Live coverage of the Readers Choice Awards

Signature CEO Alex Sharpe hopes for some friends with whom to share a congratulatory toast  ....
Signature CEO Alex Sharpe hopes for some friends with whom to share a congratulatory toast ....

Welcome to our coverage of the Readers Choice Awards. This year at the event we won't be handing out awards in our finalist categories. We will be sharing insights and inspiration from the CEOs of the three largest cruise companies, Delta Air Lines, and top leadership from agency groups, tour operators and resorts.  Lifetime Achievement Award winners will be recognized for their accomplishments -- and keep an eye out for cameos.

Coverage contributed by Jamie Biesiada, Johanna Jainchill, Jennifer Martins and Rebecca Tobin

Lost at the Conrad

The cameos have  started right off the bat. A heartfelt welcome by Travel Group president Bob Sullivan ("today, we celebrate our future"), and a humorous one by editor in chief Arnie Weissmann ("I'm in my son's bedroom, where the ethernet cable is") gave way to a split-screen with Travel Weekly's former publisher, Bob Shulman, in tuxedo, ostensibly waiting at the award ceremony's usual home, the Conrad New York Downtown.

"Where is everybody?" he deadpanned.

Shulman then joked that he spotted two people further down the bar: Andy Stuart, the former CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line -- then Orlando Ashford, the former president of Holland America Line.

Delta Air Lines

In conversation with Weissmann, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said he believes travel volumes will pick up over the course of next year, calling the development of Covid-19 vaccines "the single biggest factor that's going to influence travel trends in 2021."

Leisure travel will be the first area to see meaningful recovery, he predicted, thanks to pent-up demand.

"There is going to be a big, big opportunity by midyear to start to see some of that come through air, ground, hotels, casinos, leisure destinations -- all of the above," Bastian said.

Leisure travel will be followed by domestic business travel, then larger meetings and conventions later in the year. As those travelers hit the road again, at least at Delta, they will be met with a younger fleet of planes with better amenities: 20% of the fleet has been retired this year, according to Bastian.

The enduring advisor-cruise line partnership

A chat with Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain and Internova Group CEO J.D. O'Hara focused on leadership, with editor in chief Arnie Weissmann asking the pair for the most effective way to keep teams inspired.

"I think the answer is: Communication, communication, communication," said Fain. And O'Hara said, "I'm going to say four: "Communicate, communicate, communicate, communicate."

In terms of the cruise and advisor dynamic, Both executives said the relationship between travel advisors and cruise lines was a critical one.

In a lightning round, Weissmann asked Fain and O'Hara to pick which trend would go up, and which would go down.

High tech, or high touch? Fain: "I think both. I think the high tech is going to be needed, but the high touch is really what brings people to cruising, so we have to make sure it dominates."

Brick-and-mortar or home-based? O'Hara: "I think the home office is hear to stay ... but I think a bit of both."

Cuba or Perfect Day at Coco Cay? Fain: "Is this Rocky Road or mint chocolate chip ice cream?"

The year of ice cream?

A following segment featured Royal Caribbean senior vice president Vicki Freed and Celebrity Cruises senior vice president Dondra Ritzenthaler -- Freed with a huge stack of Haagen Dazs and Ben and Jerry's ice cream. "I had 12 pints in my freezer," Freed said.

Cut to Royal and Celebrity CEOs Lisa Lutoff-Perlo and Michael Bayley digging in their own ice cream stashes.


A couple of uplifiting travel stories came from Uplift CEO Tom Botts.

Lifetime Achievement Award winners: Stanley and Beatrice Tollman

Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch presented the Travel Corporation's Stanley and Beatrice Tollman with a Travel Weekly Lifetime Achievement Award for their contributions to the industry. The Tollmans' story, he said, began with a single hotel that has grown to a company with hundreds of hotels, tour operations, a river cruise line  and even a winery.

"Stanley and Bea's commitment to having a positive impact on the world has always been clear," Upchurch said, noting the 2012 founding of the TreadRight Foundation that seeks to have a positive impact on the people and communities the Travel Corporation's travelers visit.

The Tollmans accepted their award from Cape Town, South Africa. Stanley reflected on a 70-year-long career in the industry; he started working in his parents' hotel carting around beer boxes and helping in the kitchen, what he called the best education he could ever have had. Beatrice's roots in hotels are in the kitchen, where she still spends time developing menus and working closely with staff when she isn't personally answering guest reviews.

"Thank you today for everything," Stanley Tollman said. "Let's hope that 2021 changes the dimension of the travel industry and we get back to more positive ways of looking after people and ... what is the most important dynamic in their lives: their annual holiday." 

Lifetime Achievement Award winner: Jackie Friedman

A constellation of names turned out to celebrate Jackie Friedman, the CEO of Nexion, the second Lifetime Achievement Award recipient: Ritzenthaler introduced her, and a video included Freed, Princess exec John Chernesky, Globus' Scott Nisbet, AmaWaterways' Kristen Karst and other Nexion executives. "You're truly a special person; I love working with you," Chernesky said.

In her acceptance speech, Friedman said she shared her award with many, and she called out her love of working with advisors. "This year has been so tough on them ... their positivity and passion for the industry shines through."

