A New Day on Tampa Bay


   Busch Gardens Tampa Bay


On a peninsula nearly surrounded by the bay, the city of Tampa balances its lively influx of conventioneers with sun-seeking tourists and with sports fans who flock into town to watch the NFL Buccaneers football, MLB Tampa Bay Rays baseball, NHL Lightning hockey and major league baseball spring training.

The city has a whopping convention center and, as the vice president of sales for Tampa Bay & Company, Norwood Smith, says, “walkable hotel packages of nearly 2,000 rooms around the downtown waterfront, with 20,000-plus more nearby in the county. Our team works with planners to promote their events in advance, developing video, micro-sites and landing pages and delegate awareness. We have a 95% closing rate with planners who do site inspections.”

It helps that the city’s sparkling new waterfront and many hotels and attractions are connected by the new Tampa Riverwalk, historic electric streetcars and by water taxis.
Along the Hillsborough River that meanders through downtown, the new 2.2-mile Tampa Riverwalk is partially completed. It already serves as a focus of activity with al fresco cafés and leafy parks, as well as pedestrian access to convention hotels, the Tampa Convention Center, the newly located Tampa Bay History Center and Tampa Museum of Art, the aquarium, performing arts venues and Channelside shopping and entertainment district. A 2.7-mile streetcar line also connects Riverwalk with the downtown business district and Channelside Bay Plaza. Additions to the current 14,000-plus sq. ft. of outdoor terraces and parks for events and parties along the river are on the horizon.

Major Meeting Venues

Directly on the new downtown waterfront, the Tampa Convention Center underwent a complete renovation in 2007, emerging with 600,000 sq. ft. of space, including three dozen breakout rooms, many with fresh-air access to that famous Florida sunshine. Adding to the breezy ambiance is a new waterfront cyber café, lush landscaping and outdoor venues accommodating up to 7,500 people. Part of the TCC complex, the Sail Pavilion is a place for the public to converse over snacks and cocktails at waterfront tables and enjoy  live entertainment, and it’s often reserved for private events.

Among upcoming confabs at TCC is the Renewable Energy World Conference and Exhibition for PennWell Corporation, with about 4,000 delegates, and the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts’ annual gathering of 5,000-plus artists, educators and collectors of ceramic arts.    

Likely the biggest event ever to take place on Tampa Bay, the Republican National Convention will be based at the St. Pete Times Forum downtown in August 2012. About 15,000 members of the media will hold fort at the TCC, and about 40,000 guests, delegates and dignitaries are expected to arrive in town. Home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, the Forum is a year-round entertainment venue for such headliners as U2, Taylor Swift and Cirque du Soleil, with private groups enjoying VIP treatment in the club and luxury suites.

A popular site for trade shows is the Florida State Fairgrounds, which encompasses an equestrian center, amphitheater, 88,000-square-foot expo hall and a special-events center.

Karn Clark, CMP, co-owner and vice president of BayArea Destination Management, Inc., works with venues around Tampa Bay. Last March, the company handled a citywide  trade show and convention, Commodity Classic 2011, that attracted 4,826 attendees. They were based at the TCC with lodging at nearly a dozen local hotels. “In six days, we coordinated 12 events, convention hotel shuttles and myriad daily tours. The ‘wow’ event of the week was at Raymond James Stadium for an awards gala that included Billy Currington and the Little River Band,” Clark says.

The Tampa Museum of Art and the Tampa Bay History Center host group events at their new locations. Already sought-after by corporate planners, the ultra-contemporary, $33 million TMA reopened earlier this year with reception space for 300–400 people in the soaring three-story lobby, seated dining for 200–250 and light-filled meeting rooms accommodating up to 125 people. The museum has 18,000 sq. ft. of outdoor event space that connects to the city-owned Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, which opened in 2010 overlooking the river. A major architectural icon, the museum is wrapped with a brilliant facade of perforated aluminum panels that create a moiré-like pattern in the sunlight and, embedded with LED lights, make for spectacular nighttime showings.  

