Florida Tourism Conference: Tampa Talks City Makeover, But Media Futurists Ignite Podium

Tampa's Redevelopment Vision Plan // All photos by John Stone
Tampa's Redevelopment Vision Plan // All photos by John Stone

Two travel industry leaders, one national and one local, paid the highest tributes individuals of their standing could pay to a convention host city at this week’s 2015 Florida’s Governor’s Tourism Conference at the Tampa Convention Center. It was remarkable that Tampa, Florida’s third-largest city after Jacksonville and Miami, was hosting its first Florida Governor’s Conference in the 48-year history of the event. 

Roger Dow, the president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, kicked off the kudos at the opening with a personal observation. “This is my home town and my home state,” said Dow. “And I could live anywhere in the Unites States. But I choose to live here because I know this is where it’s at.”

Jeff Vinik, a former Bostonian stock broker and local business celebrity who owns the Tampa Bay Lighting hockey team of the NHL and the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League, continued the Tampa lovefest while detailing his $1.3 billion “vision plan” for the city. 

“When I decided to buy a hockey team in 2010, my decision was based on 'where do I want to live?'” said Vinik. “I mean there were other opportunities…did I want to live in Buffalo or live in Tampa?”

The Tampa entrepreneur said he and his family have been very happy with their six-year experience living in Tampa. “We have loved it,” he said. “Tampa Bay should include in its branding the words “welcoming” or “friendly.”

Tampa developer Jeff Vinik
Tampa developer Jeff Vinik

Tampa in Revitalization Mode

Vinik displayed drawing plans for the $1.2 billion investment he aims to make over the next 10 years in Tampa’s waterfront district with his team at Strategic Planning Partners (SPP). The project extends on two land parcels owned by Vinik extending from the Convention Center to the Tampa Aquarium in the nearby Channel district that hosted an evening hospitality event during the conference. Vinik said his group will renovate the Marriott Waterside Hotel, which he owns adjacent to the Convention Center and served as headquarters hotel for the conference. But the project will add a new “four-star” 500-room hotel to serve the Convention Center, which needs more attendee accommodations, and more meeting space for large events.

Other features of the waterfront redevelopment will be 150,000 to 200,000 square feet of restaurant and retail entertainment space; 1,000 residential units; 6,000 to 7,000 parking spaces in three new garages; a marina renovation to initiate “active boating;” and a renovation of the neighborhood’s Cotanchobee Park as a magnet for neighborhood activities.

“We have to do this to keep up with Jacksonville, Miami, and Orlando, all of which have major development projects of their own being planned,” said Vinik.

The developer called himself “Florida’s chief cheerleader.”

“The state’s future is so bright,” he said. “I lived my whole life in New York and Boston. But I tell people to come down here and don’t just stay for five days. Come for a while to learn how great it is to live and work here.”

Tampa is separately in the midst of a phase one $950-million renovation of Tampa International Airport, including existing terminal expansion; a consolidated car rental facility; new retail and restaurant installations; and other upgrades. A second-phase plan, estimated at $1.3 billion, was announced by the airport this week, to include an international terminal for new nonstop services being launched and a new air traffic control tower.

Lufthansa on September 25 is launching direct Airbus A340 flights between Tampa and Frankfurt five times weekly. Edelweiss Airways, an affiliate of Lufthansa, expanded to three A330 flights a week between Tampa and Zurich this summer. Santiago Corrada, the president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, said the city’s plan is to attract more direct international flights to Tampa but needs to expand the Tampa International Airport’s infrastructure to accommodate them.

Salim Ismail of Singularity University
Salim Ismail of Singularity University

Digital Futurists Predict Game Changes

A podium parade of digital futurists introduced Visit Florida delegates to the brave new world of travel technology and consumer behavior they can look forward to in the next 20 years. Most predicted the pace of change would far outstrip anything that has gone before with many apps and tech devices not yet known.  

Keynote speaker Salim Ismail, the founding executive director of Singularity University, predicted a dramatic rise in self-driving cars, and the rise of Airbnb as the largest hotel company worldwide by the end of 2015, based on its current booking level of 500,000 rooms per night without owning a hotel. Ismail further predicted that five billion people worldwide will be connected online by 2020, and that weather events will become more disruptive because of rising sea levels, creating a global problem not being addressed by governments.

Rafat Ali, the CEO of SKIFT, a global travel industry strategy company, called travel “the consumer crucible where a lot of economic trends get started.” He said travel sellers will need to be “smart, sharp, strategic and surgical” to deal with the rise of the self-reliant “silent traveler,” also known as the “on-demand generation.” Ali predicted the “unbundling of everything” by 2020 with travel to be purchased primarily via mobile devices on demand.

Becky Thalman, travel brand strategist for Google, gave a video presentation of Project Loon in which Google is flying balloons into the stratosphere that carry cellular Internet to underserved areas of the globe, and will be able to provide help to disaster areas. Google has a new Google Photos app allowing users to quickly and automatically untangle and organize travel photos by destination.

Layton Han, the CEO of Adara Media, said 90 companies are now sharing data on the Adara platform to aggregate fragmented data, connect the dots, and create a complete profile of customer travelers. The company has a picture of about 28 million travelers who come to Florida, and can identify how many people search for Florida but do not come.

Amy Cotteleer, the founding owner of A2G, an ad agency in Los Angeles that created the “Dress Normal” campaign for GAP, revealed that 62 percent of Millennial shoppers still want to visit brick and mortar retail stores for their clothes shopping, but with a catch. “They crave making their own story and they trust comments from their peers more than from sellers.”

