A shake-up in cruise leadership as lines navigate rough waters

A shake-up in cruise leadership as lines navigate rough waters

For the cruise industry, it’s not unusual for C-suite doors to bear the same names for decades. But the industry has never faced a pandemic the likes of Covid-19.

With the global cruise fleet grounded indefinitely, cruise lines are in the midst of an executive shake-up that likewise may be unparalleled. 

Among the departed were three brand leaders: Holland America Line president Orlando Ashford and Seabourn president Richard Meadows, who both left at the end of May, and Azamara Cruises CEO Larry Pimentel, who resigned in April. 

Others include longtime executives such as Terry Thornton and Rai Caluori, both of whom left three-decade careers in operations at Carnival Cruise Line and Princess Cruises, respectively, this spring; sales and marketing executives Camille Olivere, who resigned from Norwegian Cruise Line in June, and Gordon Ho, who left Princess in May; and Crystal Cruises’ land program director of 17 years, John Stoll.

The turnover had actually begun before the pandemic, when Andy Stuart stepped down as CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line in December and John Delaney retired as president of Windstar in February.

From left: Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald; Gus Antorcha, the newly named president of Holland America Line; and Josh Leibowitz, the new president of Seabourn Cruises.

‘Own the brands’

Only a few of these positions have been replaced so far; Harry Sommers was tapped to replace Stuart, and of the pandemic-era changes, the most notable have been the presidents of Holland America, Gus Antorcha, and Seabourn, Josh Leibowitz, both plucked from the Carnival Corp. family.

Antorcha had been Carnival Cruise Line’s COO and at the brand for nine years. Leibowitz started as Carnival Corp.’s chief strategy officer in 2013 and was also senior vice president of Cunard North America. Both men left careers in consulting for the cruise world: Antorcha with Boston Consulting Group and Leibowitz with McKinsey & Co.

And while that background in analysis and problem-solving brings important skills with it, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said they were not prerequisites.

“These are complex organizations and operations, and it’s a team,” Donald said. “So what you want is diversity on the team. Diversity of thinking, of skill sets, of perspective. You definitely need those analytical capabilities on a team, but it’s not a requirement that you have it in the top person. It has to be present on the team, and the top person has to appreciate it and value it.”

What Donald said he was looking for was not that different from the “two strong leaders running those brands before” and what he calls core qualities such as integrity and commitment.

Donald said he expects the new leaders to work even more effectively with travel advisors and to “own the brands.”

“Our brands are highly differentiated,” he said. “They serve different segments in the market. Having people who understand that and can get to the insight of what resonates with the guests that this brand targets is a skill set we are looking for.” 

Pimentel said that the choices so far track with what cruise lines historically do, which is hire from within. But the new leaders are faced with unrivaled challenges.

“I would not underestimate the vast talent pool at the big firms” such as Carnival, Norwegian and Royal, he said. “This new generation of C-suite talent is entering at a time when the challenge is the most severe we have ever seen. It is one thing to grow a business when the entire industry is blooming and another to grow a business when it’s imploding. These are tough assignments, and they are also exciting positions in a hammered industry.”

Pimentel said that whoever is chosen will continue to value the travel trade. 

“Each of these new executives and their teams understand who produces revenue and who does not,” he said. “Agents who create revenue will be cultivated, as they always have been. It is natural to support those who have supported you — this will not change.”

Olivere said that while she believes change is healthy and results in innovation, it can be tough on the trade.

“They have these long-standing relationship and trust with people,” she said. “Now there are new faces, and there will probably be more new faces coming, and it will be very important for the trade to stay connected so the supply side appreciates their value.” 

Olivere understands what the executives are facing. She entered the cruise industry in 2009 in the fallout of the financial crisis, when Norwegian wanted someone from outside the industry to rethink how it approached the advisor community.

“We reorganized,” she said, adding that among her proudest achievements was creating a sales team dedicated exclusively to home-based groups. “The model was really effective, and it hadn’t been done before. It was things like that that were new and innovative from a sales perspective, and that’s what needs to happen now.”

Given how long some cruise executives have been at their companies, “at some point it’s healthy to have some new blood to come in and have fresh eyes.” 

Carolyn Spencer Brown, chief content officer at Cruise Media, has covered the industry for more than 20 years. She said the Holland America and Seabourn appointments were not “dramatic.”

“They are not bringing in wildly innovative marketing people, they are bringing in people solidly trained in Carnival Corp. operations,” she said. “They are honoring the tradition of how things have always been done with a new generation of leadership, which is intriguing, but not dramatic.”

Any cruise line leader right now, she said, has a new mandate.

“It’s not about growth and promotions and partnerships. It’s really about getting down to brass tacks and running the business and the operations,” she said. “This is a time when efficiencies and financials matter more than they ever mattered before. Relationships and innovation are taking a back seat.”

For example, Spencer Brown said, Ashford was “an innovations guy, not an operations guy. He brought in all these partnerships — he was a relationships guy. What you need now are people to downsize the business and improve efficiencies and survive.”

That could have consequences. 

“I believe we’re taking two steps back to take one step forward,” she said. “For the next five years, it’s going to be all about rebuilding. 

“And then we’ll want to talk about innovation again. Everything happens in cycles.” 

Updated: This report was updated July 27 to update and clarify information in the photo captions.

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