As Tampa hosts many health-care industry conventions and events, the new Center for Advanced Medical Learning & Simulation, set to open at year’s end, will be of interest to meeting coordinators setting up local outings for their attendees. “This 90,000-square-foot facility will showcase cutting-edge technology for training surgeons from around the world to perform robotic, computer-assisted and image-guided surgeries,” Smith says. “Just two blocks from the convention center, CAMLS will have over 30,000 sq. ft. of classroom space and will offer tours for groups who would like to witness this amazing facility.” (For more information on medical meetings, turn to pg. 63.)

As for themed events, Clark says that “Parties in Tampa are usually tropical, Latin or pirate in theme––all things Tampa is known for. Recently, we’ve done dinner cruises and private events at The Florida Aquarium, Busch Gardens, Raymond James Stadium and Splitsville, as well as buyouts of local restaurants.”

   Event set-up at the Florida Aquarium

The innovative Splitsville bowling lanes and dinner house in Channelside is a new concept in bowling, and a popular party spot for meeting planners. “It’s not your grandparents’ bowling alley. Groups always have great fun there,” Clark says. “You don’t have to be a bowler––it’s great for team building, mixers and just having a great time…the added plus: They have excellent food, too.”

The largest port in Florida and a major cruise ship destination, Tampa Bay provides a magical setting for off-site events. Options include sailing with The Florida Aquarium naturalists who use the 72-foot-long Bay Spirit II catamaran as a breezy classroom to teach up to 149 passengers about the bay’s 500 bottlenose dolphins, endangered manatees and numerous species of birds. And the aquarium itself, on Channelside’s waterfront, accommodates up to 3,000 for evening events.

Another choice for bay cruises is the 131-foot, 150-passenger luxury dining vessel, Yacht StarShip, which docks at Channelside in downtown Tampa, as well as in Clearwater and Sarasota. Mega-ships of popular cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival also dock at the Port of Tampa.

One of the most popular attractions in the state, and a favorite daytrip destination on conference itineraries, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is a jungle paradise of African-themed animal exhibits, thrilling rides and live entertainment. Meeting planners can book the Serengeti Night Safari guided tour or a catered gathering in the tented Gwazi Pavilion. Adventure rides and restaurants can also be reserved for groups. For instance, a dinner at the plantation-style Crown Colony restaurant overlooking the park’s Serengeti Plain can be combined with up-close visits with animals and their trainers, capped off with feeding the giraffes on the veldt. And, for an unforgettable experience for 3,000-plus people off-season, the entire park can be reserved.

Meeting planners can choose from more than 70 meetings-oriented hotels in the Tampa Bay area. Fronting the Riverwalk between the TCC and the St. Pete Times Forum, the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina hosts 2,500 seated diners in its 17,169-square-foot Grand Ballroom, which this June was the site of the five-day Millennium DanceSport Championships involving more than 1,700 competitors. The property’s 719 balconied guest rooms, a palm-shaded waterfront event patio, 33 meeting rooms and a total of 50,000 sq. ft. of meeting space comprise the planner’s menu.

Located within the International Plaza shopping and dining mall, and fresh from a half-million-dollar renovation, the 293-room, Four-Diamond Renaissance Tampa Hotel International Plaza has 12,500 sq. ft. of assembly space. Celebrating the property-wide facelift, the destination management company based in Tampa, Eventions of Florida, created a club-like setting in the Costa del Sol Ballroom, with all-white furnishings, a centerpiece bar and dramatic colored lighting as backdrop for Executive Chef Daniel Goldich’s super-sized paella  dish and nitrogen ice cream bar. Tampa opera stars entertained in the ballroom while guests took in the evening air amid the landscaped La Fuente Courtyard, which can accommodate 215 people for receptions.  

Groups of 700 are accommodated in 17,000 sq. ft. of flexible space in the 323-room InterContinental Tampa Hotel in the Westshore business district. Banquets for 450 are held in the Bayshore Ballroom, while receptions take place in an airy atrium, and audiences of 40 are seated in the multi-tiered amphitheater. After conferring in one of the natural light-filled boardrooms that are outfitted with Herman Miller ergonomic chairs, meeting-goers can cool off at the rooftop pool and dig into prime beef at Shula’s Steak House, which is themed around the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ perfect season.

Recently purchased by UBS Global Asset Management and still managed by Hyatt Hotels, the Four-Diamond Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay lies in a leafy 35-acre nature preserve on upper Tampa Bay. Among 445 guest rooms are waterfront casitas with patios, and top-floor VIP suites augmenting 22,000 sq. ft. of overall function space. A renovation of the property is planned for completion by the end of next year.

