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Q&A with Janet Stevens of AAA: Tips for Tampa cruises

Janet Stevens, manager of agent services for AAA Auto Club South, says cruising out of Tampa has come a long way over 20 years.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Janet Stevens, manager of agent services for AAA Auto Club South, says cruising out of Tampa has come a long way over 20 years.

Cruises are big business for the AAA Auto Club South's 63 travel agencies in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, making up 60 percent of revenue.

That's why the nonprofit organization's top executives work closely with Tampa tourism officials and the port to attract new cruise lines and bigger ships. Their latest catch: Norwegian Cruise Lines and its Norwegian Star, which starts sailing from Tampa in October 2011.

Janet Stevens learned selling cruises as a AAA travel agent in training 27 years ago. She now is manager of agent services for the club. She talked recently with the Times about how Tampa's cruise business has evolved, cruise trends and tips for novice cruisers.

Tampa cruises go back to the old Veracruz cruise to nowhere in the '80s and the first Holland America ship that came a few years later. But wasn't the big breakthrough when Carnival Cruise Lines bought the glitzy old Tropicale in 1994?

They had the big-name recognition. We all remember Kathy Lee Gifford and the very catchy marketing campaign. Holland America was doing 14- and seven-night itineraries and suddenly you had two- and five- night cruises right in your back yard — the opportunity to get away for a quick weekend. I have been on the Tropicale and it was initially fine. Let's leave it at that.

Of course, so much focus now is on 5,000-plus passenger megaships like Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas. Your agents probably hear a lot from customers who wonder why they can't catch a megaship from Tampa, right?

There are two big factors, the height and the length. With the Sunshine Skyway, the maximum "air draft'' from the waterline to highest point on the ship is 175 feet. And the maximum length overall is around 1,000 feet. Any longer and they can't maneuver in the port's turning basin.

That leaves probably 100 Tampa-size ships. The sweet spot is 600 to 1,000 feet long. Ships less than 600 feet tend to be a luxury line — Seabourn or Silver Seas or Crystal — and this isn't the market for those. They might visit as a port call but they wouldn't sail from here.

Do you hear complaints that cruises from Tampa mostly offer the same Western Caribbean destinations Cozumel and Grand Cayman?

Of course. But you're not on an airplane. You can only go so far in a limited amount of time. And there has to be the infrastructure there to handle a mass of people. They're trying to change it up. Some started going to Costa Maya on the Yucatan. It's not as touristy.

What are the biggest consumer trends in cruising?

Multi-generational cruises — grandparents, parents and kids — are still growing by leaps and bounds. There are the megaships. There will always be consumers who want the latest and greatest.

There's a lot of theme cruises. They were popular in the '80s and '90s, and they're back again. The most popular are music, food and wine. There are computer labs with classes. Some are basic, like creating and organizing files. Photoshop is very popular. Others are more in-depth business applications.

There are a lot of enrichment programs. Some are lectures by authors or people in the media. If you're going to Egypt or Greece, you might have a professor on board. People are looking for unique experiences.

You hear occasionally about thefts or other crime on cruises. Do you warn customers to take precautions?

If they ask. You don't want to scare them, and incidents are so isolated. But it's a microcosm of society. You don't need a background check to get on a cruise. Obviously, you want to be careful with valuables and keep them in your in-room safe. They have peepholes in the cabin doors you should use when someone knocks.

But people are on vacation and sometimes overindulge. You're not driving anywhere, so sometimes they're not careful.

Should you take a passport?

If you're on a closed-loop cruise, say leaving from Tampa and returning to Tampa, you don't need one. You can use a certified copy of your birth certificate and a government-issued ID. But what if you're in Cozumel and you have an accident, maybe fall off a curb, break your ankle and have to go to the hospital? The ship sails without you, and you can't fly back from Cozumel without a passport.

Any other advice?

Any time you're flying on an airplane to a cruise port, it's in your best interest to stay there the night before. Especially for an Alaska cruise. You're leaving from Vancouver for Seward (Alaska) and miss the ship, you can't join it in Alaska. You'll miss your cruise and that's not a valid reason for a refund.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8128.

Q&A with Janet Stevens of AAA: Tips for Tampa cruises 11/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 3:44pm]
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