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on the road with Lisa Lutoff-Perlo

For the dynamic CEO of Celebrity Cruises, advocacy and travel leadership go hand in hand

Business Traveler  is on the road with prominent business travelers to find out how their journeys shape their lives – and the world around them. This month we sat down with Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Celebrity Cruises’ dynamic CEO.

When not breaking through glass ceilings and helping others to do the same (she’s a prominent advocate for women ship captains at Celebrity and throughout the industry) Lutoff-Perlo is on the road herself, traveling for Celebrity, launching ships, and encouraging inclusiveness and diversity in the travel industry.

Appointed President and CEO in December 2014, Lutoff-Perlo leads the multi-billion-dollar brand with 13 ships sailing to 300-plus ports worldwide. Lutoff-Perlo also heads Royal Caribbean Cruises’ (RCL) Global Marine Organization, ensuring that the corporation’s $30-billion fleet of 59 ships run efficiently across all RCL brands for 6 million guests a year. She is the first woman in the industry to do so.

A champion for education, diversity and inclusion, Lutoff-Perlo has challenged the conversation around cultural and gender equality in the maritime industry. She’s helmed important initiatives to raise the percentage of female officers on the bridge and landside, including hiring the first female American captain, the first female African bridge officer and the first female Ecuadorian captain.

Under Lutoff-Perlo’s leadership, Celebrity Cruises has partnered with a number of organizations in the areas of girl’s education (Malala Fund and Global Girls Alliance), sustainability and the environment (World Wildlife Fund), STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Columbia University, FIU, NSU and University of Miami), gender equality, service excellence (Forbes Travel Guide), and expanding the footprint of women in the maritime industry.

We met up with Lutoff-Perlo at the European launch of Celebrity Edge, the cruise line’s first Edge-class vessel whose godmother is Malala Yousafzai, the first Nobel laureate to christen a cruise ship.

BT:  As a woman executive in the travel industry for 30 years, how do you view women’s progress over this arc of time?

LUTOFF-PERLO:  Thirty years ago, I do not think I would have envisioned myself in my current role as the President and CEO of Celebrity Cruises. At that point, I was just starting my work in the sales and marketing department at Royal Caribbean and the state of the industry was much different. Cruising thirty years ago was a niche market, attracting a very specific clientele, and the world was not nearly as open as it is today. Even in 2014, when I was appointed President and CEO, there had not been another female executive at a major cruise line. The attention of being the first female in that position felt a little unwarranted at first – I had just thought of myself as someone who worked very hard, paid my dues and that it shouldn’t matter that I was a woman. I soon realized, though, that I was in a unique position to use my “super powers” for good. I wanted to champion female empowerment and gender equality, particularly in the cruise industry. I am passionate about diversity and inclusion all around as I believe that different voices around the table lead to more successful outcomes.Since then, we have made tremendous strides by hiring the first female ship captain, Captain Kate McCue, in 2015. This was one of the first things I did in my role. She will soon take the helm of our newest ship, Celebrity Edge. We were also able to hire the first female Ecuadorian ship captain in the Galapagos, Captain Nathaly Alban. We’ve established ways to recruit more female bridge officers, including a partnership with the Regional Maritime University in Ghana to give African women a direct opportunity to work on Celebrity ships. We’re among the industry leader in male/female crew ratio but we’re really hoping to push the envelope in the next five years. On Celebrity Edge, over 30 percent of the guest-facing crew is female, which is something we’re really proud of.

BT:  What major changes to the business traveler’s experience do you see as most significant to women execs?

LUTOFF-PERLO:  The world is a much more open place now than it felt at the beginning of my career. It is definitely not perfect – there will always be room for improvement – but so many more places are embracing diversity, inclusion and learning to value other cultures. There are also brands making sure steps are in place to ensure women who travel alone do not feel out of place or uncatered to – and that was not the case even a decade ago.I travel over 200,000 miles per year and the key is to pack your patience and flexibility as you never know what is in store throughout the travel day at an airport.  It’s another reason why taking a cruise is a great option!

BT:  Do you eat alone on the road? Do you enjoy the experience?

