Thursday, December 14, 2017
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From Melissa Etheridge to 311, record rock cruises set sail out of Tampa

As a tour manager for bands like Def Leppard and Poison, Larry Morand has passed through Tampa many times. Whenever he worked a show at what is now Amalie Arena, he'd walk around to check out shops, restaurants, bars and one crucial attraction:

A cruise ship terminal.

"There's a whole entertainment division down there," Morand said. "It's connected right to the port itself."

So when the opportunity arose to move the popular cruise he co-founded, Monsters of Rock, from Miami to Tampa, he jumped at it. And other cruise organizers are joining him.

After an absence of several years, rock cruises — floating festivals that let fans rub shoulders with their favorite bands on the high seas — are returning to Tampa in a big way.

From October to March, at least a dozen rock cruises will depart Port Tampa Bay with more than 200 performers on board, including Train, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Melissa Etheridge, 311, Vince Gill, Chris Young, Keith Sweat, Joe Bonamassa and Yes. Guests will pay a minimum of $1,000 for a spot on board, and the chance to rub shoulders with rock stars at the pool or buffet.

Some of these are first-time cruises; others are relocating from Fort Lauderdale or Miami. That so many are arriving at once is kind of a coincidence — yet there are factors that make Tampa an ideal port for themed charters, a thriving sector of the cruise industry.

"Tampa's more of a rock 'n' roll market," Morand said. "Tampa has developed rock 'n' roll radio stations, and it's a normal tour stop. It just seemed like, why weren't we doing this from the beginning?"

And the added celebrity factor might spur more locals to book a cabin, said Tracy Michaels of Flying Dutchman Travel, which has three rock cruises departing from Tampa.

"For people who live in the Tampa Bay area," she said, "this is a no-brainer to park your car and get on the ship."

• • •

Tampa was an early player in the business of rock-themed cruises. In 2001, a group of Florida musicians and entrepreneurs built a cruise around the Gainesville band Sister Hazel as a way to thank their grass roots fan base. Nearby Tampa was a logical port.

"It was special," said Anthony Diaz, a Tampa native who's now CEO of Sixthman, the company behind that cruise and many others. "It was taking down the walls between the band and the fans, and them being able to truly interact."

For artists, a cruise ship gig isn't the slow boat to retirement it once seemed. Sixthman's success with Sister Hazel's "Rock Boat" led them to brand cruises with artists like Kiss, Pitbull, Kid Rock, Florida Georgia Line, Paramore and the Zac Brown Band. They're fun gigs that can pull in good money — but they're also huge financial risks if sales falter.

"I probably get one new charter offer a week," Michaels said. "Most of them I decline, because this ain't for the faint of heart. You charter this ship, you own this ship. It sells, you're good. It doesn't sell, you still own the ship. I have $20 million in charter liability this year."

But when a ship is fully booked and rocking, it's an immersive, interactive experience.

In February, Phil Letelier drove from Land O'Lakes to Fort Lauderdale for the inaugural '80s Cruise, starring Richard Marx, Flock of Seagulls, Tiffany and many more. He was in the front row for a concert by Modern English; snapped photos with original MTV VJs Mark Goodman and Nina Blackwood; and spent an hour in Turks and Caicos chatting with the bassist for Huey Lewis and the News.

"It was a lot more expensive than your normal cruise, but I don't think the entertainment could be beaten anywhere," said Letelier, a 46-year-old commercial real estate broker. "You almost don't want to sleep at night."

Engaging on that level with such a targeted demographic is a big deal for charter companies, who can tailor on-board activities and corporate sponsorships accordingly.

"Cruising's popularity in general is exploding, and for companies to do these different themes, it makes a lot of sense," said Stewart Chiron, a frequent cruiser who operates TheCruiseGuy.com. "It creates a captive audience, it allows them to control their cost and budget, and to have like-minded people on board. They can essentially do whatever they want."

• • •

In 2011, Sixthman moved many of its cruises to the Norwegian Pearl, a ship that ports in Miami. The change of scenery and new destinations, Diaz said, appealed to returning guests. (Norwegian purchased Sixthman in 2012, but the companies operate independently beneath a corporate umbrella.)

But the Pearl is going into dry dock next spring, forcing Sixthman and other companies to find a new home. Sixthman is moving its Pearl cruises to a sister ship, the Jade, which will dock in Tampa this fall. Other companies that used the Pearl, including Morand's, moved to Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas, which also ports in Tampa.

Had Norwegian opted to keep the Pearl afloat, these cruises might have stayed in South Florida. But Port Tampa Bay does offer some unique benefits.

Tampa generally docks ships that are smaller and older than those in Miami. For charter companies, that cuts down on rental costs, makes a boat easier to fill and allows more control over on-board activities.

And as in 2011, Sixthman is counting on a new home port to attract travelers looking for "a new area to explore before and after the event," Diaz said.

As a result, Tampa's tourism economy could also see a boost. Since themed cruises target specific fan communities, they frequently draw passengers from all over the country. Compared to a normal cruise, they tend to create more hotel stays before and after a departure.

"They really make it a destination," said Morand, who's planning to book a pre-cruise concert on land before Monsters of Rock leaves Tampa. "They'll come in a night or two before. Channelside is so well set up — there's the aquarium and Ybor, you can go to the beach or Busch Gardens."

Morand said Tampa will "probably be the home for the next few years for Monsters of Rock," which in 2017 will feature Vince Neil, Queensryche and Night Ranger, among others. He's also booking a prog-rock cruise with Yes and Kansas and said future events — including the craft beer-themed "Lebrewski Cruise" and a possible new one with Rob Zombie — will "most definitely be looked at for Tampa."

Michaels' company is working on a national Powerball Cruise from Tampa in 2018, and said a popular cruise with the Celtic punk band Flogging Molly could move here that year, too.

Sixthman's Diaz is excited to return to its roots with Tampa-based cruises from bands including 311, Train and, for the 17th year in a row, Sister Hazel.

"Seeing how special Tampa was for the company in its early days, and seeing how we've grown and what we're going to bring back, I really feel it's going to be great for our artists, guests and relationship with the city and the port," he said. "We're just hoping that our fans love it, and that it's all nice, smooth sailing."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

 
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