It’s easy to describe Lisa Lutoff-Perlo’s current high-profile position at Celebrity Cruises as a “dream job.” There’s lots of regular international travel involved, along with the opportunities to meet and work with some of the most talented and fascinating designers, chefs, and business leaders on Earth redefining and refining ocean cruising. But before she was one of the few American women leading a multibillion-dollar company, she learned the ropes over nearly three decades at the cruise line (and sister company Royal Caribbean) in a variety of positions.
In fact, Lutoff-Perlo’s list of accomplishments since taking over as president and CEO suggests that she’s prioritized the dreams of others—cruise passengers and a diversified stable of executives and crew—based on how she approached the transformation of the Celebrity brand. The jewel in her crown is the emergence of the Edge Series of ships, which began in 2018 with the launch of the Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Apex. Her long game includes improving the already award-winning guest service and operational expertise and finding ways to populate the line’s high-performing, culturally inclusive teams.
The Edge ships, including the Celebrity Beyond (whose maiden voyage took place in April 2022) have broadened the definition of luxury cruising, between the implementation of the top-tier The Retreat and AquaClass decks and diversified dining, reflecting the changing and broadening tastes of vacationers. There is a more sophisticated take on interior design in all staterooms, better-realized fitness and wellness programs, culturally meaningful excursions (including the epic “Chef’s Market Tours,” led by top Celebrity Edge chefs), and to top it all off, the installation of Captain Kate McCue as America’s first (and only) female ship captain.
It’s no surprise that Celebrity Cruises has enjoyed unprecedented growth, including accelerated financial performance, on Lutoff-Perlo’s watch—even with the stormy waters brought on by the pandemic.
HOW HAVE EXECUTIVE LEVEL-PROFESSIONAL OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN IN HOSPITALITY IMPROVED SINCE YOU ENTERED THE CRUISE INDUSTRY IN 1985?
I will speak for our company and Celebrity, first, since I have spent the past 37 years of my career here. We have come a long way, but we always need to go further. The gender imbalance is just too significant to stop. But for Celebrity, we have increased the number of women on our bridges from 3% seven years ago to 33% today. That is a tremendous accomplishment. There are women in leadership positions on our ships in higher numbers than ever before. Beyond Celebrity, more women are running cruise brands and more women are in executive positions across all areas of the companies. More women are choosing these careers, more women are advancing in their careers, and they are earning and being given the opportunities that are available.
HOW DO YOU FEEL YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS CAN MOTIVATE AND INFLUENCE YOUNG WOMEN STRIVING FOR HIGHER RANKS IN HOSPITALITY AND BEYOND?
I hope my achievements motivate and influence them greatly—both young woman striving for higher ranks in any industry and women in my own company who are finding their way and their path to achieve their personal and professional goals. I want to make the path easier and I want to bring others along with me. Otherwise, all that I have been able to accomplish doesn’t mean as much. As our Captain Kate says, “If you can see it, you can be it.” I am only one of many women who have accomplished great things and every day there are more and more of us. Never give up and reach for the stars.
HOW DID CAPTAIN KATE MCCUE COME TO YOUR ATTENTION?
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 who was attending a hotel director and captains conference. I think she might have been the only or one of very few women in the room. So she definitely stood out in that respect. But what really impressed me is when she took the time to come and introduce herself to me. We had a brief conversation and I remember saying to myself “That woman is special.” Despite my encouragement, the head of Marine Operations did not promote Kate to captain before I left that position and was appointed as CEO of Celebrity.
WHAT WAS INVOLVED IN THE VETTING PROCESS TO POSITION HER AS THE FIRST (AND STILL ONLY) AMERICAN FEMALE SHIP CAPTAIN ABOARD CELEBRITY?
Captain Kate had been a staff captain for nine years. Upon further investigation, I learned that Kate was the highest-rated staff captain for 13 contracts in a row. Needless to say, my first move was to have the head of Marine for Celebrity call Kate and ask her if she would be willing to come over to Celebrity as our first woman captain. Her answer was “hell yes.” The rest is history. And, by way, I was right. She is special. She is an extraordinary captain, leader, role model, and human being.
WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE PARTNERSHIP WITH CAPTAIN KATE (AND THE OTHER HIGH-PROFILE WOMEN ASSOCIATED WITH CELEBRITY BEYOND) AS A COLLABORATIVE EFFORT TO ATTRACT MORE WOMEN TO THE INDUSTRY AND INTO LEADERSHIP ROLES ACROSS THE FLEET?
I believe attracting more women to the industry, into leadership positions, and specifically to Celebrity is an outcome of doing the right thing and creating a more diverse and gender-balanced organization that understands that diverse cultures are strong cultures and create better business outcomes. Our partnerships and the high profile of our women executives and women on the bridges across our fleet also speak to a welcoming culture for those women who decide these are careers that interest them and they know they will be welcome and given the same opportunities, regardless of gender. Attracting is one thing. Retaining all of these great women is even more important.
HOW DO YOU SEE THIS PUSH BENEFITTING THE CRUISE AND HOSPITALITY SECTORS AS AN ENTIRETY BEYOND CELEBRITY CRUISES?
I am always proud to see that others are following in our footsteps. I think we started a movement and a trend that is just beginning, but definitely underway. Other hospitality sectors are doing the same. And it’s long overdue.
WHO WERE YOUR EARLY ROLE MODELS?
My early role models were always people who did good and made a difference. As a child it was the nuns who taught me in Catholic school. In my teens (and, really, forever after) it has been Bruce Springsteen—a storyteller who always stood up for the underdog and who told the American story and makes us think about things that are important. As I grew older they became Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, RBG—people who stood up and gave a voice to those who weren’t heard and were the catalyst for change that advanced equality.
HOW DID YOU KEEP BUSY AND KEEP YOUR TEAM MOTIVATED DURING THE PANDEMIC TRAVEL LOCKDOWN?
Oh my goodness, this answer could fill quite a few pages. To make this long story short, I focused myself, my team, and our crew around the world and encouraged everybody to think about the future. I refused to give in to the way we all felt being completely shut down and our industry being out of business. Although I didn’t know when it would come back, I knew it would come back, and we all had to be better and stronger when it did. Our experience is better and stronger relating to health protocols. Our guest experience is better because we have added even more relaxed luxury options for our guests. Our brand became “Always Included,” and we introduced two new spectacular Edge Series ships into our fleet. My role, in addition to getting us back into business, was to give people hope and confidence. And to bring our crew back to work. Now, we are building back stronger and stronger every single day.
WHAT ARE SOME INNOVATIONS THAT CAME OUT OF THE SETBACKS IN THOSE TWO YEARS?
The “Always Included” pricing strategy [is one of them], and includes the most important things our guests told us they wanted included in the price. This, in turn, helped us break into the luxury segment of cruising. We further defined our guest of the future, and through that developed branding and messaging that repositioned our brand and how we talk to our target guests. We also enhanced and focused on our Retreat experience (suite accommodations), now the leading category of staterooms we are selling coming out of these past two years. People are treating themselves. We are building upon 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 business in my mid 20s when I was trying to find myself and said, “What the heck? Sounds really interesting. Let me give it a go.” It all worked out. Sometimes, you don’t have a plan, and that’s OK. As long as you do what you believe is right for you at the time and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way or you go after, then the plan eventually becomes evident. What I will say about being 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 being able to provide these experiences for millions of guests is extremely rewarding.