First Week on the Job: New CLIA President Thomas Ostebo Offers Insight

Thomas Ostebo, CLIA's new president, takes the helm of a trade organization whose member lines have many ships -- big and small. Above, ships of Costa Cruises and Holland America Line dock at Grand Turk, with the beach just steps away. // Photo by Susan J. Young

When it comes to crisis management, Thomas Ostebo, the new president of Cruise Lines International Association, certainly can deliver the goods – having been involved first-hand with such high-profile events as the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Hurricane Katrina, the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

Extensive Operational Experience

While it's hoped that type of experience won't ever be needed, it's a plus for CLIA to have Ostebo at the helm, say agents, particularly as the trade group increases its global footprint. CLIA now boasts 15 offices across the world, more than 60 cruise line members (river, ocean and niche), tens of thousands of travel agent members and a burgeoning fleet of member line ships -- big, small, luxury, river and expedition. Plus, the industry is expected to carry some 23 million passengers this year. 

Thomas Ostebo, CLIA's President

New ship orders? More than 30 new oceangoing ships have been ordered through 2010; that's $25 billion in investment and a lot more ships circling the globe. 

But even with such fast-paced growth, “I think it's important to remind ourselves that the cruise industry has an outstanding record of safety, and it's proven that in the growth of the market and the return of passengers year after year,” emphasized Ostebo in a one-one-one interview with Travel Agent.

Ostebo has seen much of the cruise industry in action in his former role as a rear admiral with the U.S. Coast Guard"Of course, we all hope and pray there won’t be any incident in the future but, that said, he'll be prepared: “I do have an extensive background in crisis response." .  

Most recently, Ostebo served as the U.S. Coast Guard’s director of strategic management – supporting strategy and budget policy. He also previously commanded the service’s 17th District, leading all Coast Guard operations in Alaska, the Arctic and North Pacific. That included everything from search and rescue to protection of the environment and homeland security. 

He told us that CLIA has done an outstanding job of building out both its crisis management plan and crisis communications plan, not simply from a PR perspective but from an operational perspective "so we can help understand and manage what's going on [for] events that have happened." 

Overall, he has more than 30 years of experience leading large, sophisticated and complex organizations. His background seems a good fit, given the major issues that arise on a day-to-day basis, as well as increased demands focused on the legislative and regulatory side. 

"I have a lot of experience on the 'tech' and 'reg' side and the industry continues to get more complex there," he acknowledged. "So that's advantageous for CLIA to have me in that position."  

Agents Are Top of Mind

But while operational and strategic issues are clearly a forte, Ostebo, based at CLIA’s global headquarters in Washington D.C., was also quick to emphasize that's he absolutely committed to putting travel agents top of mind. In fact, he's spent the majority of time during his first few days on the job getting up to speed on sales, marketing, membership, agent training programs and other trade-related topics. 

His approach? “I tend to focus on the things that I know the least about until I can get up on the learning curve on that," he said. “I’ve been spending a lot of time with my folks to educate me about all the great things that CLIA does for travel agents and the things that travel agents do for the cruise industry," as well as that partnership and how it's developing.

"It appears to me that the partnership is really going to the next level," he said. "They've rolled out some new programs. We're soon to have some new platforms for them to work on, and we're going to fix our interfaces and those things. Our enrollment with travel agents is up incredibly, just from last year." 

During his brief time on the job this week, “I’ve spent and am continuing to spend more time to become smarter and to learn more about that side of the business,” he said. "It's clearly not lost on me that the travel agents are executive partners."  

Ostebo has a strong operational background, with much Alaska experience. // Photo by Susan J. Young

Ostebo said he also views the cruise lines themselves as extremely valuable for the marketing and promotional side of the cruise industry. 

"It all gets down to -- at the end of the day -- the services or the value that we [CLIA] can generate for the cruise lines themselves or the travel agents themselves, the agencies and for our executive partners."

Ostebo stressed: "I'm taking all of those very seriously and it's exciting for me to learn about that side of the business."  

Among CLIA's current priorities are enhancement of the Travel Agency, Individual Travel Agent and Executive Partner member programs that were introduced in fall 2014, as well as the new Travel Agent professional development training.

Leadership Style

How would Ostebo describe his management style? He responds that his management style is designed to fit the environment that he's in.

Right now, he's very hands-on, or "getting into the weeds," as he puts it. Until he’s totally up to speed, he says staff can expect him to ask a lot of questions and dig into a lot of detail -- until he’s able to establish a comfort level of how CLIA is operating. The staff is also getting accustomed to his style.

But in the end, “leadership is about transparency and trust and building strong relationships with the people I work with,” Ostebo stresses. "That has to develop over time." But once that has developed, his comfort level improves and the group gains cohesion, “I tend to turn people loose and then I'm really in a support role at that point.”

Immediate Priorities

What are his top priorities? “My number one priority is to fully understand and learn the business,” he says. That means engaging with executive partners and meeting with people at various CLIA offices across the globe. His bag is packed, he says, noting that he’s going to be on the road a lot in the next few months. 

Next week, he’ll be in Europe – meeting with the staff at CLIA's offices as well as key partners. Next month, he'll jet off to Alaska, again for meetings with partners and Alaska officials, including some he's known from his former Coast Guard service. You'll definitely see him out and about at travel industry events, he says. 

Biggest challenge? “The biggest challenge that we have right now is moving CLIA forward as a global organization and fully realizing the potential that’s out there," says Ostebo, who says it's about increasing the value proposition for cruise lines, executive partners, agencies and agents. 

“It’s clear to me that CLIA has really progressed, morphed and changed and grown over the past several years. I want to pick up right where it is and continue to move this organization forward -- to develop it as a world-class global organization."


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