2 min read March 2021 — Visit Tampa Bay is a not-for-profit 501 C (6) destination marketing organization that works with its 750-plus partners to promote the Tampa Bay region. Its efforts helped make the area the busiest travel destination of the year in 2020, despite a pandemic. In an interview with Invest:, President and CEO Santiago Corrada discussed the organization’s work, provided insights into the impact from the minimum wage increase and his outlook for the region.
What helped Tampa become the busiest travel destination of the year in 2020?
This is a testament to hard work. Going into the pandemic in February, we were setting records in terms of tourism numbers and we had a huge year ahead of us hosting major sporting events and conventions. We were undaunted in making sure we could get back to the business of righting the economy through safe and responsible travel. The numbers that came out at the end of 2020 were not so surprising because we were very intentional in trying to market the destination. Many of the events that were supposed to go ahead in 2020 have rescheduled with us. Obviously, our industry has suffered tremendously and we are nowhere near our historic record-setting pace.
How were the attractions that were open able to maintain safety while staying profitable?
Tampa is a very resilient destination. All of the attractions — whether the museums, zoo, aquarium, Busch Gardens, the airport, Port Tampa Bay and our hotel and restaurant industry — were focused on adapting to the new reality. People were creative in how to open and be entrepreneurial in this environment. Precautions were critically important from day one and we were very careful in how we resumed our operations.
Given the aversion to large gatherings, what is your outlook for the convention industry?
In the short term, we will see these hybrid events and we’ve been able to adapt to that. We offer a hybrid grant for those meetings that cannot go ahead in person and did not count on the added expense of the technology. Our incentive is based on subsidizing the technology provided the event has an in-person component. That will be the norm in the short term until the pandemic begins to slow but just like with travel, I see this pent-up demand for people to get together in person. Selling and marketing is still a very face-to-face, relationship-based occupation. We’ve landed some major conventions for the years to come, even at the height of the pandemic.
On the hotel side, JW Marriott opened ahead of the Super Bowl. In Ybor City, we have Hotel Haya, which was named by USA Today as one of the best hotels in the country. We also have a Marriott Editions property under construction. This is one of the top Marriott brands. We have hotels in Midtown and a new Hyatt, which will be coming online as we move out of the pandemic. This should position Tampa in a better place for the future. The government has done a great job in making sure construction projects continue.
How do you expect the increase in the minimum wage to impact Tampa’s key industries?
There has been some criticism regarding the fact that hospitality is traditionally a low-wage industry. On the tail end, we have seen many people move through the ranks of these industries and come out the other end with extremely high-paying jobs. The rise in minimum wage is helpful but there has always been a career trajectory within these industries with a lot of opportunity for growth. We have carried out some studies through our Hotel-Motel Association and there is a definite disparity in the level of pay in the industry compared to others that demand degrees.
What are some of the regional offerings that make Tampa Bay unique?
The markets all seem to complement each other and connect well. Pinellas has the beaches and Pasco is starting to differentiate itself as a sporting venue. Tampa Bay is a major city on the Gulf Coast. We also have a broad scope of cultural activities. The cities and counties all have different personalities, which offers tourists the best of all worlds.
What is your near-term outlook and what changes from 2020 will become permanent?
We were never a place that suffered from “over-tourism,” where it is very overwhelming to visit a place because of overcrowding. This could be a positive for us in the future, especially given the new focus on open spaces. People do not want to be trapped with a million other people anymore and Tampa Bay offers the typical Florida East Coast lifestyle without the huge crowds. We will see how it shapes up in terms of tourism as people start to feel more comfortable with national and international travel. We are not where we need to be with big shows, conventions, international travel and the cruise ship industry. I think we are doing very well considering that a lot of our big components are not yet back in place.
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