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HIGH STAKES on the HIGH SEAS

Passengers are skeet shooting off the stern. In the upstairs lounge, a disc jockey is telling corny jokes and holding cornier contests. On the main deck, there's drinking and socializing among the regulars. And down below, the first dinner seating is about to begin.

Barbara and Charles Wisner of St. Petersburg are taking it all in.

Married since April, the 65-year-old retirees have come back to the site of their first date a year ago aboard Empress Cruise Lines' Majestic Empress.

As the 150-foot ship slips out of John's Pass and into the Gulf of Mexico on this Tuesday night, Charles competes in a dance contest and Barbara beams.

"We come for the dancing, music, the casino, the whole thing," she says. "It's a special night out."

"There is a little bit of everything for everybody," Charles adds.

That may be true, but for many of the 300 people aboard this ship, all the other activities are only an obligatory prelude to the main activity _ gambling.

It takes about an hour for the Majestic to reach the 9-mile point that designates international waters. Once it does, the casinos, betting books and slot machines open for business for about three hours.

But from the moment the Majestic leaves port at 7 p.m., diehards already are stationed in front of their favorite slot machines or at the craps table. They socialize with fellow gamblers and the staff _ most of them familiar faces _ while they wait for the lights to come on.

Fern Irwin of Largo is stationed at the craps table. Occasionally, she plays cards, but craps is really her game.

"Three weeks ago I had a 40-minute roll and my last roll (before they closed the table) was a hard 10," she reminisced. "I don't want to work a 40-hour job, so this is my job."

People like Irwin, who has been known to sail as frequently as six times in one week, are the backbone of Empress Cruise Lines, which provides twice-daily casino cruises into the gulf from John's Pass and downtown Clearwater.

"We have people that come four or five times a week," says Espen Tandberg, vice president of marketing of the St. Petersburg-based company. "They treat us like the local club, they get to know the crew, which is hired locally, so they shoot the bull."

Empress is not the only game in town in Florida's "cruise-to-nowhere" market, in which the ships basically are floating clubs where people spend five hours eating, drinking, dancing and, for three of those hours, gambling.

Just across the John's Pass channel is Europa Cruises Corp.'s Sky, which runs similar day and night cruises to nowhere. From the deck of the Majestic, Europa's brightly lit ship is clearly visible in the distance against the inky blackness where sky and gulf meet.

The Sky is one of four ships operated by Madeira Beach-based Europa, which also has cruises out of Miami Beach, Fort Myers Beach and Fernandina Beach.

Around Florida, there are about 10 operators that run 17 day-cruise ships from various ports. Empress will soon expand its fleet from two to four, when it adds bigger ships in Miami in August and St. Petersburg this fall.

At that point, Tandberg says, the market will be pretty much saturated. Although the company is looking at one other Florida east coast port, most of the future expansion is expected to occur in South America, Espen says. Empress also has shifted its expansion focus to ferry service, which it would like to launch from Tampa or St. Petersburg early next year.

In 1994, privately held Empress racked up $18-million in sales from its two ships, according to Tandberg. Earlier projections of doubling those revenues this year have since been scaled back because of delays in getting the two new ships in the water.

Nevertheless, Tandberg says he anticipates revenues in the range of $28-million to $30-million this year with the additions of the 900-passenger Royal Empress in Miami, which sails next month, and the 2,500-passenger Imperial Empress, scheduled to sail from St. Petersburg's Bayboro Harbor this fall.

Those revenue numbers recently earned Empress acknowledgement in Entrepreneur magazine as a "million-dollar success story." The magazine's June issue featured randomly selected "success stories" from each state.

A family business

Ships have been in the Tandberg family for years. Normann, the patriarch of this Norwegian family, ran a cargo shipping company in Norway that did business in ports all over the world, including Miami and Manatee.

The family branched out into the passenger/car ferry business in Europe and thought it might be a good thing for the Florida market.

"In doing the market study in 1991, we decided there was a niche in the day-cruise market that hadn't been filled," says Espen, 26, the youngest of Normann's three sons, all of whom are officers in the company.

The family set up shop in St. Petersburg in 1991. It has since divested itself of most of its cargo interests, funneling everything into the day-cruise casino business, he says.

Normann, 65, still handles ship acquisitions and rebuildings, while sons Jorn, 33; Kjell, 36; and Espen handle administrative, legal, marketing and advertising concerns.

The partnership also includes Rafael Ordonez, an outsider who also runs Discovery Cruises out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

"We've put a lot of money into it and haven't taken any out yet," Espen Tandberg says. "But now we're seeing light at the end of the tunnel."

