By Christopher “Pappy” Collins, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF (MacDill AFB)
The final trip for eLiTe ’19. A bittersweet, but excellent end to a chain of invaluable events that integrated this class into Tampa’s amazing culture.
Question: What pumps almost $5 billion into Hillsborough County, supports nearly 50,000 jobs and associated incomes of $2.2 billion?
If there were any true “flavor of the day” of information to internalize, it was that Tampa strives to continue its incredible forward momentum as a “Destination” city; after all, Florida, as a state, is the top vacation destination in the WORLD! It’s no secret that the Tampa Bay area has healthy competition as a Florida destination in the beaches of St. Petersburg to the west, and the “mack daddy” of Florida vacation spots – Disney World of Orlando. With such competition, innovation and marketing are paramount and professionals charged with such responsibilities have proven they’re up to the never-ending challenge.
A perfect start to the day, though not the time of 0645 when my brain is still screaming for coffee, regardless of being a military man, was our first stop at Busch Gardens; the local haunt of eLiTe ’19 member Aimée “Tigris” Jeansonne Becka. We were welcomed by a sloth, no really, a sloth. He had an impressive head of hair but hadn’t much to say, so we moved on and were welcomed by Day Chair, Jill Manthey of Yacht StarShip, and our day’s sponsor, our own LT ’19 Co-chair Lance Lansrud of Agentry Real Estate. A discussion followed with Busch Gardens president, Mr. Stewart Clark. He shared his team’s marketing approach to bring in dollars from both domestic and international travelers. As exampled by even bussing vacationers from Disney (its competition) to Busch Gardens for day trips and advertising and marketing efforts in countries like the United Kingdom. The “history geek” in me had my interest particularly peaked when he mentioned that Hillsborough Army Airfield was located on Busch Gardens’ property; a base built in 1943 and used as an auxiliary airfield to my haunting grounds of MacDill.
Stewart was followed with an impassioned presentation by Jen Carlisle of Visit Florida. Florida has experienced an amazing 8 years of domestic tourism growth, seeing $111.7 billion in visitor spending in 2016. An amazing number that Tampa works hard to capture a share of. Visit Florida, besides marketing Florida as a destination, also works tirelessly to ensure media information that impacts our state and city is accurate. They work to fact-check and release information that can affect vacationers’ decision-making, like hurricane effects, or last year’s red tide issues, so these planning vacationers can make the best decisions and still be motivated to visit.
Soon after, we were spirited away to tour parts of the park. First was a little safari jaunt in the back of a flatbed truck where LT was dazzled by African animals such as zebras, rhinos, gazelles, and a particular favorite of the class – giraffes. Watch out for those prehensile tongues! I was surprised to hear giraffes aren’t the best choice as house pets. A shame really, my English Bulldog would love one. Without a doubt, this was a fun interaction with some very amazing animals.
This fun made way for another winner in the eyes of class members, an exclusive opportunity to ride the newest addition of thrill rides, the incredible “Tigris”; a 150-foot, 60 mph steel launchpad that comes in as Florida’s tallest launch roller coaster. And I’m not ashamed to admit, I got back on it for a second ride! We rode the attraction prior to its opening to the public; quite the honor, indeed!
Thrill-seeking gave way to our next stop at ZooTampa at Lowry Park, our local 63-acre non-profit zoo. The 400 employees of ZooTampa focus on priority #1, conservation. The $27 million budget is 91% earned income by mostly domestic visitors, with a current average of 1 million visitors annually. With its primary goal of rescuing and conserving animals, the park toils endlessly to provide the best habitats possible to drive income that funds these conservation efforts. Although 57% of visitors are from the local Tampa market, ZooTampa strives to become more and more a destination. The monies earned help fund a top-notch veterinary hospital and conservation center on the property. The zoo has done well establishing itself as highly sustainable under its marketing efforts and receives very little tax money.
ZooTampa, Visit Florida, and Busch Gardens all expressed concern over the current session in Tallahassee. Noting the undecided-on way ahead on a sunset provision that will halt state-level funding sources for Florida and its cities’ marketing efforts. Although such places as ZooTampa and others are supported in their marketing efforts by the hotel “bed tax”, while not a death-knell, a very large decline in marketing revenue will be lost if Tallahassee decides to allow the sunset provision to happen.
After another pleasant tour and presentation, the Florida Aquarium awaited. A $25 million operation, the aquarium hosts 800,000 visitors annually. Originally built 24 years ago as an economic driver for Tampa, the aquarium has similar successful goals as our other locations – conservation. Examples include manatee conservation at Apollo Beach, efforts protecting the coral reef down in the Keys, underwater archaeology and sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation. The Florida Aquarium’s exhibits are laid out to show the journey of a drop of water from one of Florida’s many fresh-water springs out to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It is definitely a world-class attraction. I think this was obvious by its amazing display of a University of South Florida Dean; the aquarium found this rare specimen called a “Dr. Julie Serovich” and kept her in a tank on the ground floor. I assumed this was her natural habitat, she seemed very at home and excited to see visitors!
Before leaving, we had the pleasure of meeting a couple who were only 26 inches tall, a boyfriend/girlfriend pair of African Penguins.
Question: What’s black and white, and black and white, and black and white?
Answer: A penguin rolling down a hill?
But not these two! (You’re welcome for the “dad joke”). They were carted in for us to see as a young biologist talked about their habitat as “warm weather” penguins and how they live and interact. They were definitely a hit with the class as we were able to get up close and personal and they only pooped once!
Finally, we ventured over to the Tampa Convention Center and listened to a very impassioned presentation by Santiago Corrada, President and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay; of which our own classmate, Janette Carter, is its amazing Director of Marketing. He further discussed the impressive local impact of tourism on Tampa. An economic impact study shows that 22.9 million people come to Tampa each year; including 495,000 international visitors; all contributing to the $6 billion of revenue mentioned earlier. Santiago also spoke of efforts to attract convention and conference-goers to use Tampa for their business efforts at the convention center.
Bottom line: economic growth has a link to many efforts in Tampa. And in no small amount, Tampa as a destination for both business and pleasure is a huge part of our city’s economic foundation.
This was a long day, but a very fine final feather in our caps. Just when you didn’t think it could get any better, Jill Manthey and her husband, Troy (both LT alumni themselves), treated eLiTe ’19 to a sunset cruise. We boarded the largest of their StarShips and set off to Hillsborough Bay with an extremely welcomed and appreciated bevy of food and drinks to finish the day. Perfect weather, wonderfully gracious hosts, one of the best logistical successes of the course, and even a surprise presence of the husbands and wives of LT ’19 class members to join us. I feel I speak on behalf of our classmates when I express how perfect a finish it was to have this final event and share it with our loved ones.
Congratulations eLiTe ’19, the soon-to-be-inducted alumni of Leadership Tampa. It’s been an honor – ductus exemplo.