Skift

Interview: Celebrity Cruises CEO on Getting the Edge in First Ship Design in a Decade

  • Since she was named CEO of Celebrity Cruises in late 2014, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo has been on a mission to avoid the same old same old.

    In an interview with Skift in early 2016, she explained how a new advertising and branding campaign was meant to avoid the “sameness” of cruise advertising.

    As the race for president of the United States heated up, Celebrity was one of the few travel companies to take a political stance with an ad that praised the embrace of differences and called out “the talk of building walls,” “threats of keeping people out,” and the “rhetoric of fear.”

    So it’s no surprise that with its latest new ship Celebrity Edge, the cruise line — part of Royal Caribbean Cruises — sought to do a lot of things differently.

    For one thing: the balcony. Standard veranda staterooms on all Edge Class ships will come with what’s called the “infinite veranda,” which can convert the balcony area into a part of the living space or a separate open-air section. The construction itself positions the balcony section closer to the edge of the ship.

    “We wanted to get much closer to the sea,” said Royal Caribbean Cruises chairman and CEO Richard Fain. More practically, he said the line wanted to give passengers what they said they wanted: a bigger bathroom, bed, living area, and storage space.

    The pool area is designed to focus on ocean views rather than the pool itself, and some of the suites have beds positioned to face the ocean rather than sit parallel to the view. There’s a bigger percentage of suites — 12 percent — on the new class than other Celebrity ships. And a new feature called the “Magic Carpet” sits off the side of the ship on a movable platform that acts as disembarkation area, bar, live music venue, and restaurant.

    Even the presentation was unusual: A press event at the company’s headquarters in Miami was emceed by interior designer and TV personality Nate Berkus, the design ambassador for the new class. The line handed out iPads so journalists could view extra information through augmented reality.

    Celebrity staged full-sized mockups of rooms, a 3D virtual reality simulator, demonstrations of facial recognition technology, and held a closing party on a surface that replicated a new feature on the ship.

    At the event earlier this week, Skift spoke to Lutoff-Perlo about what the cruise line wanted to accomplish with the new class, who the target guest is, and why balconies needed to change.

    Skift: This seems like one of the more elaborate reveals I’ve ever seen. Is it one of the more elaborate reveals you’ve ever experienced? And why? Like, why are you going to all the [virtual reality] and [augmented reality] and all the full-scale mockups?
    Lutoff-Perlo: Well, for a couple reasons. One is we’ve all been to a lot of reveals. And they’re pretty much: ‘Oh, here’s our ship, isn’t it beautiful?’ And we wanted to take a different approach, to say ‘Here’s our ship, isn’t it beautiful? But let us share a little bit about how we got here.’ Because we always find that our guests, even they want that behind-the-scenes look. They love it. And we thought, let’s do something different.

    Especially since we now have this innovation lab, which is why we’re here in Miami for the reveal. We wanted to give people a peek behind the curtain. What does it take to design a ship like this? And not only how long, but what are all the iterations? If you look at these tables, you see all the drawings that over time happened. You go in that 3D cave and you see how we walk through spaces and see, are they going to make sense?

    And the other thing is, we haven’t had a new ship in six years. We haven’t designed a new ship in 10 years. So for Celebrity, this is a really big deal and I was determined to launch the ship in a really powerful way and get it the publicity it deserved so that people would see what the brand was up to and because we haven’t been talking about a new ship in a really long time. So we wanted this one to be big.

    Skift: How daunting is it — or was it — to even start with your first new design in 10 years? When you thought abut what exists, and what you wanted to do, where did you start?

    Lutoff-Perlo: We always start back to ‘Who are we?’ We’re modern luxury. What are the things we care about, which are the five pillars [service, design, accommodations, destination, and culinary]. And we do them so well right now — how do you really amplify them and make people say, ‘Wow, as good as Celebrity is, we couldn’t imagine it being so much better.’ And that’s how we got to the transformative design and the transformative way that we allowed guests to experience the destination from the ship and the accommodations, which are so fabulous and special.

    When we looked at all these things and said what are our guests and what are people — forget even our guests — what do people say about cruising that would make us take a new look at Edge class and really not only amplify the five pillars but modern luxury and solidify us in this space, get more people to cruise that hadn’t considered cruising before? What are some of the barriers and what are some of the things that they say, ‘You know, if cruise ships had this, we would consider them more’?

    And it’s all about the living space and how people perceive the living space. When we asked customers, they said ‘We want a king-sized bed.’ How do you do that when you’re confined? So we said how do we unconfine ourselves and take the handcuffs off? And that’s how we came up with the infinite veranda.

    So we start by asking ourselves relatively simple questions. They don’t sound complicated. But when you see what you have to do to create things that address and answer those questions, it is quite complicated. But we were determined to do it for Edge class and we were determined to not only transform the brand but also the industry.

    Skift: Who is the person or what is the audience you’re trying to reach that you don’t have yet? Who do you expect these features will attract who haven’t tried a cruise before?

    Lutoff-Perlo: We spend a lot of time on segmentation. And there are affluent families that we want to travel with us.

    Skift: Like with teenagers? Or any age?

