Cyber-cafe craze

Cruise ship workers are packing the new internet cafes that have sprung up downtown.

Posted: Tuesday, August 22, 2000

It's a weekday afternoon, and Soapy's Internet Station resembles the frenzy of the New York Stock Exchange trading floor.

"Do you want 15 minutes or 50 minutes?" Jeff Appelt asks a customer who requests an Internet card.

Another is anxious to use a phone. "You're after these three," he tells her.

Suddenly, Appelt rushes off to wire money for another customer.


Now he's back, still smiling.

"We've had up to 10 people waiting for a computer and 10 for a phone," Appelt said, all the while doling out the credit card-like items and completing cash transactions. "I'm pretty sure we could use a place with more computers."

Located downtown on the second floor of the Senate Building, Soapy's is one of several cyber-cafes' that have sprung up in Juneau over the past few years.

Most of the Internet service businesses in the downtown area Surf Alaska, Uncle Artie's Gifts, the Myriad Cafe and Copy Express serve the cruise industry in some way.

Appelt, 20, said Soapy's clientele is made up about 95 percent of cruise ship crew members. For them, it is a home away from home, a critical way to contact friends and loved ones during months of travel.

Don McCord, 42, is a musician on the Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Sky.

"Some of the cruise lines have Internet on the ship, but it's very expensive as opposed to places like this," McCord said. "I e-mail my family at home and my friends all over the world. It's the easiest way to stay in touch."

Erin Wilson, 24, a hostess on the Norwegian Sky, also stopped in at Soapy's to e-mail her friends over the phone. She had a handy checkbook-sized item called a Pocket Mail on which she held up the receiver to send and receive her messages.

"You get a lot of strange looks," she said of the $100 unit. "But this way, you don't have to spend all your time in port on a computer."

Nonetheless, she hopped onto a terminal when one became available moments later.

Other stores aren't quite so manic. Uncle Artie's offers nine computers and 17 phones, and Cafe Myriad has seven computers.

Copy Express on North Franklin, which has four terminals, was the trailblazer for such businesses, said owner and manager Chuck Collins.

"We were the only one in Southeast," Collins said, noting he first offered the service in November of 1996. "It used to be I'd get crew here and they'd hang out and eat popcorn. Then somebody said, Hey, they must make a lot of money' which is a bunch of baloney and all these others came along."

Most of his Internet business now comes from legislators and staff during the legislative session.

About a third of Surf Alaska's business is tourism-related.

"During the day we get some tourists and crew," said Kevin Meiners, an employee at Surf Alaska. "At night we get a lot of (local) people who like to come in and play games."

He said Surf Alaska's 10 computers are networked for group play and offer 19-inch monitors and excellent graphics cards, which are a draw for video game enthusiasts.

Located in the Emporium Mall behind Heritage Coffee and owned by locals Mark Kappler and Neil MacKinnon, Surf Alaska offers 30 minutes of computer use for $5. It is outfitted with contemporary furniture and offers more privacy and space than Soapy's.

With its plain desktops and visible, dangling cables, Soapy's isn't as trendy. But it's far and away the most popular among the cruise ship crew crowd. Its location close to the docks is convenient, and it offers the quickest access, with 25 computers and 25 phones including 10 private phone booths.

Soapy's charges $3 for 15 minutes on the Internet and $5 for 50 minutes. It also offers fax services, money-wiring services and four data ports for laptops.

Stephany Simonelli, a singer on Princess Cruises' Dawn Princess, likes the convenience of the data ports, where she can hook up her laptop computer.

"I can type all of my e-mails on board, then just bring them in here and send and receive them," said Simonelli, 32. "I don't have to spend too much time on the Internet. I can make all of my calls and take care of business stuff."

The Juneau Soapy's store opened two years ago with just 10 computers. Soapy's first store opened in Skagway three years ago. Since then, the company's added two stores in Ketchikan and one each in Vancouver, B.C.; Whistler, B.C.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

Founded by Joe Ashcraft and Brian Mathison of Ketchikan, the businesses are booming. Despite the success, Ashcraft said, the owners are not getting rich off the venture.

"It might appear we're doing well, but our profit margin is very low," Ashcraft said. "We serve cruise ship members who don't have much money. We enjoy serving them; we keep everything well within their range."

Soapy's in Juneau will close for the winter and ship its hardware to the San Juan and St. Thomas locations for their looming busy seasons.

"Not too many locals know about this place," Appelt said, glancing around the bustling quarters. "It's cheaper for them to get their own computer. But for crew members, this is really a good deal."

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