It’s been almost four years since Celebrity Cruises launched a new ship, but that doesn’t mean the line hasn’t been busy. Sophie Griffiths meets its president to talk China, keeping a ship in the UK and the closely guarded secret that is Project Edge.
People are amazed by Celebrity – they always say it has the ‘wow’ factor, but they also say it has ‘the I never knew factor’,” says the president and chief executive of Celebrity Cruises. Most bosses would likely be happy with such high praise. But Lisa Lutoff-Perlo is not most bosses.
“It upsets and bothers me that they don’t know,” she says frankly.
“I want to know why they don’t know. I want people to truly understand the brand platform; to know what we’re about.”
Having joined Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd 30 years ago, Lutoff-Perlo held a variety of roles at the company, before being elevated to her current position in December 2014. And she is clearly set on making waves at the line – starting with making sure people know what to expect when they cruise with Celebrity.
That first step has already been taken in the UK. Last month the line launched its first TV advert – a 90-second “brand film” which aired between the breaks of Channel 4’s prime time show Homeland. A new campaign is now about to launch in the US to boost awareness of the brand.
It’s already working on our shores – Jo Rzymowska, Celebrity’s UK and Ireland managing director, reveals that Celebrity saw the largest increase in brand awareness it has ever recorded in January.
I meet Lutoff-Perlo and Rzymowska at the five-star Haymarket Hotel ahead of the Celebrity Travel Agent Appreciation Awards, which the line launched last year as a thank you to the trade. That Lutoff-Perlo has made the whirlwind trip across the pond to join the event in person is demonstrative of her – and Celebrity’s – commitment to agents. But she is also keen to stress the line’s dedication to the UK market.
“It’s the second biggest market for us as a brand, and it will continue to grow,” she says. “We’re looking for more business in the UK.”
Does this mean the UK will continue to see a Celebrity ship sailing out of our shores? “Absolutely,” Lutoff-Perlo insists, although she does concede it may not always be Celebrity Eclipse. “We will have a ship sailing out of Southampton. It will be Eclipse for the foreseeable, but then we will see.”
“It’s not too much longer until we can start talking about Project Edge, I promise, but what I can tell you is that the ships are extraordinary”
If Eclipse is replaced, it is unlikely to be with one of Celebrity’s newest ships though. Lutoff-Perlo is tight-lipped about the itineraries for Project Edge – the name given to the construction of the line’s two unnamed new ships which are due for delivery in 2018 and 2020 – but she does admit: “I don’t think it’s likely that an Edge-class will be based in the UK. If we build five ships, then maybe,” she adds with a smile, “but not the first”.
Lutoff-Perlo insists she can’t reveal “much” about the new ships – “it’s not too much longer until we can start talking about it, I promise” – “but what I can tell you is that they are extraordinary,” she insists.
“There will be some of the same [features], and some will be different. The ships will feel both familiar and different – people will say: ‘Wow, Celebrity did it again’.”
It’s a bold statement, but Lutoff-Perlo, who has been closely involved in the design of the ships, says she is confident that the ships will be stand-out vessels. “I jumped into Edge with both feet, and Richard Fain, chairman and chief executive of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, said to me: ‘This ship is a completely different ship to what it was nine months ago’. By the time it launches, it will have been 13 years since the Solstice-class were designed. We’ve created the next class of cruise ship for Celebrity.”
The sister ships are also likely to be identical, “as long as we don't make any big blunders with the first,” she laughs.
The new vessels might not be set to be homeported in the UK, but agents here are at least likely to be able to check them out. Lutoff-Perlo is unable to confirm much at this early stage, but she insists that the “intention” is to showcase Project Edge to UK agents around the time of the first ship’s launch, scheduled to be around October.
The ships are also not expected to be positioned to solely serve the Chinese market, unlike a number of other lines which have announced plans to target this sector, including sister line Royal Caribbean, which is actively targeting Chinese travellers.
“At this point in time we are not considering doing China like Royal,” Lutoff-Perlo says. “We do have ships in Asia, but our goal is to develop the Chinese outbound market to other regions, not just those that want to holiday in the area.
“We are looking to raise our prices. That’s our mission.”
“We will continue to look at that market and the best opportunity for us, [but] we are about a longer cruise offering. As we read about more and more of our competitors going in there, I think it’s a better opportunity for us as a brand to continue to develop our international crowd – we have a lot of British, Canadian, American, Australian and a good percentage of Asian people. That’s our strategy – to develop that.”
For now though, the line’s focus is on wave – both here and the US, where the peak season begins slightly later, around January 4. Rzymowska says the UK team are “cautiously optimistic” about sales – “the signs are that it is good so far”,” she says.
There have been murmurs in the trade that cruise is performing notably better than other sectors, as the public seek “safer” holidays following the devastating number of terror attacks across the world in recent months. “We’re getting anecdotal reports that cruise is punching above its weight compared with land holidays,” says Rzymowska.
Agents not seeing such positivity however, might be tempted down the controversial path of discounting.
I ask Rzymowska what her advice would be to agents that do decide to slash prices. “Don’t,” she replies simply. “That would be my advice.”
Instead, Rzymowska and Lutoff-Perlo want to do the opposite. “We’re looking to raise our prices,” Lutoff-Perlo says. “That’s our mission.”
Elsewhere, the line is also busy with the refurbishment of its Millennium class, and looking at where it can “remove barriers to cruising”. This was the reasoning behind last month’s decision to scrap formal night onboard Celebrity sailings.
These have now been replaced with “elegant chic” nights, meaning passengers no longer have to wear bow ties and long dresses, and can interpret the label however they wish.
“It’s been predominantly well-received,” says Lutoff-Perlo. “Some people say they are put off cruising by the formality of it; we have to break down barriers to cruise – we have to get more people cruising.
“I thought we would have more people that were critical of this decision,” she admits. “But most have said ‘it’s about time’.
“You’re always going to get some criticism though. You’re not really doing your job properly if you don’t,” she adds with a grin.