Tampa's cruise business is pinning its hopes on a star: the Norwegian Star.
Eight years have passed since a new cruise brand sailed out of Tampa. Port and tourism officials hope the arrival of Norwegian Cruise Lines in October 2011 will spark growth in a second-tier market where passenger traffic has flat-lined in recent years.
As a distant No. 3 behind giants Carnival and Royal Caribbean, Norwegian carved out a mass market niche with "freestyle cruising.'' Gone are scheduled dinner seatings with formal dress rules. Passengers can eat what they want from several specialty restaurants, when they want, and with whomever they want.
Travel agents are excited to offer a new ship and different experience from Tampa. The added competition could drive down cruise prices.
"It's a nice shot in the arm,'' said Janet Stevens, manager of travel agent services for AAA Auto Club South.
Port officials have repeatedly predicted that Tampa would soon break through the 1 million annual passenger mark. Norwegian's arrival might finally prove them right.
Internal projections suggest the port will fall about 34,000 short in the year that includes the Star's first season of 27 cruises. (Like other ports, Tampa counts cruise passengers twice to reflect fees collected when they board and depart ships.)
But Norwegian could be open to keeping the Star in Tampa on a year-round schedule if its seven-day Western Caribbean route proves profitable, said port director Richard Wainio.
Or Norwegian's success could persuade a competitor to add summer cruises, he said.
Now, only the two Carnival Cruise Lines ships at Tampa's port remain for the summer season. Norwegian will want to see a couple of years of results before making that call, said Crane Gladding, senior vice president of revenue management. "It's probably premature even to think about that,'' he said.
Now the ninth-biggest U.S. cruise port, Tampa will struggle to ever join the top ranks with Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral. The biggest ships, including Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and the Norwegian Epic, can't fit under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. But the port could leapfrog Seattle, New York and Los Angeles (the Star's current summer home) with a growth spurt from Norwegian.
Tampa serves as a regional port that draws travelers from Florida and nearby Southeast states. The port's cruise parking garage is full of license plates from Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas. One of every four passengers on North American cruises comes from Florida.
"We think Tampa's a great fit,'' Gladding said. "It gives us access to millions of people within a six-hour drive.''
That's important now with air fares rising and people still taking a sharp pencil to vacation budgets. Saving $300 per person can mean there's money left for a balcony cabin or extra sightseeing trips off the ship.
At 935 feet long and with room for 2,384 passengers, the Star will rank with the port's largest cruise vessels: Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas and the Carnival Legend. The new ship will put a squeeze on terminal space for weekend days when cruise companies want to begin and end their trips.
The Tampa Port Authority will need to move Holland America's Ryndam from Royal Caribbean's terminal to make room for the Star. The public agency will spend $3 million to fix up Terminal 6, a vacant structure originally built for cruise ferries, to park Holland America's ship.
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Persuading people to take their first cruise is the industry's Holy Grail, said Carolyn Spencer Brown, a longtime cruise journalist and editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com. Insiders call them "cruise virgins.''
Travel agents and cruise lines battle stubborn perceptions: "I'll be stuck on the ship." "I don't want to be told to dress up for dinner or forced to sit with the same boring people all week."
That was the genesis of freestyle cruising. Malaysia-based Star Cruises, which had just acquired Norwegian, developed the idea and introduced it a decade ago on new ships designed for the concept. The Star and its sister ship were the company's first freestyle vessels.
It begins with the food. Cruise lines traditionally offered two dinner seatings — early and late — in dining rooms that could hold more than 1,000 people. You sat at the same table with the same waiter and tablemates the whole cruise.
Norwegian did away with scheduled seating times. You go when you want, just like at a land-bound restaurant. You can also pick a specialty restaurant — Italian, Japanese, American Western steak house — typically for a charge of $10 to $30 per person. The Star offers 11 dining options, six included in the price of the cruise.
The ships also cluster theme bars — cigar, piano, wine — along main corridors for a downtown city vibe. It also juices onboard passenger spending, which makes up 25 percent of cruise line revenues, said Stevens of AAA Auto Club South.
"NCL is responsible for driving a whole new demographic to cruising,'' Brown said. "They introduced a very lively note into a vacation that was quite stuffy.'' Between 30 and 40 percent of Norwegian's customers are first-timers, on the high side among cruise lines, Gladding said.
Most competitors have adopted parts of freestyle cruising. Carnival began a walk-up dining program called "Your Time Dining'' on its fleet of 22 vessels last year. But three-quarters of the main dining rooms are still reserved for traditional seating.
Jerry Hoehn, a loyal Norwegian customer from Lake of the Woods, Va., likes to put on his tuxedo during the twice-weekly, optional formal-wear nights. Otherwise, he's in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts.
"Suppose you meet someone interesting around the pool at 5 o'clock, and you're having a martini,'' he said. "You don't want to say, 'I've got to leave now for dinner.' You can have another (drink) and all have dinner together. It's not like adult summer camp where you need to be at the mess hall on time or you don't eat.''
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8128.