Posted by: Carlos Echeverry on Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Did you know that the first week of May is National Travel and Tourism Week? From the airport to the convention center to hotels, water taxis, parks and restaurants, Tampa is using tourism to promote economic development in our region.

Our first destination was Busch Gardens where after a quick welcome by the best tour operator ever, Amanda Uliano, LT’22 Class Chair, we were greeted by our day sponsor, LaKisha Kinsey-Sallis, LT’18, Partner at Fisher Phillips LLP. LaKisha is a Tampa native who, after a quick detour to D.C., is excited to be back in town and be part of our tremendous growth.

Next on our itinerary were our Day Chairs Jill Manthey, LT’10, VP of Sales & Community Relations at Yacht Starship and Pirate Water Taxi and Kris Knox, LT’20, Managing Director at Splitsville Southern & Social, JoToro Kitchen & Tequila Bar and LightHaus Beer Garden. Jill and Kris introduced us to the theme of the day: gathering a deeper understanding of the economic impact of tourism in Tampa Bay and how tourism is the #1 economic driver in our region and state.  

Our first guide was Neal Thurman, President at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Adventure Island. Neal came to Tampa from Six Flags in 2020, in the thick of Covid-19. From Neal, we learned that Busch Gardens has ten rollercoasters, the most in Florida and that Busch Gardens helps endangered animals through their Conservation Fund. Neal shared that for the first time since the pandemic, all venues and events would be open on Memorial Day. He also introduced their new Summer Celebration program which now includes day events and features a concert line up included with your admission ticket. Neal also told us about the biggest expansion in Adventure Island’s history including two new slides. 

From Dave Celletti’s question, we learned the revenue is split 50/50 between local and non-local guests which explains why there are so many events compared to other parks. From Tony Brown’s question, we learned that the biggest lesson from Covid-19 was automation and efficiency, such as using the app for advanced ticket sales as a way to counter the staffing shortage and generate cost savings. Laurie Noyes asked about staffing, work/life balance and transportation. We learned from Neal that they are using proactive compensation tools, such as sign-on bonuses, but they are not working as well as anticipated. He also shared that he is now a real estate investor buying housing for international staff coming mostly from Brazil on temporary non-immigrant J-1 visas. We also learned that Cheetah Hunt and Iron Gwazi are the most popular rides thanks to Rob Brown’s question. Speaking of rides, we were treated to a ride on Iron Gwazi which, in my personal opinion, was surprisingly fast and full of unexpected turns and loops. So fast, I lost my LT name Tag!! (not seen on picture below)

Our next tour guides were Roger Dow, President and CEO of U.S. Travel Association and Sam Rubenzer, Regional Partnership Manager at Visit Florida.  

Roger lives in St. Pete but couldn’t make it so he presented a virtual safari video from his office in D.C. Roger gave us very insightful statistics on how tourism impacts Florida. The most significant highlights were that tourism creates 1 million jobs and is the 3rd largest industry employer in the state. He explained that during the pandemic, the association worked to promote travel by reducing determents such as testing for international travelers and visa bans which resulted in a higher number of visitors in 2021 compared to 2019 and a 2% increase in revenue totaling $17.3 billion. Most importantly, Tampa was the #1 travel destination. Another statistic I found interesting is that business travel accounts for 20% of visitors but yields 60% of the revenue. This became a clear connection later in the day when we heard from other guides in tourism related industries. Roger closed with a video on the future of travel as it relates to the expectation that travel will decrease in 2024/2025 after the pent-up demand diminishes. Roger disagrees with this and cited the same fears about post 9/11 travel and reminded us that in fact those were record breaking tourism years.

Sam was next on the itinerary. He explained that Florida remaining open resulted in tourism surpassing pre-pandemic numbers and 2021 having the largest numbers of international travelers. He cited that rural destinations peaked during this time. In fact, rural demand was 11% higher than anywhere else in Florida, except for Sarasota and Ft. Myers. Another cool statistic is that for the first time in history, Florida beat New York as the #1 international destination in the U.S and that most of the visitors are from Colombia and Brazil. Know any Colombians or Brazilians in your class?  Tip: they are in the Gwazi pic.

