Gasparilla Pirate InvasionImagine a waterfront walkway that stretches over 2 miles and offers direct access to a convention center, a cluster of hotels, stellar attractions such as an aquarium, first-class museums and multiple restaurants, all connected by water taxis. That is Tampa’s Riverwalk, which was recently completed and has become symbolic of Tampa’s emergence as a major Florida destination. “The convention center has a central, prime location,” says Shaun Drinkard, executive director of Friends of Riverwalk, a private nonprofit. “Although it’s used mostly for meetings, the convention center has become a destination for visitors and locals who are not attending meetings because of its outdoor waterfront bar, called The Sail, which has beautiful views of the bay and great sunsets.” Riverwalk is just part of Tampa’s citywide rebirth. “This destination was untapped, undiscovered and unexplored, and has taken its rightful place in Florida,” says Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “We already had amazing assets, but were under the radar. I always felt it was an untapped market. “When I came here, we decided to spread the word with smart marketing and use of data to drive decisions. Planners who come here are amazed at all that attendees can do and how easy it is to get around.” Between the Tampa Museum of Art and The Florida Aquarium lies more than 3,000 guest rooms in many types of properties, from trendy lifestyle hotels to luxury resorts, and it’s all surrounded by glistening waterfront and a downtown overflowing with possibilities. Businesses and hotels continue navigating toward Tampa, ensuring this rising-star city will keep soaring.
Experiencing RiverwalkAt its core, Riverwalk is a return to the Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel waterfronts, which had been neglected for many years and, as typical of port cities, Tampa offered little public access to it.
Curtis Hixon Waterfront ParkFollowing efforts to open the waterfront for the bicentennial in 1976, the first Riverwalk segment opened in 2000. Pieces have been added, and today, it provides 2.6 miles of continuous linear park in downtown Tampa. Seven waterfront parks are connected by the 15-foot-wide pedestrian and bicycle-friendly pathway along the water. Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, offering major concerts and shows, is a major event park in the center of Riverwalk. Other parks are urban spaces ranging in size from one-half acre to 3 acres—featuring splash fountains, food vendors, seating and amenities. Most of the cultural institutions overlook the parks.
Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa Downtown Convention CenterFive hotels are directly connected to Riverwalk: Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa Downtown Convention Center, Sheraton Riverwalk, Barrymore Hotel Tampa Riverwalk and the newest addition, Marriott’s lifestyle brand hotel, Aloft Tampa Downtown, which opened in 2014 and features W XYZ bar and a pool deck overlooking the Hillsborough River. Eight restaurants adjacent to Riverwalk make up part of a specialty center, where visitors can purchase alcoholic beverages to sip and stroll, as locals put it. The cups that the beverages are served in feature maps of Riverwalk and its attractions. “There are always opportunities for other businesses,” Drinkard says. “Riverwalk itself has become an economic driver for the city and many businesses are looking to open adjacent to it.”
RiverwalkOne example of how Riverwalk has had an impact on Tampa’s meeting landscape can be seen in the hotels. Ron McAnaugh, general manager of 719-room Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, says, “We are located right on the Riverwalk and when we were built, as was the mindset at the time, we shielded ourselves from the river to provide a feeling of exclusivity. Now we are going to open ourselves up to the river so all the people coming by can see our hotel and our restaurants. It [will] involve removing large planters, extending our patio and doing other work.” For attendees, there are often bonuses because of the events happening constantly in and around Riverwalk. “We recently had a cheerleading competition that drew 18,000 for a citywide convention,” McAnagh says. “They happened to be there at the same time as Riverfest, our big music, food and entertainment festival. [They] were able to just step outside the building and join in the fun.” Other events include Margarita Festival in May (which recently hosted Blues Travelers), and the three-month-long Gasparilla Season January–March, which includes pirates, parade floats, fireworks and more.