The Tandbergs may be facing their biggest risk as they prepare to launch the Imperial from St. Petersburg. When the $20-million conversion of a former ferry boat is completed, the Imperial will have the world's largest ocean-going casino, Tandberg says.

The ship will feature a concert hall that accommodates 2,300 and a 1,400-seat show lounge. Tandberg says headline entertainers along the lines of Doc Severinsen and Mel Torme will perform on the cruises.

The converted cargo hold will be turned into a casino the length of a football field with 50 gaming tables and more than 600 slot machines.

At five times the capacity of Empress' two existing ships, the Imperial will have to cast a wide net for passengers. To that end, the company is working with local hotels and airlines to offer overnight packages that lure customers from out of the area.

"The smaller ships are doing fine with local population, but for the larger one, we had to spread ourselves all over the place," Tandberg says. "That's why we're putting together packages. We're reaching down to Naples and up to Atlanta."

A challenge to succeed

Indeed, filling the huge new cruise ship is critical to the company's profitability. On Empress' two smaller boats, the more expensive weekend cruises, which generally sell out, subsidize the heavily discounted weekday cruises.

Empress prices range from $20 to $38, depending on the day and time. There are discounts and special offers for most cruises. Day cruises attract a largely older crowd, while weekend nights appeal to the club crowd.

With the Imperial, Empress faces the challenge of trying to attract even more people to a home port that has not been kind to cruises to nowhere in the past.

Other operators have tried, and failed, to operate day cruises out of St. Petersburg. Sea Escape Cruises Ltd. pulled its Scandinavian Song from St. Petersburg in 1991 after about six months and Europa ended an unprofitable venture in May 1993 after 18 months.

According to Lester Bullock, president of Europa, the Jet was too expensive to operate because it required local pilots to direct the ship in and out of port each time. Also, it takes longer to reach international waters from St. Petersburg, making that port less popular with gamblers.

"I wish them luck," he says of Empress.

Tandberg insists that at 23 knots, the Imperial can be in international waters in 70 minutes. That's about 10 to 15 minutes longer than the trip from John's Pass and Clearwater, but not unworkable, he says.

And while the foreign-registered Imperial will have to employ local pilots, which can add thousands of dollars a month in operating costs, the ship will carry five times the number of passengers the Jet carried, making it more efficient to operate.

The Imperial will rely heavily on tourists, who comprise only 40 percent of the passengers on Empress' two existing ships.

That will make passengers like Roy and Donna Fiorelli all the more valuable to Empress' success.

The Fiorellis, who visit St. Petersburg once or twice a year from South Barrington, Ill., were making their first trip on last week's Tuesday night cruise.

They first discovered gaming when riverboat gambling was introduced to their area. They won $200 on their first visit and went back a second time.

As Donna fed quarters into a one-armed bandit on the Majestic, Roy explained that the couple exercises control over their vice.

"We're not crazy. We spend so much and that's it," he says. They chose the lower-denomination slot machines to get the most bang for their buck. "We know we're going to lose, we just thought we'd make it last."

Around 10 p.m., luckless passengers filter up to the "losers lounge," as it is dubbed on return trips. There is karaoke and more games and contests after the casinos close down.

As the ship approaches home, it is after midnight. Barbara and Charles Wisner are on the top deck, dancing to a keyboard player's synthesized music.

Charles, who recently had surgery that allowed him to leave the wheelchair he had used on and off for years, danced for the first time on that first date with Barbara a year ago. They are still beaming.

"If we've already done this for the anniversary of our first date, I wonder what we'll do for our (wedding) anniversary," Charles says.

AT A GLANCE

EMPRESS CRUISE LINES / CRUISES TO REMEMBER

Headquarters: St. Petersburg

Maiden voyage: Sept. 17, 1992, from John's Pass / Treasure Island

Chief executive: Normann Tandberg

Vessels: The 500-passenger Majestic Empress and Crown Empress depart twice daily from John's Pass and downtown Clearwater, respectively. The 900-passenger Royal Empress will sail from Miami in August. The 2,500-passenger Imperial Empress will sail from St. Petersburg this fall.

Employees: Nealy 300, including 90 in the shipyard. Hiring 500 for the new St. Petersburg ship and 300 for the Miami ship.

Sales: $18-million in 1994. Original expectations of doubling that this year have been scaled back to $28-million to $30-million in revenues.

On the horizon: A passenger / car ferry to Mexico from the port of St. Petersburg or Tampa early next year.

Source: Empress Cruise Lines

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