As Celebrity Cruises plots its return, with new sailings announced for Caribbean, European and UK waters this summer, president and chief executive Lisa Lutoff-Perlo tells Tom Parry how the line is looking beyond the pandemic.
“I honestly don’t know if I can put it into words,” beams Lisa Lutoff-Perlo.
Despite the early morning interview, the excitement from Celebrity Cruises’ president and chief executive seems to fizz through her video screen – and for good reason.
Within a matter of weeks the line has revealed restart plans for the UK, Europe and Caribbean - including the launch of its second Edge-class ship, Celebrity Apex, out of Athens.
In the UK, Celebrity Silhouette – fully “revolutionised” after a multimillion-pound renovation infused with Kelly Hoppen redesigns and the British debut of its Always Included all-inclusive fare – will cruise from Southampton in July.
When we meet over Zoom in the last week of March, Silhouette has just joined an ever-growing fleet of ships due to sail UK shores this summer.
But Lutoff-Perlo, rather aptly clutching an Edge-branded mug as she chats, says she is confident Celebrity’s offering will stand out in the “crowded space”.
“The brand we’ve built up and our positioning of ‘new luxury’ – I think the British consumer really understands that. We’re not worried about all the other brands out there. Celebrity is a special brand that stands for a lot and that will serve us well this summer.”
One obvious point of difference compared with other lines is Celebrity and sister line Royal Caribbean International’s vaccination policy for these summer sailings. Unlike other lines, both require adults to be fully vaccinated, while under-18s must provide negative PCR results.
Lutoff-Perlo says the approach – backed by Royal Caribbean Group’s Healthy Sail Panel – is “something that’s important right now” to instil confidence.
“We’re trying to be agile and do what we believe is the right thing to do at this time, so we can start up and everybody can have a wonderful vacation and feel like they’re in a healthy and safe environment”, she adds.
Lutoff-Perlo has herself recently received her second vaccine dose.
“When I got my second shot, I felt liberated. I carry my little vaccination card around with me – it’s like a badge of honour,” she grins.
Capacity levels also reflect a cautious approach, with sailings starting at around 50% occupancy. “It will start lower than it will end,”
Lutoff-Perlo insists. “We’ll start to slowly but surely ramp up to somewhere in the 50, 60, 70% range.
“We want to prove that a cruise is a very controllable environment where people can have the healthiest and safest vacation in the world.”
She contrasts the onboard measures being prepared to wider tourism regulations in her resident state of Florida. “Tourists are not wearing masks; they don’t need to be vaccinated. I look at that and think: ‘This is OK?’ But yet it’s not OK for cruising to operate [in the US]…”
Her assessment of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) lack of progress in green-lighting sailings is admirably diplomatic amid growing frustrations from stateside cruise bosses and political leaders in recent weeks.
“I don’t believe [the CDC] are ignoring the industry on purpose as they’ve had so much to focus on, but I believe it’s time [to act], and they’re taking notice.”
Talk of restarts is a welcome tonic compared with this time last year, when Covid’s ever-tightening grip saw the March launch of Celebrity Apex in Southampton cancelled and its fleet begin a prolonged suspension.
I ask Lutoff-Perlo how she has coped during the enforced shutdown and where her and her team’s efforts have been focused. Echoing Royal Group chief Richard Fain’s “Never let a good crisis go to waste” mantra, she says she has coined one of her own: “Wake up and look for the silver lining in the Covid-19 cloud”.
For Lutoff-Perlo, this silver lining was having the time to explore and develop new strategies and onboard experiences.
“I thought, ‘we can’t just be focused on this pandemic, we need to focus on our future’. That was very different from what was going on in the rest of the industry – other brands were just focused on what it was going to take to come out of the pandemic.
“We were trying to say, ‘OK, we’re going to come out of this – but who do we want to be when that happens?’” Lutoff-Perlo admits her leadership style has also adapted to suit the challenges.
“Things that are innate in me as a leader have had to be amplified, and others de-amplified. I’ve always led with my head and a lot of my heart and I think those things have been inversed this past year.
“The telling part for me was when my team told me I’m a much different leader than I was before. I guess I just pivoted from the pressure and the focus on results to say: ‘OK, let’s take a deep breath, let’s think about our future and let’s keep this all going.’ I think people appreciated that a lot.”
One area Celebrity does want to “amplify” as the world emerges from the pandemic is its programme of “positive impact tours”, initially developed pre-Covid and further established during the pause in sailings.
The line is aiming to “dig deep” into the communities it visits, contribute more to local economies and offer volunteer opportunities to guests “to help in a meaningful way”, Lutoff-Perlo says.
Looking even further into the future, she teases a “great announcement” soon about third Edge-class ship Celebrity Beyond– promising to build on the sustainability successes of the Edge series.
That environmental emphasis will no doubt bode well to help the brand meet post-Covid demand – with Lutoff-Perlo predicting a strong bounceback “for at least three to five years”.
“I don’t believe it’s going to take a long time to ramp up,” she insists. “We’re not meant to live in our homes for a year at a time with no social contact and no travelling or experiencing the world.
“Cruise will be the way we can start doing that and feel good again,” she smiles. “We’ll probably come out of this and do extraordinarily well.”