Nicholine Tifuh Azirh is the first African woman to work on the bridge of a cruise ship
This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
There are few cruise lines in the world who are as capable of generating headlines as Celebrity Cruises. The company, which forms part of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.’s (RCL) triumvirate of brands, is tasked with building up business in a key part of the market: premium luxury.
Celebrity will be launching the luxury Celebrity Edge in November, its first ship since Celebrity Reflection in 2012, and one that has got industry tongues wagging.
“Celebrity Edge is progressing beautifully,” says Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Celebrity’s president and CEO. “I’ve been to the STX France shipyard and walked the ship, which is virtually finished. Now the interior work starts.”
Few companies have dared to alter the concept of a modern cruise ship in the way that Celebrity will do with Celebrity Edge. Of all the onboard features, the one that has grabbed the most headlines is the Magic Carpet. The cantilevered platform uses hydraulics to move up and down one side of the ship to add outdoor spaces to various decks at different times of the day or night.
However, for Lutoff-Perlo, the genius of Celebrity Edge lies elsewhere. “The infinite verandas are probably the most transformative and innovative feature onboard an ocean-going cruise ship that the industry has ever seen,” she says. “We wanted to give our guests a closer connection to the ocean, and the destination, than they have ever had before.”
Comparable to the type of balconies seen on European river ships, the infinite verandas are a game-changer in the ocean world. On Celebrity Edge, they provide a way of merging the indoor and outdoor areas for 900 staterooms, and increasing their square footage by 27%. To implement that change has meant altering the entire shell of the ship.
“We had to take a completely new look at the structure of the ship and how that structure supports itself – then we moved the spine of the vessel,” Lutoff-Perlo explains. “The ship has a very different external profile. Instead of having external verandas, the veranda runs all the way to the edge of the ship. We also needed to make sure that it didn’t look like an office building or a huge hotel. We worked with architect Tom Wright to ensure we still had the curved lines and the beauty of an ocean-going vessel, even though we were significantly changing the profile.”
Given the amount of work involved in bringing a ship like Celebrity Edge to market – not to mention the sister ships that will soon follow – Celebrity could be forgiven if it focused less on other projects. However, that’s not Lutoff-Perlo’s style and the company is now embarking on a US$400 million fleet revitalisation programme.
“The cruise industry is no different to the hotel industry in that at a certain point in time you have to keep reinvesting in your current hotels or ships,” she says. “We’ve come a long way since we designed the Millennium and Solstice class ships – neither of which are very old. We’ve incorporated multiple new experiences into our fleet and, of course, accommodations have become even more important.”
Celebrity’s emphasis on living quarters has heightened with Celebrity Edge – they will be created by British designer Kelly Hoppen, MBE – and Lutoff-Perlo believes this is indicative of a wider change in consumer behaviour. “Where people sleep is important to them,” she says, explaining that because of this, the Millennium and Solstice-class accommodations will be taken right back to the walls.
Those new innovations and concepts were debuted at SeaBeyond in New York last November. The event showcased the innovations that RCL brands have been working on, including everything from driverless cars, to frictionless boarding and greener energy solutions.
“The SeaBeyond event was wonderful,” says Lutoff-Perlo. “It showed some of what we’re already doing and our thinking for the future. Celebrity Edge will incorporate a lot of that technology.”
Those innovations will include new bridge technology with screens that change how engine room and bridge communicate, to automated stateroom solutions and frictionless arrivals.
“A lot of what we’re also doing is capturing guests needs, patterns and desires so we can take our award-winning service to a new level by understanding guests better,” adds Lutoff-Perlo. “Our crew already do such a great job, so we want to use technology to help them go to the next level.”
The issue of staff and crew is one that lies close to Lutoff-Perlo’s heart, especially when it comes to diversity. “The ship is a microcosm of society and you have a community of people onboard,” she says. “You need balance in any environment to get the best out of it. The world is catching up with that.”
With 33 years in the industry, Lutoff-Perlo remembers a time when women weren’t employed on ships because it wasn’t socially acceptable to spend months at sea. What started with women being introduced to crew populations in dining halls led to jobs in bars and staterooms. Now, Lutoff-Perlo is embarking on a mission to change the most male-centric area of the industry: the bridge.
Through a concerted recruitment drive and going into marine academies to actively hire women for the brand, Lutoff-Perlo is starting to see the tide change. Alongside Patrick Dahlgren, who runs Celebrity Marine, the company has taken the percentage of women on its bridges from 5% to 20% over an 18-month period.
“It started with Captain Kate McCue who is the first American women to captain a cruise ship and we’ve just added Nathaly Albán, the first Ecuadorian woman to captain a ship,” says Lutoff-Perlo. “Now there is Nicholine Tifuh Azirh, who comes from the Regional Maritime University in Ghana – and she is the first African woman to work on the bridge of a cruise ship. Celebrity is a brand of firsts in a lot of ways. Gender and equality is something I am particularly proud of. It makes for a much better environment onboard for our decision making and crew. I’ve just celebrated my third year in this role and we’ve made a lot of progress in that regard.”
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