Tourism as a Tampa Bay Economic Driver
By Chuck Tiernan, Community Foundation of Tampa Bay with Guest Roving Reporter Leah Millette, BayCare
Leadership Tampa ‘18’s Tourism Day on April 4th had a traveling feel to it thanks to the higher than usual number of stops, giving our class ample opportunity to “explore the upside of downtime.”
The large number of things to see appropriately aligns with the fact that tourism is Florida’s largest revenue source, according to Day Chair Jill Manthey (LT ’10). Statewide, recent years have seen tourism records broken. With more than 116 million visitors to our state in 2017 (22.6 million in Hillsborough County alone) and over $111 billion in spending by guests in 2016, last year was the 6th straight record setting year ($3.4 billion in the county, according to Visit Tampa Bay).
The day started with a visit to Busch Gardens. President Stewart Clark filled the class in on many “hidden” features of the park, such as the fact that it is a full AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) Zoo in its own right with 300 species and a full animal care center. The park utilizes 4,000 pounds of food per day for its 12,000 animals. There was a captivating truck safari around the Savannah area where we feed giraffes and took some AWESOME selfies!
While I was enjoying some upside-down time on the Cheetah roller coaster, roving reporter Leah Millette was in the animal care center where she met one of the zookeepers, Trevor and one of their four clinical veterinarians, Dr. Dominique. They started their tour in the kitchen and discussed how animal nutrition is an important part of the care they provide to the animals. They even had Dr. Heidi Bissell who on their team, is one of just 26 Zoo Nutritionists in the world. The Zookeeper Trevor introduced us to Vergo, a Ground Kus Kus from New Guinea and one of the animal ambassadors for Busch Gardens, because of how great he is with people. Next they moved to a viewing room to watch the clinical team in action working to remove a fish hook lodged in the stomach of a wild cormorant bird. It was amazing to see the dedication that Busch Gardens has in taking care of not only the animals in their care but also the animals in the wild.
Finally, Leah reports that four clinical vets are on site at Busch Gardens 365 days per year, which is a demonstration of their commitment to the health and rehabilitation of animals.
Unfortunately, we were not able to see the new squirrel exhibit since it was still under renovation. Aw, nuts!
After leaving Busch Gardens, the class headed to the recently rebranded ZooTampa at Lowry Park – another AZA member. Of the 280ish nationwide, we have 2 in the Tampa area. After another cool vehicle tour, we met the very endangered Painted Dogs and had an up close elephant talent demonstration. President & CEO Joseph Couceiro shared ZooTampa’s journey to rebrand as well as a look into their future as they seek to “inspire a culture” of caring about animals and their guest every day. The zoo is one of just three sites statewide for emergency Manatee Care – one of dozens of surprising facts we learned about these community assets during the day. Joe told us the story of an animal rescue for Walter, the Florida Panther who lost a paw in a trap.
While eating lunch at the zoo, Jason Carroll shared the perspectives of Friends of the Riverwalk, a community asset known to most of us fairly well but with interesting backstories….such as the monuments with the memorialized persons height. We all will stop by those a bit longer now. Admit it. We also heard about the evolution of Tampa’s signature event, Gasparilla Parade/Festival from Maiken Stefany of Eventfest. This 3-month celebration of Florida culture has grown into the largest child parade in the U.S., the largest pirate invasion in the U.S. (trumping Seattle and their Seafair Pirates), and the third largest pirate parade with about 500,000 spectators. It also features the only fully rigged pirate ship for the invasion, built/launched in 1954. For you accountants in our class, the pirate weekend alone is estimated to have a $22 million economic impact.
We also heard from our visitor bureaus from both sides of Tampa Bay, which offer vastly different amenities to guests to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. With 21,000 and 38,000 rooms respectively, Tampa & St. Petersburg areas generate $84 million in “bed” taxes annually ($30m + $54m). One fact that surprised me – Visit Tampa Bay isn’t allowed to spend money inside the county, so our Tampa airport only has Visit St. Pete/Clearwater advertising. We heard interesting facts about the out-of-state markets for whom those entities collectively compete, including Chicago, Dallas, New York, Philly, Toronto and Boston. While Visit Tampa Bay takes advantage of the convention center to attract business guests for “BLeisure” travel, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater attracts 90% of its people for leisure days on the beautiful beaches, creating the necessity for 5% of their budget to be spent of “beach re-nourishment”. (Sounds like a good theme for a LT ’18 debriefing session!)
Next, Fresh off its 23rd birthday, The Florida Aquarium was next, and we took a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming 100,000 gallon habitat for sharks, coral and turtles among other sea creatures. Thanks to Rick Waterhouse (Was he born to work in an aquarium, or what?) for the information on this 8-month project, which takes two different moves of sea life to facilitate.
Eric Blanc introduced us to the Tampa Convention Center and discussed the hotel industry surrounding the center with General Managers Ron McAnaugh and Jeff Weinthaler of Marriott Waterside & Embassy Suites. A renovation for the convention center is gradually getting underway, including improved food service options and “look and feel” like carpeting, etc. While the walking tour made it hard to take copious notes, it was fascinating to hear the scale of projects like light replacement in the Exhibit Hall. There have been as many as 10,000 folks at the center for one event. Why wouldn’t tons of people come to one of the only convention centers in the U.S. with a navigable body of water adjacent to it? The GMs also shared some of the upcoming plans for additional hotel facilities around town adding more capacity for a community already in demand.
Another surprise awaited us aboard the Yacht Star Ship. Friends and family awaited us for our third meal of the day out on the town (just like real tourists!) and a wonderful tour around the bay and channels during our very casual debrief session.
Many thanks to our sponsors Agentry Real Estate and NFM Lending for the day, as well as our Day Chairs and the hosts at the many guest friendly locations that make Tampa a wonderful place to live, work, play and visit.