By Ted Tamargo, Shareholder, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, PC.
It was a wonderful way for the LT 2016 Class (the Best Class Ever) to complete the year – as tourists for a day in our own back yard. As residents of Tampa Bay, most of us realize tourism is critical to our economy. On April 20, 2016, we learned from industry experts how incredibly vital tourism is to our state and local economy, and we were fortunate enough to get a “behind the scenes” look at some of the area’s finest attractions.
The day began at Busch Gardens. Stilt performers in African garb and a not terribly active but adorable two-toed sloth greeted us on our way into to the meeting room. While we enjoyed a delicious breakfast (according to informal polling, our best of the year) we heard from our Day Chairs and Gerard Hoeppner, VP of Marketing at Busch Gardens and Adventure Island and Santiago Corrada, President/CEO of Visit Tampa Bay about the economic impact of tourism in our community.
Gerard Hoeppner informed us that Busch Gardens has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1959 when the primary goal was to increase beer sales. It is now an international destination attracting visitors from all over the world. He discussed their zoological program (over 12,000 animals and a species survival program for endangered species), Adventure Island (their 13-acre water park), their numerous events, including Howl-O-Scream, Summer Nights, and the Food & Wine Festival (their newest), and the attraction getting most of the attention these days, the soon-to-be-opened Cobra’s Curse roller coaster (more on Cobra’s Curse below).
Next we heard from Santiago Corrada of Visit Tampa Bay, a marketing agency whose purpose is to sell and market Hillsborough County to the world, or as Mr. Corrada stated “to drive heads into beds.” Visit Tampa Bay is funded primarily by Hillsborough County’s hotel bed tax. Visit Tampa Bay, which only markets in other states and internationally, attracts both leisure travel and large events such as conventions, Super Bowls, the college football national championship game, and Final Four tournaments. Those efforts are paying off. Hillsborough County bed tax collections recently increased by 15 percent over the prior year to over $14 million. Among other things, we learned the area is becoming known as a destination for craft beer drinkers, which was part of an award winning ad campaign for Visit Tampa Bay.
After breakfast the class stepped on the backs of an open-air trucks for a Serengeti Safari, a ride across the African plain. We had a close up look at zebras, ostriches, antelope, and other animals on the plain. The highlight was hand-feeding giraffes as they stuck their heads into the backs of our trucks.
After the safari, the class met with Jeff Hornick, Regional Director of Design and Engineering for Busch Gardens. He is one of the key players involved in the creation of Busch Garden’s newest major attraction, Cobra’s Curse. He gave us a glimpse into the planning and effort (but not the cost, as that information is not public) that goes into the development of this type of attraction. Cobra’s Curse is a spin coaster. Riders will start above ground facing an 80-foot tall snake icon. They will face forward for the first third of the ride, backwards for the second third, and free spin for the final third. The class was then given an opportunity to ride the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster (Cobra’s Curse is not yet complete) before leaving the park. A number of class members who wished to make it through the day (including your blogger) watched from a distance.
Our next stop was the Lowry Park Zoo. Before lunch we were treated to a demonstration of the Zoo’s elephant training program. The interaction between zoo personnel and the elephants was very impressive. Lunch, like breakfast, was delicious (it was a great food day). Joe Couceiro, CEO of the Zoo and Troy Manthey, President/CEO of Yacht Starship and Pirate Water Taxi, spoke on their respective attractions and the importance of cultural attractions to tourism in our area.
Mr. Manthey discussed the evolution and growth of tourism in Tampa and its direct, positive impact on his businesses. His presentation reminded us of the outstanding museums and cultural attractions in and near downtown Tampa – such as the Tampa Museum of Art, Glazer Children’s Museum, HB Plant Museum, and American Victory Ship, just to name a few – most of which are only a short walk from the Riverwalk. Of course, we cannot overlook Ybor City, the historic gem a short streetcar-ride away.
Joe Couceiro then spoke to us about the Zoo. It has over 63 acres and the most attendance of any zoo in the southeastern U.S. Among its challenges are long-term financial sustainability and the relevancy of zoos in the 21st century. Fortunately for the Zoo, Mr. Couceiro, who has decades of experience in the attractions industry, has a clear vision for the Zoo and a plan for its long-term growth. The guiding principle for the Zoo under his leadership is for the Zoo to be an “unforgettable place of discovery that inspires generations to cherish and preserve wildlife.”
Next on the agenda was the Florida Aquarium. Before introducing the afternoon speakers, Thom Stork spoke about the Aquarium, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and is doing well financially. Roger Dow of the U.S. Travel Association then discussed the importance of travel to the U.S. and the state economies. We learned that travel generates $21 trillion for the U.S. economy and that the U.S. has over 75 million visitors each year. He introduced us to his Association’s latest initiative: Project Time Off. It will promote the importance of actually taking the vacation/PTO time we have available to us through our employers. We should all take that initiative to heart.
Paul Phipps, the Chief Marketing Officer of Visit Florida, then spoke. He gave us a presentation on the state of the tourism industry in Florida. In a nutshell, it is extremely strong. Not surprisingly, Florida is the number 1 travel destination in the U.S. and in the top 10 in the world. The numbers are staggering: over 100 million visitors to Florida each year; $82 billion in travel/tourism spending; 1.2 million jobs. The marketing strategy of Visit Florida is to keep Florida at the top of the mind of travelers. That strategy, coupled with a tremendous product, is working well.
Next, was a behind the scenes tour of the Aquarium. We saw the tanks from above (i.e., behind the glass). A lucky LT class member joined a couple of staff members in hand feeding the stingrays. He seemed to get the hang of it after the initial, understandable nervousness from being so close to those fascinating animals. We enjoyed a demonstration of otter training and visited with penguins as we left the Aquarium.
We then moved to the last information session of the LT 2016 program year at the Tampa Convention Center. Rick Hamilton and Eric Blanc of the Convention Center and Jeff Weinthaler of Embassy Suites spoke to us about the convention industry and Tampa’s place in that world. The weather, the water, the hotel packages, the Riverwalk, and, yes, the craft beer scene all make Tampa a very desirable convention destination. The convention business in Tampa is good; they are operating in the black.
After the convention center, we went to Yacht Starship for an afternoon cruise. We were surprised by our spouses and significant others who joined us. It was a great touch and a wonderful way to complete the last program day for LT 2016!
Thank you to our Day Chairs – Jill Manthey (LT ’10), Troy Manthey (LT ’03), Thom Stork (LT ’87), and Elizabeth Hennig (LT’ 13) – for a great day. Also, on behalf of the entire LT ‘ 16 class, I would like to extend a very special thank you to Stephanie Agliano, Class Chair, Susan Maurer, Class Vice-Chair, Kat Benjamin, and the Chamber for making LT ’16 an unforgettable experience.