LUTOFF-PERLO:  I am lucky that I do not have to eat alone very often. I travel with colleagues a majority of the time, and we tend to meet over meals. I also have the opportunity to interact with many of Celebrity’s loyal guests, travel trade partners or journalists when I am onboard one of our ships. I most enjoy being in the company of others, especially when I meet new people and hear about their lives, travel experiences and sometimes, their affinity for Celebrity.My husband will sometimes join me on trips and that is fantastic, as I treasure our time together. I will admit on occasion it is nice to enjoy a quick meal on my own during an especially busy trip – it is nice to be able to hit reset and recharge a little bit before it is on to the next commitment.

BT:  As you travel, do you see more women in leadership positions at hotels, on cruises or other venues in the industry?

LUTOFF-PERLO:  The short answer is yes, but there should be more women in leadership roles in the coming years. There are definitely a growing number of opportunities for women in this business. In sales and marketing, there are a lot of amazing women at all levels – but the missing piece is that women are generally not as heavily recruited or prevalent on the operations side. I welcome other companies to champion gender equality as much as we have. Part of my job is also convincing women that they should be telling the world that they are more than capable of taking these opportunities and setting a path for making the world a better place. For me, it’s about hearing all voices. It’s not all about women – but it starts with women.

BT:  What was your most challenging business trip?

LUTOFF-PERLO:  I am on the road a lot and yes, there is always the possibility of being delayed, late nights, long meetings, etc. Those experiences don’t stick out to me as much as the ones where we face a challenge and come out with great success. The launch of Celebrity Edge was arguably the biggest moment in Celebrity’s brand history beyond the company’s initial inception. There was two years of planning, meetings, etc., that led up to the moment. Once we were onboard, as I was on the bridge of the ship as she pulled into Fort Lauderdale, there was still so much to be done before we welcomed our first guests. Leading up to the launch of Celebrity Edge, the intensity was crazy as this was only one of the many projects that we were working. On top of that, I felt the same jitters that go along with any launch since we are always joined by media and travel partners who are also experiencing the “living” product of a ship operating for the first time.That trip was challenging from a pure endurance perspective. It ended up being a very rewarding experience overall, which culminated in a beautiful Naming Ceremony where activist Malala Yousafzai christened the ship. I can honestly say that it was the most memorable moment in my career, and in my life, to welcome Malala and her family onboard Celebrity Edge.  It was so meaningful and made all of the travel and preparation worth every second. But it was such a journey to get to that point.

BT:  If you ever get the time for bleisure travel, what recent experience was most memorable?

LUTOFF-PERLO:  I am very lucky as I spend a lot of time onboard our ships, which visit some really cool places. I wouldn’t necessarily consider it “bleisure” but it is great to pair the business obligations with exploring the world. We do “Celebrate with the CEO” cruises to different destinations a couple times a year – not only do I get to meet our loyal guests and visit with our crew, but I get to experience excursions and interact with locals.I returned just yesterday from Juneau and Icy Strait Point, Alaska, where I had the opportunity to spend time – even dance with – the Tlingit tribal leaders and the team at Huna Totem Corporation, along with our guests.  The local leaders had a beautiful paddle ceremony for us and presented me with two hand carved paddles that symbolize our mutual respect, and metaphorical use of the paddle to come to visit any time as part of their family.  It was a memory that I will never forget. I also would say a recent girls’ trip to the Galapagos for my niece’s graduation was a great highlight as well. The Galapagos are a once in a lifetime experience that I would recommend to absolutely everyone.

BT:  How differently are you treated now when you travel for business as opposed to when you started your career?

LUTOFF-PERLO:  Now when I travel, I stay in nicer hotels so there is a different level of service and experience. Working in hospitality industry, I am also more in tune to evaluate the hospitality I receive, and this actually helps my own point of view. I am also now a little bit more in control of my schedule than when I first started – which doesn’t mean it’s any less hectic, but it helps that I can organize it to accomplish several things on one trip versus visiting the same destinations multiple times.

BT:  What change have you not seen yet for women traveling for business that you would like to see?

LUTOFF-PERLO:  I would just like to see more women in leadership roles when I travel the world. I actually look for it and am happy when I see it! I think in terms of amenities and experiences, brands are offering more now than they ever have to cater to the needs of women travelers and women business travelers.