker we chose. We aren’t luxury – luxury is a little stuffier than we are. We are very approachable, very comfortable and very sophisticated. We stay on the modern side. It enables us to continue to evolve and create great experiences. The lovely thing about this modern luxury positioning is we are alone in this space. You have contemporary and premium. We do things that are just a little different from anyone else.

We do signature events, overnights and double overnights. We do “A Taste of Film,” where we have people on our decks on beautiful, modern, South Beach-chic furniture, watching films and having a culinary experience that correlates to the film. We don’t just have big parties by the pool. We take it up a level where people are looking for the types of things we do, knowing there is an element of class and sophistication in a really luxurious way with an intuitive and personalized service that our crew gives on these beautiful boutique hotels that sail around the world. It seems to be working because the people that matter – whether they’re consumers, the LGBTQ community or all the companies who awards brands for certain things – it’s really resonating.

If a company doesn’t have money to charter a boat, what sort of experience you can create that is unique?

I ran the incentive division for our company for 10 years, from 1990 to 2000. My favorite business is corporate meetings and incentives. I think what people don’t realize is holding one of these events on a ship is very similar to a hotel. Customization is really something we excel at, something we love to do, and we create very specific and individual experiences for people within those types of groups on the ships that our other guests are not experiencing. We make it very easy to have meetings, customized private shore excursions, one of our specialty restaurants’ private dining areas, certain classes of staterooms. We really have great customization.

Demographically, the old line in the cruise industry is cruisers are the newly wed and the nearly dead. In the 2020s, aging boomers will be in their 70s and beyond. How do you get the next generation to come in?

One of the good things about us baby boomers is we do a lot of multigenerational family cruising. We take people who are one or two generations behind us and convert them to cruisers.

For 32 years, what you are saying, is how cruising has been thought of, and it’s really time to change the conversation. That’s one reason why we did Sail Beyond Borders. We made a big statement that not 100 percent of the people loved, but enough of the people loved, so we could get into conversations where people would say, “Oh, Celebrity Cruises, who are they? What do they do? I think that’s a brand I might be interested in because they share my values.”

I have a very strong set of core values: brands that have a value proposition and a philosophy that is aligned with people they care about attracting are going to win. We have been very thoughtful about his. That is one of the ways to get in the minds and hearts of people who think about cruising in the wrong way. ♦

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