    Lutoff-Perlo: All ages, any age. We have this great new program, a new STEM program for kids….We haven’t really talked about the teen areas and the kids areas on the ship, but it’s opening with seven-night Caribbean in peak season, so families are a a big target of ours. When you look at all the connecting staterooms on this ship….you can see that this is again a great multi-generational family [option], those are the people that we’re after who look for a certain quality and caliber of vacation when they take their families away….

    These are the types of people, affluent vacationers, 35-54 years old, families. The Retreat — we’re looking for people who really love the suite experience. Our other ships have this great suite class and we offer a wonderful experience that they love and they want more suites, so that’s why we’ve increased the number of them. More and more affluent vacationers want a lot of space and they want suites and they want to travel the right way.

    So we’re purposefully looking for a ship that will make the people who love Celebrity love us more. I think this will do that. It certainly won’t alienate the people who love Celebrity, it will just keep attracting them to the brand and even keep them loyal. We’re looking for people who are cruising on other brands who are looking for more of this type of an experience. And mostly we’re looking to increase the categroy for first-timers.

    When people like [interior designers] Nate Berkus and Kelly Hoppen tell me they’re going to cruise now with their families, that’s what we’re going for. We’re looking for that type of person who enjoys the finer things in life and does those things in their lives and wants to continue that experience on their vacation. And the way we make them feel on this ship through Kelly Hoppen’s design is really important to us. Because it’s beautiful, it’s relaxing, and it’s really comfortable.

    Skift: Where did you take any inspiration for some of the features here? I’ve heard a lot of people say, when they saw a couple of things with the rooms, like ‘Oh this reminds me of river cruising.’ Like the beds facing the window in the suites and the balcony doing the thing. Were you looking at what river has accomplished with kind of being more connected to a destination and seeing what applied to Celebrity?…Like Richard said, nothing is brand new technology, it’s just the way it’s presented.

    Lutoff-Perlo: Right, and I think that’s fair. I think there aren’t many in river cruising that do that; there is one company that does that. And the thing is it’s easy to do it in river cruising, you’re very close to land. And you’re sailing at very slow speeds. Nobody’s ever done this on an oceangoing vessel…It created a whole different set of problems that you needed to develop solutions for in order to do this on an oceangoing vessel. And so to offer the infinite veranda on an oceangoing vessel was really a feat and something no one’s ever tried before. I’m not sure anybody’s considered it before. But for us, it was like, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be great on an oceangoing vessel because it brings the connection closer to the sea?’ For river cruising, it brings it closer to the land because the land is right outside your window. For us, we have a different connection, we’re never as close to land as the riverboats are. But for us, it was connecting to the world around you and the oceans around you.

    We have some of our rooms where the bed is facing the ocean where we had the real estate to do that and the Sky suite is now one of those. So where we could, again, the basic philosophy of the ship was outward facing and wherever we could do that, that’s what we did.  And so that, more than what the competitor was doing, was what we went after. And some ships have some of these. But we’ve tried to really have as many of them as we possibly could.

    Skift: What was wrong with balconies as they existed before?

    Lutoff-Perlo: Nothing’s wrong with them. I still have nine ships with them…they’re fabulous. And I’m going to continue to sell those ships and tell everybody how fabulous they are. I think this just gave us another way to experience the balcony. And I, for one, get balcony rooms all the time and go out on them sometimes, but most of the time I’m in my living space. This is the best of both worlds. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with what we have right now, it’s just now we’ve connected them and now utilized the space in a different way which is really kind of cool and that’s what evolution is all about. Actually this is more transformation than evolution.

    Skift: If you were in charge of another cruise line, which of the features on Edge would you try to steal or repurpose?

    Lutoff-Perlo: Well, we’re used to that. You’d have to ask them.

    Skift: Which would you kick yourself for not coming up with?

    Lutoff-Perlo: I don’t know. I would probably say the staterooms, but I don’t know. If you ask me what do I think are the most transformative featrues of this ship, I would have to say the accommodations. And so if I believe that, and I’m somebody else looking at what we’ve done here, I would probably say, ‘Wow, that’s really great.’ Because that’s what people buy. People buy their rooms and where your ship goes. The other things are terrific. These are added things that just make the experience that much more special. The accomodations are really transformational and the design is…the physical accommodations are one thing, what Kelly Hoppen has done with these accommodations is extraordinary.

    Skift: We talked several months ago about the ad Celebrity ran, we talked about the virtues of embracing the world and being outward-facing and you’re talking about these ships being deisgned to be outward-facing. So I don’t know if this is just a personal interest and theme of yours or if that message of the ads also tied into what you were working on here.

    Lutoff-Perlo: Well listen, we’re a vacation company, we cruise around the world. We bring people to different places to experience different cultures, that’s just the reality of what we do. And then how you let them experience that is really important because that’s the number one thing people buy when they travel. I’ve been in this business for 32 years, so of course it’s a personal view. It’s because it’s what I do for a living and what I believe is really important that everybody has to embrace. Because I do believe it makes us stronger and richer and better and that’s what travel’s all about and that’s the business I’m in. I think it’s just this whole intersection of things and that’s why our ships have been designed to experience those places in a much more profound way.

    Photo Credit: The open-air Magic Carpet is a multi-functional venue on the newest ships under construction for Celebrity Cruises. Celebrity Cruises

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