Deborah Natansohn, 1952-2006

It was one of those odd moments of traveling. It was last Wednesday, about 4:45 p.m. and I had just purchased The Miami Herald at a newsstand at Miami International Airport. I was between flights, having flown in from Grand Bahama Island where the Caribbean Tourism Conference had just wrapped up, and I was killing time before my flight home to J.F.K.

The truth is, I was doing more than killing time; I wanted to read what The Miami Herald had to say about the tragic death of Deborah Natansohn, president and COO of Seabourn Cruise Line. She had just passed away the day before, following a heart attack she'd suffered that Sunday. I had already begun writing this column, focusing on the untimely passing of this industry leader, however, the more I tried to write, the more I realized I wanted more facts about her. My thinking was that the Herald would have a decent write up about the president of one of its hometown corporations.

Before I had time to even glance down at the paper, a familiar person whisked by me. It was Donna Flora, who had just flown in from Denver, where she had attended the American Express U.S. Representative Network conference.

Donna, who heads up American Express' travel industry relations, had literally just landed and was in town to attend Natansohn's funeral, which was to be held the next day. As we stood there in the long corridor of Miami International, Donna told me what a loss Deborah's sudden death was to so many, including herself.

First Female President of a Cruise Line

"Deborah was a true role model to so many women," Donna said, the tears welling up in her eyes. "She was the first woman president of a cruise line. She was very quiet, and she wasn't flashy. But think back on every single industry event you've been to, Deborah was at all of them. She was dedicated to this industry and she was a true champion to travel agents, or else she wouldn't have been there."

Donna recalled poignantly that Natansohn simply loved life. "She lived for her family, for her nieces and nephews."

"When I spent five days in Paris with Deborah last year, I asked her what she was going to do next in her life. She had already become the president of a cruise line. What could possibly come after that?" laughed Donna, noting that Deborah's reply was that her dream was to see Seabourn build two new ships. Just last week, the announcement was made that those two ships were indeed going to become a reality, thanks to Natansohn's hard work.

And so, through sheer fate and a chance meeting, I had my story from Donna Flora, who, as many of you already know, is in her own right a beloved travel industry icon, fighting tirelessly for travel agents and for the betterment of the entire industry. I felt very fortunate to have had Donna put Deborah's passing in such heartfelt perspective, letting me know more about this woman who has left us all too soon.

The next morning, I got an email from Mary Jean Tully, chairman and CEO of The Cruise Professionals, who told me she was flying to Miami from Toronto to go Deborah's funeral. Mary Jean was also heartbroken by the loss, having just spent time with Deborah at the Condé Nast Awards here in New York earlier this month.

Her Impact and Example Live On

"Deborah was smart, funny and totally unpretentious," Mary Jean told me. "She had a warmth about her that made her real. When my cover story came out in (the October 2006 issue of) Luxury Travel Advisor magazine, she was the first person in the industry to offer me congratulations and to tell me how proud she was of me. She said owning a business and being in a man's world is tough and we had both pulled through."

By the way, The Miami Herald did have an excellent piece on Natansohn, citing her as a passionate leader and a strong champion for women in corporate America. On a local level, she had been honored this year with a Glass Ceiling Award by the Jewish Museum of Florida and was named one of Florida's top 50 female business leaders by the Center for Leadership at FloridaInternationalUniversity. The Herald also commended her marketing expertise and strong management skills.

There is more to be told. For more on Deborah Natansohn, where Susan Young, one of our top contributing editors, recounts her own memories of this top industry executive, whom she interviewed just days before her passing.

Ruthanne Terrero, CTC EDITORIAL DIRECTOR rterrero@questex.com