Meeting on the Water
Tampa Convention CenterRight at the heart of Riverwalk is Tampa Convention Center, which will undergo a $10 million renovation over the next four years. Eric Blanc, director of sales for the convention center, says that it is already more of a destination than just a meeting facility. The center owns and operates a marina used by a number of water-based companies. The four-level convention center currently offers 600,000 sq. ft. of space, including a 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall, 84,000 sq. ft. of prefunction space, 36,000-square-foot ballroom and 36 breakout rooms. Given its location, attendees have a chance to mix with locals while enjoying waterside activities and restaurants. While there has been talk about opening a new hotel that would be connected to the convention center, plans remain on hold. According to Blanc, the hotel would require a dramatic change to the product. However, business is already very good. As recently as five or six years ago, he said, the summer was very quiet, but thanks to concerted sales efforts and increased planner visits, it has become difficult to find open dates during the summer months.
Loews Don CeSar Hotel, St. Pete BeachWhile Riverwalk has put a whole new face on Tampa, it is only part of what makes it an appealing destination for meetings. According to Corrada, Tampa has had 29 consecutive months of growth in meetings, and the long-term outlook is strong. Aside from its physical assets, Tampa is affordable. It lies somewhere in the middle, financially, between pricier locations such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and the Palm Beaches, and less expensive ones such as Daytona. “We are not the cheapest,” Corrada says, “but we deliver quality as well as affordability.” Tampa has proven it can accommodate large events. It has already been host to four Super Bowls and the 2012 Republican National Convention, will welcome the 2017 National College Football Championship and is in the running for a Super Bowl in 2020 or 2021. As a leisure destination, Tampa is ideal for attendees who want to bring their families. The city’s business model is different from some convention cities, Corrada says, because it’s so easy to cross from one mode to the other. If attendees are in town with family for a convention they can all visit the many attractions the area has to offer (see sidebar for some of the attractions). Other Tampa neighborhoods are easily accessible from Riverwalk, but they are destinations of their own.
Ybor cigar rollersYbor City, once hailed as the Cigar Capital of the World, is now an entertainment hub with restaurants, dance halls, a movie theater and several music clubs. Westshore is a lively business district with several historic neighborhoods and two substantial malls: WestShore Plaza, and the upscale International Plaza and Bay Street. Minutes from the airport, the area offers more than 30 hotel options with excellent meeting spaces. InterContinental Tampa, for example, boasts 323 upscale guest rooms and 17,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.
Epicurean HotelSoho and Hyde Park neighborhoods lie along Bayshore Boulevard, a long, unbroken sidewalk popular with joggers, bikers, skaters and visitors. Here, too, are fine restaurants and the 137-room Epicurean Hotel, a foodie mecca with 5,200 sq. ft. of event space and a focus on wine, chocolate and other decadent cuisine.
Bern's Fine Wines & Spirits, Epicurean HotelIn neighboring St. Petersburg, join the annual Crab & Music Festival in June, or the St. Petersburg Science Festival in October. The famous Gatsby-era Pink Palace, now Loews Don CeSar Hotel, is a must-see resort in St. Pete Beach with famous pink walls and 277 beautiful guest rooms and suites.
The Bottom LineTampa tourism industry leaders boast that once planners come to the city, they are sold on it as a venue for their meetings. With the completion of Riverwalk and the continuing emergence of the entire city, that will be truer than ever.
Zipping Around Tampa
TECO Line Streetcars (Photo by Keir Magoulas | Visit Tampa Bay)Getting around Tampa by water and land has become multimodal, affordable and fun. Traditional bus and taxi service is available, but there are many more ways to get around. Here are some options. ZipCar: This car-sharing program recently launched in Tampa and enables drivers to simply use a credit card to get a car, drive it to where they’re going and park it in a designated spot. Local stops include Tampa Convention Center. Water taxis: Pirate Water Taxi makes 14 stops along the Riverwalk, including the convention center and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. They are also available for private charters, scenic tours and more. Uber and Lyft: Both app-based ride-share companies are available in Tampa to take you to and from hotels, restaurants and venues, usually at a lower charge than a taxi. Coast Bike Share: With stations throughout downtown, Tampa’s bike-share system lets anyone with a credit card and smartphone register and ride in a matter of minutes. TECO Line Streetcars: These classic replica vehicles connect many Tampa neighborhoods and can host guided group tours.
Harvey Chipkin is a freelance writer who has been covering the hospitality and meetings industries for many years.