The Westin Tampa Bay on Rocky Point Island is surrounded on three sides by water. Opened in 2009 with 255 guest rooms, the hotel offers 7,100 sq. ft. of flexible meeting and event space highlighted by the 3,500-square-foot BluVue rooftop venue with floor-to-ceiling windows and a spacious terrace. With a convenient trolley stop at the entrance, two blocks from the TCC, the 299-room Westin Tampa Harbour Island sits on a landscaped island in the city’s downtown. The Harbor Patio and the glassed-in Terrace Room are two choices within 18,032 sq. ft. of event venues.

A $500,000 renovation to its 13,500 sq. ft. of meeting and event space gives the 272-room Wyndham Tampa Westshore a leg up in the bustling local business hotel market. Up to 650 attendees can gather in the Royal Palm Ballroom, and the sunny, 1,500-square-foot deck creates a breezy party spot. Within walking distance of both Westshore Plaza and International Plaza shopping malls, the Wyndham, formerly the Quorum Hotel Tampa, was rebranded in 2010.

St. Petersburg & Clearwater

From Clearwater south to St. Petersburg, miles of sandy beaches draw vacationers and meeting-goers looking to relax on the Gulf. Along St. Pete’s palm-fringed frontage on Tampa Bay, museums, sidewalk cafés and luxury yachts create a Monaco-like setting, while The Pier is the hub for boat rides, sunset and dolphin cruises, fishing and dining.

The new Cleveland Street District development in Clearwater is underway with a $10 million streetscape and walking strand, a new marina and new bars and restaurants.
Spring break and spring training for the Grapefruit League––the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies––bring crowds of fans, who flock to area dining spots. Popular with larger groups is the surf-and-turf menu at the Salt Rock Grill on the Intracoastal Waterway. At the marina on Clearwater Harbor, the Island Way Grill sets up banquet tables, and welcomes up to 175 people for seafood feasts in its private Harbor Room.

Private dolphin shows, eco-boat cruises and behind-the-scenes tours at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium will be more popular than ever this year when the major motion picture, A Dolphin Tale, is released. The 3D movie is based on and stars Winter the Dolphin, the aquarium’s resident celebrity.

   Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort

Major Meeting Venues

The 250-suite Hyatt Regency Clearwater  Beach Resort & Spa opened in 2010. It sits between the Gulf and the Intracoastal Waterway and is located right on Clearwater Beach. The hotel offers 32,000 sq. ft. of event facilities such as the 4,400-square-foot Sky Terrace, eight private terraces with adjoining suites and the eighth-floor pool deck Vista Terrace—all overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Home of PGA and LPGA tournaments, and situated north of Clearwater, the 608-room Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort, is a rambling, campus-style resort with 65,000 sq. ft. of large expo halls and ballrooms, numerous restaurants, customized spa services for corporate groups, four golf courses and a tennis complex.

On the National Register of Historic Places, in all its 1920s-era Mediterranean Revival-style elegance, the 361-room Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club in downtown St. Pete was renovated in 2009. With a private marina, golf course and tennis complex, the resort also sports 42,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Diana Carmenates, vice president of meetings and educational services for The International Dairy Foods Association,  recently coordinated a conference there. She says, “St. Petersburg is so easy to get to and our attendees love the Vinoy. There were just over 100 of us, and there was so much to do within walking distance of the hotel. This is the second time we’ve booked here, and we just re-booked for 2013 and 2014!”

Listed as one of the Historic Hotels of America, the Don CeSar Beach Resort is a pink palace rising on seven miles of powdery white beach. Its 277 guest rooms and suites, some with private terraces, have panoramic views of the Gulf. Renovated in 2009, the entire 22,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space has water views, while outdoor parties are held in beachside pavilions and terraces.

TradeWinds Island Resorts can be accessed by causeways and bridges from the mainland, on 20 palmy acres on the Gulf of Mexico, and is both family vacation- and meetings-oriented. Five swimming pools, tennis and water sports are distractions for conference attendees who gather in nearly 88,000 sq. ft. of meeting and function space. The main conference complex is at the 584-room Island Grand, while the adjacent Sandpiper suites, also at the beachfront, caters to smaller groups with 159 rooms and 17,228 sq. ft. of event space––about half of which is outdoors. Wildly popular are the customized team-building programs, from boat-building regattas to glow-in-the-dark volleyball, live hermit-crab racing, beach Olympics, moonlight dance parties, games on the sand and more.

