Jo Rzymowska’s career trajectory might have been written in the stars from a very young age. The daughter of a Polish father and German, French-teacher mother (her grandparents were in Auschwitz), she was surrounded by languages and visitors from Continental Europe. At the age of 10 she set off to Nigeria on her own for five weeks to stay with relatives.
Rzymowska tells this story in her matter-of-a-fact style, as if it were the most natural occurrence in the world: “It was not long after the coup in the seventies and I lived with relatives who were out there. The agreement was that when I got there, someone would bring a letter back to London saying I’d arrived safely. Except they forgot and my parents read in the paper that there had been a plane crash and had no idea whether I was alive or dead until they tracked me down through the British Consul.” The point was that after everything they’d been through, they wanted to live life to the full and that extended to their daughter. Rzymowska grew up with a love of travel, language and culture as well as a strong work ethic: her father had managed to set up a successful electronics business in London and she often helped out at her mother’s school: “My parents were both very much working parents and so I knew from very early on when I went to study languages and business studies that I was making a career of it.”
She went on to work overseas in her holidays (Majorca in the summer and skiing in the winter) and got very involved in the contracting. Six months’ work for a tour operator during her degree secured her a position after graduating, and she went to work recruiting overseas reps: “The first season I was repping, I had a murder, a birth and four deaths,” she says. “It was the beginning of the eighties and consumer rights didn’t exist. I was looking after hotels we could only put people in at night because if they saw them during the day they wouldn’t get off the bus. It was the height of the package holiday market and I learned a lot.” There, Rzymowska fought hard for customer rights – getting the swimming pool drained because people were cutting their hands and toes on the tiles, plus helping to look after a newborn baby whose mother hadn’t even realised she was pregnant. “Those six months changed my life more than any other,” Rzymowska muses.
Though she admits her own Middlesex upbringing was relatively privileged, Rzymowska says that her early work in the tourism industry taught her a lot: “People saved up all their money for two weeks of the year and it was our job as far as I was concerned to make sure that they had the best time.”
Since then she’s worked for Thomas Cook and Disney, getting involved in a venture-capital-backed online travel business at the height of the dot.com boom, which, she says, “was a great learning curve”. Rzymowska enjoyed corporate life though and when an opportunity came along with Royal Caribbean Cruises, she gave it serious thought. Cruising hadn’t been on her agenda but the company fascinated her, so she hopped on board.
The investment – both in new ships and in people – persuaded Rzymowska. “The innovations in each brand have been astonishing,” she says. “Who would believe we have a restaurant on a magic carpet that cantilevers over the side of the ship? We’ve got real grass lawns on five of our ships and a horticulturalist. The philosophy of anything goes and the ability to come up with new and innovative ways of doing business and partnering is within our DNA.”
Rzymowska has now been with the company for nearly 15 years in a variety of roles and has since changed her mind about cruising: “I totally get why people love it,” she says. “There is something so joyful about unpacking once and waking up every morning with a different view and it gives you a taster of places. So, for example, the first time I went to Corsica was on a cruise and we loved it and went back for a holiday.” Moreover, she adds, “what’s included in a cruise is unbelievable.”
How Celebrity Cruises looks after its crew is paramount to Rzymowska. “We have 60 nationalities on our ships and they have life-changing experiences. We have people from Asia working with people from Serbia and the US and the knowledge they get of one another’s cultures is incredible.” This has an impact on the customer too: “When we ask people, ‘Why us?’ the first answer is always ‘The friendliness and professionalism of the crew.’”
Rzymowska is quick to point out that Celebrity Cruises’ accomplishments are a team effort but last year she was individually recognised for her ‘Outstanding Contribution to the Cruise Industry’ at the British Cruise Awards. “It came as a complete shock,” she says, “but meant an awful lot.” The award was, in part, thanks to her role in a range of diversity initiatives, especially around women. Things have changed for women since the early eighties, says Rzymowska, “but not enough. There's an enormous amount of unconscious bias, not just around gender, and there's a belief that as an industry it's far more inclusive than it is,” she says. “I'm actually delighted to see people like easyJet really making a difference and taking a stand on how they help with recruiting and training female pilots.”
Celebrity Cruises has gone from 3% to 30% female officers on board its ships, four female captains and five female hotel directors. “It was very hard to do because the marine world is still so male-dominated.” The success was down to CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, says Rzymowska, “Like anything if you measure it, you’re more likely to achieve it. She set us the task of getting to 30% by next year and we’ve already managed it.” Initiatives like this are a no-brainer, says Rzymowska: “A more diverse team leads to better thinking and more understanding of our guests. We are the melting pot of the world and that has to be reflected in our staff.”
To discover more inspirational leaders in the travel industry, book your tickets to the 2019 everywoman in Travel Awards on 13th November by clicking here.