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Women Executives Are Borne Upward on the Tide of Cruise Industry Growth


Pamela Conover is considered a visionary in the cruise industry. As a financial analyst a decade ago for Citibank, she predicted that three companies would control most of the cruise business. Now Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess and Norwegian cruise lines dominate the industry, and she's chief operating officer of the Cunard Line (a Carnival company).

Deborah Natansohn calls herself a "cruise feminist" because she believes that women with families never really get a break from organizing and making decisions unless they take a hassle-free cruise vacation. As the president of Orient Lines (owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines), she manages a staff of 877, plans marketing strategies and handles crises. For instance, when violence flared recently in the Middle East, she had to decide whether to reroute an Orient ship scheduled to dock there. (She changed its course to safer waters.)

Effervescent Vicki Freed started with Carnival Cruise Lines 22 years ago as a sales representative and worked her way up to senior vice president. Along the way, she had three children, moved from Manhattan Beach to south Florida (where many cruise lines are headquartered) and gleefully watched the Carnival fleet grow from two to 16 vessels, with five more ships scheduled to be launched by 2004.

The success stories of these three women cruise-line executives are heartening and instructive, particularly for women like me, who love travel enough to want to work in the field. Most cruise ship captains are men. But industry observers say that, increasingly, the captains' bosses--that is, the presidents and vice presidents of their companies--are women. And they're shaping the cruise industry.

Women have long been represented in jobs in the travel field. About 75% of travel agents are women, according to Plog Research Inc., a company that studies trends in travel.

Natansohn says that most entry- and middle-level positions at Orient Lines are occupied by women. "But over the last 10 or 12 years, the cruise industry has grown so dramatically that room has opened up at the top, and a lot of women have had the opportunity to move up," she says. When she started in the business 13 years ago, there were seven women at vice-president level or above; now she estimates there are 60 or 70.

The number of cruise passengers has increased 8% annually since 1970, and that growth and the resulting need for dedicated, talented workers is one of the reasons the major lines have welcomed women at the highest levels. But Marc Mancini, who teaches in the travel industry training program at West Los Angeles College, notes that the cruise vacation industry is unusual in the travel field because it's young. Consequently it lacks the gender stratification of the airline companies. "The airlines grew out of male bastions like engineering and the military, while the cruise industry invented itself," Mancini says. Major cruise lines also have worked together instead of simply competing with one another, a behavior often ascribed to women.

A recent study sponsored by Cruise Lines International Assn. (CLIA), which promotes cruise vacations in general, showed that 43.5 million Americans are thinking about taking a cruise in the next five years. Even some of the smaller lines, such as Norwegian Coastal Voyage Inc., headed by Rosalyn Gershell, have banded together to promote their specialized cruises, which focus on such destinations as the western coast of Norway, in Gershell's case.

Cruise vacations generally are sold by travel agents, most of whom are women. Women also dominate the ranks of cruise line sales reps, says Carnival's Freed, and it's those reps who visit travel agents regularly to acquaint them with their vacation products. And studies show that women book most cruises, which completes the female cruise sales circle.

Furthermore, women are noted for being good listeners, and that helps female reps hear what their clients want, eventually shaping what sensitive cruise lines offer, Freed believes.

Could this be a little proof of the feminizing of American business? Maybe that's going too far, but I like to think it's possible.

Still, one shouldn't romanticize what women who make it in the cruise industry go through. Freed, who travels often, takes lots of red-eyes so she's at home to see her kids in the morning. But she's always tired, she says.

Helen McCabe-Young, the mother of a 6-year-old and vice president at Silversea Cruises, says she couldn't manage without an incredible nanny and a flexible husband.

When someone called the home of Norwegian Coastal Voyage Inc.'s Gershell, her then-8-year-old son said Mom was in China and his physician father was in India.

The women cruise executives I talked to share a willingness to work hard that stems from a love for their jobs. But I especially liked something Silversea's McCabe-Young said. Her job promoting the company involves assembling creative teams made up of both sexes. "Many women have worked in a man's world," she says. "But the old ways are receding. More and more, it's about people, regardless of their sex."

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