x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Selling the high seas dream

The Life: Lakshmi Durai, the executive director of Middle Eastern operations for Royal Caribbean International based in Dubai, leads the way for women in the Middle East's travel industry.

Lakshmi Durai is the executive director for Middle Eastern operations at Royal Caribbean Arabia. Delores Johnson / The National
Lakshmi Durai is the executive director for Middle Eastern operations at Royal Caribbean Arabia. Delores Johnson / The National

It took Lakhsmi Durai almost seven years to go on a cruise after joining one of the world's largest cruising companies.

The trip was a family holiday to the Mediterranean, and softly spoken Ms Durai from India has been selling that concept ever since - a challenge she enjoys.

"Here, you sell a holiday, you sell an experience," Ms Durai says of her work. "And cruising is not a developed concept in this part of the world."

She moved to Dubai from India to join Royal Caribbean International (RCI) in 1994, rising to become the executive director for Middle Eastern operations within a decade. In a sector that employs few female senior executives, let alone from South Asia, Ms Durai says the gender imbalance is something she has never considered.

"I didn't plan to be in the tourism industry but that's the first job I got," says the 47-year-old, who trained in accounting and despite opportunities to transfer her skills elsewhere, decided to stick with her first choice.

According to the American research group PhoCusWright, almost 80 per cent of American travel agents are women.

But when it comes to female executives in the travel industry, experts suggest examples are harder to come by, especially in the cruise industry, which is dominated by around 10 lines including RCI, Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line.

"Often, internal talent management teams do not have females on their list and women receive considerably fewer promotions as a result," says Sven-Olaf Vathje, a partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group's Abu Dhabi office.

"In the travel and tourism industry, and especially in sectors like cruise ships, women face the additional challenge that work conditions are often difficult to align with family life and commitments." While it is habitual and socially acceptable for men to be away from home for extended periods, women often have a harder time achieving a less conventional work-life balance, Mr Vathje says.

Notable female executives in the cruise industry include the former financial analyst, Pamela Conover, who rose to become the chief executive of Seabourn Cruise Line and chief operating officer of Cunard. She is now the chief executive of SeaDream Yacht Club.

Vicki Freed, a former vice president of Carnival Cruise Lines, is now the senior vice president of sales, trade support and service at the Miami-based RCI.

And the late Deborah Natansohn held the position of president and chief operating officer for Seabourn when she suffered a fatal heart attack in 2006. She was formerly the president of Orient Lines, which is owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines.

While corporations need to remove the glass ceiling, women must also support each other, Mr Vathje says.

"Women need other women who have made it through the ranks as role models," he says. "They can learn from these influencers not only how to cope with job challenges, but also how to influence the job descriptions in a way that female executives can succeed."

Ms Durai has seen RCI grow from two ships in 2004 in Europe, one of RCI's profitable markets, to eight and 35 ships in the whole fleet.

And she grew with the company too.

When she took over as the executive director of Middle East, the office had five people; now she oversees 12.

But the challenge to sell the concept remains.

While cruising is still a new tourism activity for Middle Eastern tourists, the numbers sailing the high seas is growing by 30 per cent year on year, says Ms Durai.

To achieve those figures, she had to initiate several strategies over the past decade.

Ms Durai's office works mostly through travel agents spread across nine countries in the Arabian Gulf and the Levant.

"I try to meet all the travel agents throughout the Middle East, and visit them more than once a year," she says, adding that during ship visits at various ports, she invites the agents on board and meets them there.

"I love selling a holiday, rather than 'the nuts and bolts'."