01 Nov LIFE AFTER SHIPS: INTERVIEW WITH PENNY LESAVOY – CRUISE INDUSTRY CONSULTANT
Penny Lesavoy has been involved in the cruise-ship industry, ever since she embarked on board a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ship in 1988 as a youth director. She worked in that position for seven years before becoming director of cruise-ship operations for International Voyager Media, followed by a series of executive positions closely tied to the cruise industry. MTN Satellite Telecommunications afforded her the opportunity to work with a myriad of cruise brands, including: Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Silversea, and Oceania.
“Now, I partner with Briggs Group, and work with a team of specialists that assist companies with entering the cruise-line business as well as Venture-Capital projects.” Working on the concessionaire side, Lesavoy—now based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—helps with proposals and contracts, as well as product and innovation launches geared for cruise lines.
“When you’re seeing people from all around the world, and you’re helping other people get hired, that keeps you going,” Lesavoy says. “The opportunity for career growth after ships is tremendous, if you develop a stellar track record based on a strong work ethic.”
What were your initial career aspirations?
I wanted to be a teacher since I was a little kid. I set up a little desk in my room for my sister. I tested her and made homework sheets. I went to the University of Miami and got a bachelor’s of science degree in early-childhood education and worked in Washington D.C. in an elementary school for five years.
What was your professional experience prior to joining cruise ships?
I was running early-childhood programs, and then I kind of just decided that’s not what I want to do with the rest of my life. I came down to Florida and happened to visit my uncle’s little sandwich shop. This was 1988. I had never even heard of cruise lines. My uncle introduced me to customers who worked on a cruise line. He put me in touch with someone he knew at Royal Caribbean. I gave her a 20-minute presentation about why I don’t want to work with kids anymore—and she said, ‘We need somebody to start a kids program. We need to keep them out of the passengers’ way so the parents can enjoy their vacation.’ She said, ‘Just go on board and see if you like it.’ That lasted for seven years. I was fortunate during some of those years to work on the newer ships that had facilities for kids. They had no facilities in 1988. Hundreds of kids would board the ship and we didn’t know what to do with them. When we created activities geared specifically to their interests, they had more fun than their parents in the end!
What inspired you to pursue a career in the cruise industry?
I was put on this planet to bring joy to others. The innovation of the youth program kept me there. It kept getting better and better. We innovated every day. It was a daily education. It was like going back for my master’s degree, building programs and marketing. I had to make people want to come and stay.
What position(s) did you hold while working onboard ships?
Even though I was the youth director (from 1988-1995), we all helped each other out. The shore-excursions division always needed help. On the islands, the swim program allowed us to volunteer and work in the dive shop where they rented scuba equipment. I went on a lot of shore excursions as a ‘lollipop holder,’ which is what we called the tour escort back then. In 1995 I was getting ready to return to land and I fell into an opportunity. The company I went to next was International Voyager Media. We hired and trained a person to go onboard the vessel and give a live lecture about shopping opportunities in the ports of call. I was an assistant to the department. Within five months I was promoted to account executive.
What did you enjoy most about working onboard cruise ships?
Meeting people from all around the world and helping others enjoy their vacation and making kids smile. I actually had a kid in my program that came back seven years later as an employee. He showed up in his uniform and brought out his photo album from years earlier.
What did you find most challenging about working onboard?
The most challenging part in the earlier years was finding space on board the vessel. Everybody vies for it. You had to make a schedule for what goes where and when. It was hard to find a place for the kids. Then they ironed that out very quickly. But it was all so much fun and exciting that I didn’t find it a challenge at all.
What is one of your favorite memories working onboard?
I still have friends from all over the world. They become your family. You’re in such close quarters and some of them don’t even speak English. Being a kindergarten teacher I was always the one to take them under my wing.
What skills did you develop in your cruise-line jobs that lead you to where you are today?
Operations and logistics, including making sure you have your supplies; organizing the free giveaways; and writing great blurbs and paragraphs to entice people. I really believe I got my marketing and promotional experience through this. My expertise in hiring the right people, in my next career, was so important—knowing what works well on ships and what they’re looking for.
What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in the cruise industry?
When I managed the Internet cafes for MTN Satellite Communications, we had somebody with a technical background run our on-board operation. They had to have good social and business skills, too. You have to be a team player in working with the different departments. Even though you’re the head of a department you’re going to want to learn from others, be authentic, be ethical, and also be adaptable to change and to other cultures. The crew is the same people you’ll be with for months but the guests will change. You have to have patience and a generous heart. You have to be willing to do things outside of what you are hired to do. It takes people with big hearts and lots of compassion. You also have to be a self-starter.
Of all the executive positions you held following your ship career, which role did you find most rewarding and why?
Vice President of Internet Services for MTN Satellite Communications afforded me the opportunity to learn all about satellite technology. I also got to hire people and give people opportunity, from countries like Macedonia. With these jobs, people bought houses in their countries and took care of their families. That’s what kept me alive—helping other people build their lives. I love startups and because it was a startup division, that to me was an incredibly rewarding experience.