Opened in January 2011 and overlooking Tampa Bay in downtown St. Pete, a sleek glass-paneled building houses the $36 million Salvador Dalí Museum, already named as one of the Buildings You Have to See Before Your Die by AOL Travel News. Receptions for about 350 are held in the foyers, the gardens and the theater of The Dalí, and planners book private tours of the more than 2,000 Dalí paintings, prints, sculptures and drawings, the largest collection of the artist’s work outside of Spain. The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Pete, which was expanded and renovated in 2008, offers event space in a classic ballroom adorned with crystal chandeliers. A Spanish-style garden and a conservatory complete the elegant space.

Right on Beach Drive on St. Pete’s waterfront, a stunning new permanent installation of the vibrant works of glass artist Dale Chihuly opened last year. Marked at the entrance by a 20-foot-tall, magenta-colored sculpture, the Chihuly Collection is a new choice for private tours, and for parties and receptions for up to 200 people in the rotunda.

   Holiday Inn Sarasota Bradenton Airport


South of Tampa Bay, the city of Sarasota and eight nearby barrier islands on the Gulf make up Sarasota and Her Islands. Beach resorts, romantic sunsets, fishing and water sports and a multitude of cultural attractions bring year-round visitors. Voted this year as the No. 1 beach in the country by Dr. Beach, Siesta Key Beach exemplifies the extraordinary sands of the barrier islands, known for powdery white softness that stays cool, no matter how high the temperature.

Meeting planners like Sarasota’s dependably sunny weather and the relaxing away-from-it-all atmosphere that revitalizes attendees.

Major Meeting Venues

A culture mecca, Sarasota is the home of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, a tropical botanical garden and the Sarasota Classic Car Museum. Accommodating gatherings of more than 200, the Mote Aquarium conference hall overlooks Sarasota Bay. The South Florida Museum makes its Spanish plaza available for outdoor parties, and also features a boardroom with an underwater manatee aquarium view.    

Receptions and parties at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art are held on expansive lawns and garden courtyards overlooking Sarasota Bay. Group tours can be arranged of the flamboyant 56-room Venetian mansion, the circus museum, the circa-1798 Asolo Theater, and the large, world-class museum housing old Masters.    

Often used for sizeable expos, conventions and trade shows, the Sarasota Bradenton International Convention Center, adjacent to the airport, has 93,000 sq. ft. of exhibit and event space and 4,600 sq. ft. of meeting space. On-site, the 135-room Holiday Inn Sarasota Bradenton Airport opened in 2009, augmenting adjacent convention facilities with 3,750 sq. ft. of space.

Among 15,000 hotel rooms in Sarasota, the 294 guest rooms at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota and 20,000 sq. ft. of function space received a $22 million Lilly Pulitzer-design renovation and expansion in recent years. Nearly 10,000 sq. ft., with adjoining landscaped patios, the Sarasota Ballroom holds 1,250 reception guests and 750 seated. A lagoon pool and the marina are viewed through floor-to-ceiling windows in the Tropics and Florida Rooms, while the Palm Terrace encompasses three garden patios.

Unique at the Hyatt is the private 32-slip marina and new over-the-water Marina Boathouse event space. The Hyatt is adjacent to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, which has a 1,736-seat theater, and the Municipal Exhibition Hall with 10,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space.

The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota is a Five-Diamond resort on 11 acres of lush landscaped grounds, with downtown waterfront and Sarasota Bay views from its 266 rooms and suites. It can host groups in its 18,000 sq. ft. of indoor space. The Ritz is known for exceptional group and destination services, such as yacht cruises, culinary experiences, cultural day trips and off-site picnics and recreation. Team building extends to beach games, golf tournaments, and local volunteer activities such as assisting with rescued animals at the Gulf Coast Sanctuary.

An island beach resort, the 218-room Longboat Key Club & Resort focuses on groups of up to about 150, with 12,000 sq. ft. for conferences and events. Forty-five holes of golf offer a variety of opportunities for meeting break clinics and team-building tournaments.