Brenda McKenzie gave us great insights into the marketing budget by asking why promote something like tourism when it's already proven? We learned that we compete with other warm weather states like Texas and California, but that we also compete by travel sectors/destinations such as couples with no kids or music destinations like Nashville. And, that Tampa Bay competes with another destination 90-miles away. Ed Carey followed up by asking for the main competitors which are NYC, Atlanta, Birmingham, Seattle, Charlotte and Houston. From Isaac Henderson’s question, we learned that one of the most interesting innovative marketing tools are culinary videos that highlight the ethnicity of our restaurants and can be used to target specific markets. This diverse culinary concept came up again later during lunch. Thais Pepe brought it back to the increased travel to rural destinations. We learned that they naturally offer open/outside warm and socially distanced activities like zip lines, kayaking, air boating and scalloping. Lots of people were not aware of scalloping so Tom Palermo offered his boat to take us out! Thank you Judge!

We ended our stop at Busch Gardens by going on the award-winning Serengeti Safari where we learned lots of cool facts about African wildlife like zebras, ostriches, rhinos and several antelope species but the highlight of the day was Candace Culver knowing how much Rhino poop weighs (85 lbs!) and feeding lettuce to giraffes as shown here by the best ever co-tour operator, Marc Colvenbach.

We also took an awesome group pic of the best class ever! LT22!

Our motorcoach departed to ZooTampa at Lowry Park (formerly Lowry Park Zoo) where we took a tour of many animal enclosures and enjoyed a live encounter with Charlotte, the Brazilian porcupine. We enjoyed a delicious lunch while our next guide, Joseph (Joe) Couceiro, President & CEO, gave us great insights into how he managed Covid-19 and shared his grand vision for the $100 million transformation plan for ZooTampa.

Joe shared that the goal of renaming the zoo was to align with the success of Tampa’s name and that ZooTampa is the largest, most popular non-profit attraction in Florida. Joe opened new water rides (new to me since my last visit) and is also credited with the concept of selling one-time all year tickets to have local guests re-visit the park. Recall, the 50/50 split at Busch Gardens. From Lakisha’s question we learned that during the pandemic Joe motivated his staff and earned their loyalty by paying for 100% of their benefits even after being forced to furlough 75% of his employees. Joe also adjusted the operating model and success factors to make guests feel safe while visiting the Zoo. Some of these experiences are highlighted on the Nat Geo WILD series Secrets of the Zoo: Tampa.

The next big step of the transformation plan for ZooTampa is amplifying the already second largest Manatee Rescue Center critical care facility in the U.S. to continue its efforts aimed at saving Florida’s iconic species where they currently house more than 500 manatees. What I found to be the most interesting part of the rescue center is the Zoo’s plans to expand all the way to the Hillsborough River. This would allow visitors to take the Pirate Water Taxi from downtown to the Zoo. Troy Manthey, from Yacht StarShips, explained that he is currently looking for boats that can go under the 10-foot bridges on the river since the downtown bridges are 12 feet tall. I think this would be a game changer for ZooTampa.

Troy then moderated a panel on restaurants and cultural attractions that included Joseph Couceiro, Dannette Lynch, Director of Membership at Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, Kris Knox, LT’20, Managing Director, Millennium Management and MaryBeth Williams, honorary LT member, Executive Director, Friends of the Riverwalk.  

Troy is from Louisiana and first visited Tampa to work the 2001 Superbowl. He noticed the city was poised for growth - specifically from the waterside - and had a business-friendly political scene. Like Busch Gardens and ZooTampa, Yacht StarShips has experienced record-breaking growth since the pandemic but most importantly, the tourist/individual guest ratio has shifted from 70/30 to 50/50 post pandemic. This is another key trend we noticed throughout the day. Yacht StarShips is up to 180 employees and is currently investing in two new river boats. Additionally, they are about to bring to Tampa one of just four 25-person jet boats in the United States. Lastly, in early 2023, Troy is bringing river cruise ships, like the ones in Europe, that can seat 150 people and will be able to go under the bridges.