"This is a relationship business," she said. "Over the years I've come to call many of my colleagues dear friends. I share my gratitude with all of you."

A thank you from Globus

Globus' Scott Nisbet took the screen to thank travel advisors for their hard work in a challenging year. 

Puppet John vs. John Chernesky

A humorous chat among hosts focused on Puppet John, a, well, puppet version of Princess senior vice president John Chernesky. Carnival senior vice president Adlofo Perez thought that Chernesky might be jealous of him (Perez) because of his "travel agents rock" tattoo. But Perez said he thought he preferred Puppet John to the real John: "He's easier to talk to and gives more co-op ... which is a good thing for Princess."

Puppet John jumped in. "I couldn't agree with Adolfo more, I've got the beauty, the brains, unlimited co-op."

After some laughs, Perez got serious and congratulated Freed, who just became a grandmother -- yesterday.

True or false

Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald, Zooming from Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, and Audrey Hendley, president of American Express Travel, in snow-covered Westchester County, New York, played a game of true or false with Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann.

Donald said it's not true that Carnival's brands will only focus on past guests as part of its return-to-service plan, saying that marketing will continue to try to introduce people who haven't cruised before to cruising. "And in that process we'll communicate effectively with those that have cruised."

He optimistically said Canada will open to cruising before the Alaska season. "Hopefully we'll get the pandemic under control to the point where Canada will feel comfortable," he said.

Hendley said that 84% of Amex customers say travel is the top activity they miss right now, and she said they are savings points and miles for future travel. And while perennial favorites seem to top the list -- New York, Hawaii, San Francisco, France, England and Mexico -- so does the Maldives. "If I hear one more person saying they want to go to the Maldives ..." Hendley said. 

Switching to a fill-in-the-blank format, Weissmann asked Arnold to complete the sentence, "I hope to start ships sailing passenger cruises out of U.S. ports no later than ____ "

"Early spring, I hope," Donald replied, then repeated, "I hope."

Playa's party time

Playa senior executives mulled over how to celebrate. "We have to throw a watch party," said Andrea Wright, the vice president of industry sales. She appealed to senior vice president of sales Howard Tanenbaum, who agreed after cautioning Wright to not to go overboard. "We'll do it casual, maybe invite five, 10 people. Nothing too crazy," Wright responded.

Cut to a video of an alfresco cocktail party at one of Playa’s resorts. “Low key for me!” Wright said.  

Playa next brought on an expanded screen of partners, with execs like Jennie Ho of Delta and Jack Richards of Pleasant Vacations. 

Playa exec Kevin Froemming played up the joke of 2020's meetings. He was wearing a crisp tuxedo shirt and jacket, but when he stood up his computer camera revealed he was wearing his Green Bay Packers shorts.

Father-daughter bonding

Weissmann and his daughter Emma Weissmann, a senior editor at TravelAge West, interviewed the father-and-daughter team running Collette, Dan Sullivan and Jaclyn Leibl-Cote.

"It was a no-brainer for me," Leibl-Cote said on her decision to get into the family business. And when Emma Weissmann asked her for the best and most challenging aspects of working with her father, the group laughed. "Nothing challenging, no, I'm just kidding," Leibl-Cote said. "It's been great."

Collette is family-owned business, so Sullivan said he learned a few lessons from his own dad. "My father  taught us to take care of our customers, they were first. And take care of your employees first. Treat them like gold. They're part of the Collette family; they're part of the Sullivan family."

Lifetime Achievement Award winners: Brad and Van Anderson

In introducing Brad and Van Anderson with a Travel Weekly Lifetime Achievement Award, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio called the Andersons "two of the most influential and honorable" people in the industry.

"Brad and Van make us better and we thank them for that," Del Rio said, adding that in a world of good and bad cops, "they are both always the good cop, and they are great human beings, too."

In accepting the award Brad thanked the Avoya team and all of the independent agencies, as well as Avoya's supplier partners. "Especially those of you who have continued to pay commission even when your companies are under financial stress and the trip is canceled," he said. "We know it's a sacrifice. And we support you now and in the future."

Van thanked their parents, who "set us up to succeed and help us realize the value of hard work." He also thanked the independent Avoya agents: "I continue to be inspired by you. Thank you so very much."

Brad's sons Jeff and Mike Anderson, now co-presidents of Avoya, came on to pay their respects for teaching them "to explore and never be totally satisfied" and for giving them the "massive opportunity."

"When push came to shove you learned to trust a bunch of young people who may not have been quite ready, yet, but you gave us opportunities," Jeff said." It's something we want to continue here at Avoya."

Stage directions

In a short video skit, the Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings top sales execs were going to film a heartfelt message to the travel industry, but Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Randall Soy was, hilariously, confused about the plans.

"What are you doing, and why are you dressed like that?" Norwegian's Katina Athanasiou asked Soy -- her husband  -- who was crossing the living room in his tuxedo jacket and shorts. "It's the Readers Choice Awards: black tie, super swanky," Soy said. "This is not a Zoom meeting; we're going to be filmed!" Athanasiou rejoined.  

Happy holidays

Royal Caribbean's entertainment team closed the show with a little holiday caroling.

And Northstar's Travel Group president Bob Sullivan had the last words: "Onward to 2021."

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