She warned attendees that social media followers are not equal to “fans,” and that true followers are only those repeatedly engaged in a company. They can be transformed into company advocates if marketers treat them in a friendly, engaging way.

Closing keynote speaker Mike Walsh, the CEO of consulting firm Tomorrow, said luxury retailers are now taking pictures of new products and texting them to repeat clients to see if they want to come in and take a look. He said the social network within a business workplace is a company’s most important asset, and quoted research claiming businesses with staffs that eat lunches together are 90 percent more productive than companies in which employees eat separately. Walsh challenged Florida delegates to engage the next generation of travelers by changing their organizations to be more adaptive to changes, more experimental, more data driven, and more personal with customers.

Around the Show 

Lisa Turner, a Miami-based sales consultant on alliances for Virtuoso, said her conference schedule was packed with meetings with Florida destinations to discuss the benefits of partnering with Virtuoso. “We have 60 preferred destinations,” said Turner. “…In Florida the Keys are in their third year and they are all in. Visit Orlando and Fort Lauderdale are also partners. I have been trying to get the whole state of Florida to focus on this.”

Turner said Virtuoso customizes marketing and training programs for partners. “Our clients have got the money to travel and do it often,” she said.  “Our clients say ‘there’s the beach (in Florida) and we get that, but what else is there to do?’ They want to explore other parts of Florida…They don’t always stay at the Ritz. It’s about experiences.”

Tammy McDaniel, president and owner of Tammy’s Journeys, a storefront agency in the Florida northwest panhandle city of Ft. Walton Beach, has developed a dual business since starting in 1988. A member of the Signature Travel Network, McDaniel brings her northern Floridian clients on historic tours via motorcoach to Florida destinations such as St. Augustine and Key West. She also contracts with attractions and destinations to set up escorted inbound receptive tours for European visitors. “I use a lot of the CVBs,” said McDaniel. “I connect. These are the people I need to see.”

Nicki Grossman, Greater Ft. Lauderdale CVB president, invites attendees to the 2016 Florida Tourism Conference.
Nicki Grossman, Greater Ft. Lauderdale CVB president, invites attendees to the 2016 Florida Tourism Conference.

Around the State

Julie Fanning, a spokesperson for West Palm Beach, FL, said the city is hosting the nation’s largest outdoor museum show called “Canvas” from November 8 to 22, 2015. Artists from around the world will create giant murals on 20 buildings for the free event. West Palm will also open in early 2016 a 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach Hotel adjacent to the Palm Beach Convention center, and a Riviera Beach Marina Event Center as the first phase of a $375 million Marina District Renovation.

Tammy Heon, manager of tourism development for the Hernando County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the Gulf coast county north of Clearwater and Tarpon Springs is rebranding itself, effective this week, as “Florida’s Adventure Coast Brooksville and Weeki Wachee.” Heon noted that the county name Hernando is unknown to most Americans, but Weeki Wachee Springs and its world-famous mermaids have become the county’s biggest asset since opening in 1947. The Adventure Coast also offers 27 hiking trails with some of the nation’s best bird watching, as well as a state forest, horseback riding and paddle sport activities along the Withlacoochee River.

Julie Edwards, chief marketing officer for All Aboard Travel, said the new light railway express service connecting central and south Florida will begin operating in 2017. The company will begin taking delivery of rail cars, which are being built by Siemens Corp. in Sacramento, CA, starting in 2016. Service will ultimately connect Miami and Ft. Lauderdale in 30 minutes; Miami and West Palm Beach in under one hour; and Miami and Orlando in under three hours. Terminals are now under construction in the four cities.

Katie Cole, director of marketing for the Florida Department of State, said the historic Grove Mansion, located next to the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, will open in 2016 after a four-year renovation. The home museum, featuring original mid-19th century furnishings, was originally built for one of Florida’s first territorial governors.

Everglades Holiday Park, the leading Everglades attraction with 350,000 annual guests, is opening in Ft. Lauderdale a 250-seat outdoor amphitheater for its alligator shows starting next month, according to Ric Doucette, director of business development.

Emirates announced its launch of daily Boeing 777 nonstop service between Orlando and Dubai. Flights started on September 1, the second day of the conference.

Sandy Bridges, a spokesperson for Sun ‘n Fun (www.sun-n-fun.org) , a 22,000-acre aviation park located on Lakeland, FL, midway between Orlando and Tampa in Polk County, said it will host its annual International Fly-In Expo from April 5 to 10, 2016. The event, one of the largest air shows in America and the largest convention in Florida, attracts 200,000 visitors, said Bridges. The park organization also operates a successful high school year round for young people studying to enter the aerospace industry.

Wendy Johnson, a marketing services specialist for the Hollywood Florida Office of Tourism, said the oceanfront 349-room Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort will open this fall. Visit Florida inducted the circus impresario and arts philanthropist John Ringling (1886-1936) into Florida’s Tourism Hall of Fame. He is honored for having been a primary developer of the Sarasota area’s luxury attractions and tourism infrastructure. Actor Burt Reynolds, 79, was honored with a Florida Film Legends Ambassador Award for six decades of acting and for “investing in the education of Florida students.” Reynolds appeared on stage to thank the Florida partners for the award after being quoted in a video saying, “A lot of actors, you don’t know where they are from. But everyone knows I am from Jupiter, FL.” Next year’s Florida Governor’s Tourism Conference will take place at the Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, FL, from September 7-9, 2016.