MaryBeth gave us a history on Mayor Iorio creating Friends of the Riverwalk in 2005 to help finance the construction of the Riverwalk. They started with a boat parade sailing by the patient ward of Tampa General Hospital and have grown to major events like the 4th of July and Halloween parades and their main event, the Riverfest, which is a two-day food and music festival held the first weekend in May. She also shared that our Riverwalk is within the top 15 in the country and we are aspiring to become #1. Some of the ideas are to expand the Riverwalk past the aquarium and into Ybor City and helping with the underpass continuity around The Straz.

We also heard from Kris Knox on how the Michelin Guide will begin bestowing stars on restaurants in Miami, Tampa, and Orlando this year. This marks the fifth destination in the United States, joining New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, and the state of California. Kris also shared that most restaurants are just now getting back to pre-pandemic staffing levels and are ready for growth. Dannette made the link to restaurants by explaining that 26% of a tourists' travel budget is spent on food. Tampa is uniquely positioned since we have a very ethnically diverse restaurant offering. She mentioned that Tampa has the highest rate of independent restaurant mergers in the state. From Aaron’s question we learned that the Zoo has programs for kids and underserved communities to promote culinary advocacy, and from MaryBeth we learned that they are also funding programs to attract students to the tourism industry.  

Our day trip continued at the Florida Aquarium where we were welcomed by Roger German, President & CEO of the Florida Aquarium. Roger told us how the Aquarium shifted from a tourist-driven to a conservation-based approach where, like Busch Gardens and ZooTampa, they are protecting endangered species. He stated that tourism and the economy are not mutually exclusive. Our next guides were Santiago Corrada, President & CEO, Visit Tampa Bay and Steve Hayes, LT’00, President & CEO, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. Both Santiago and Steve made it very clear that they are not competing with each other, but instead working together and benefiting from each other to promote Tampa Bay as a region. This is interesting and commendable since Santiago runs a private 501(c)6 organization raising private funding and is partially funded by development taxes collected by Hillsborough County hotels, while Steve is part of the Pinellas County government and solely funded by Tourist Development Taxes (TDT).

Santiago has made Visit Tampa Bay a destination management and marketing organization, working with strategic partners like hotels, restaurants, water taxis and the Tampa Convention Center to promote our region. He gave us multiple examples of promoting visiting Tampa Bay by specifically targeting cold weather markets such us Chicago and Boston. Additionally, he has targeted campaigns to promote multicultural events at the convention center and pairing those with local ethnic food providers. He used the example of how The Weeknd requested and paid for soul food for all staff working on the Super Bowl half-time show. Santiago made it a point to include DEI into his approach and shared his personal commitment to DEI by keeping it “intentional, consistent, and ongoing.” I loved this. This DEI effort is shown on Visit Tampa Bay’s marketing videos. He has also published multicultural guides like Visit Tampa Gay (LGBTQ) and cookbooks highlighting Tampa’s diverse culinary experience, which caught the attention of the Michelin Star guide. Santiago highlighted some of his main campaign partnerships such as Make it Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council that unites tourism and economic development by having visitors come back as employers. The Treasure Collection, which brings together stylish and modern hotels each with its own carefully curated way to experience the sights, sounds and flavors of our region. Don't Buy it Tampa Bay committed to breaking the supply chain that funds human trafficking through awareness and action. Santiago is also working with Film Tampa Bay to promote filming in Tampa and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission to bring more events that will benefit hotels, restaurants, retail stores and the like. Santiago shared multiple impressive, record-breaking statistics on how Tampa Bay is the state’s premier market that beat New York as the main international travel destination, but I’ll highlight the one economic impact which illustrates all the industries that benefit from tourism:

Like Santiago, Steve shared impressive and record-breaking numbers for Pinellas County and reiterated that it is a team effort between the two regions. Think of someone staying at a beach hotel in Clearwater, coming to Tampa for a Lightning game, and having dinner and drinks at Casa Santo Stefano in Ybor. Steve also mentioned that he doesn’t expect staffing to return to pre-pandemic levels and that companies are now used to managing increased volume with less staff. This is reflected in some hotel practices like not cleaning rooms daily and limiting in-room food service. He expects our top occupancy ranking to slide once hotels in other warm market states reopen. In an ER comparison question from Dr. Edmondo about operating at 80% capacity with less staffing, we learned from Santiago that the key is to attract higher Average Daily Rates (ADR) with premium brands like the new JW Marriott hotel. Less rooms at a higher premium.

I had to leave early so I missed the rest of the trip, but my two awesome LT’22 Classmates and fellow tour participants Candace Culver, YMCA and Vince Cordo, Holland & Knight took notes for me. Thank you both.

The next stop on the itinerary was the Tampa Convention Center where our guide Juan Lopez, Sales & Marketing Manager at the Convention Center, shared the following insights. The convention center was built in 1990 and is owned and operated by the City of Tampa which is a common practice since convention centers are usually owned by the city, county, or authority. They currently have 50 FTEs and up to 400 part-time and contractors for events. They have 600K square feet of exhibit space, four ballrooms, 36 meeting rooms, plus the outdoor sail plaza and are considered a mid-size convention center. They host around 100 events and 400K guests a year resulting in an economic impact of $115 million. They also run a food and beverage operation that includes Datz Deli, Big Rays Fish Camp, Harpoon Harry's Crab House and the Sail Plaza. The marina includes 25 transient slips, which are rent by the hour/day except for dedicated vendor slips. The convention center is usually booked 18 months in advance. Last year, Tampa benefited from 5 conference relocations from cities like New York and Chicago. They underwent a $38 million capital improvement campaign to renovate the ballrooms, meeting rooms and the sail pavilion, added the Sail Plaza and 18 waterfront meeting rooms and updated the elevators and escalators.  

Next on the itinerary was a forum on the economic impact of hotels, the Convention Center, and marketing Tampa as a convention destination. Our guides were Bob Morrison, LT’81, Executive Director, Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association and Chris Adkins, LT’18, Director of Sales & Marketing, Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina. Bob explained that our Treasure Collection consists of ten hotels in downtown and Ybor and is referred to as a Tourism Marketing District (TMD). He stated that California has 90+ TMDs so we are behind in developing this concept, but we are the first ones in Florida which is ground-breaking. Technology partners/sites are tracking booking data and bookings per hotel.  Each of the 10 hotels is assessed a fee based on the number of rooms. Each market GM is a member of the TMD steering committee to ensure equal and balanced exposure. From Edmondo’s question, we learned the center was built to accommodate up to 90% of the conventions in the U.S. They were told that Tampa could not host the Democratic or Republican convention but with the addition of the Amelie Arena we can and did. Now, the JW Marriott, which recently hosted the YMCA national convention, added even more space. The Tampa Convention Center focuses on mid-tier conventions and doesn’t try to compete with cities like Chicago. Their largest event is Comicon with hosts 50,000 guests for the weekend.    

Our last guide was Don Barnes, Executive Director, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, who gave us an overview on Gasparilla while we were aboard the Lost Pearl Pirate Ship.  Like everyone else we heard from today, The Lost Pearl had record sales after the pandemic, with guests split 50/50 between local and out of state. The Lost Pearl is an interactive pirate ship, including a water cannon, bar, sunset cruises, and special events. Gasparilla was named after pirate Jose Gaspar and is the 3rd largest parade in the United States. During the Super Bowl, they made over $250K on the day of the parade. Gasparilla also promotes economic development by selling beads, costumes, make up, transportation and cruise ships rides. During the pandemic, the parade leadership did everything they could to keep small business owners employed.  They let them keep their 2020 deposits and offered to give them early deposits for 2021. They employed people that would have been doing things like making costumes and re-tasked them with other jobs.