Republican Convention creates business opportunities for Manatee, Sarasota

jsalman@bradenton.comJuly 22, 2012 

MANATEE -- The 2012 Republican National Convention will give a much-needed shot in the arm to Florida's tourism industry to help spur it out of the summer doldrums.

As the nation's eyes turn to the GOP in Tampa Bay next month, local business leaders say Manatee and Sarasota are poised to reap the trickle-down revenue benefits.

From hotel stays to dining and shopping, tourism-driven businesses are expecting an upswing. Economic development leaders also are working to sprout investment opportunities from corporate executives who will be tuning in.

"This is a big one," said Rob Ferguson, director of sales for Kinsman Resorts, which runs a Holiday Inn and Fairfield Inn in Lakewood Ranch. "Our hotels are beginning to fill up with that business."

Nearly 50,000 out-of-state delegates, journalists and party volunteers will flock to Hillsborough and its surrounding communities for the RNC convention Aug. 27-30 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Officials compare the event's direct economic impact to that of a Super Bowl -- putting heads in hotel beds, filling tables at eateries and selling tickets to local attractions.

Denver, which hosted the last Democratic National Convention in 2008, reported a regional economic impact of $266.1 million. Similarly, the Minneapolis-St. Paul host committee said the 2008 Republican National Convention generated nearly $170 million in new money for its economy, according to information provided by those cities.

Area tourism officials hope to capture any overflow once hotels near the venue are booked -- and draw Tampa residents seeking to avoid the crowds by skipping town for the week.

Already, at least 3,400 hotel rooms have been reserved in Manatee County for those four nights, or about half of the 6,200 rooms in the short-term rental pool, according to the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

At an average daily rate of $100 a night, that equates to $1.36 million in direct hotelier spending alone, not counting the dining or shopping those visitors will do during down time.

Most of the guests staying in Manatee for the event are support service personnel, with delegates and party donors occupying the rooms closer to Tampa.

Tourist development taxes, a measure of local hotel spending, historically drop from their peak in March by about two-thirds in August, one of the slowest times of the year for travel, records show.

Consumer spending also tapers significantly in a typical August. Between Manatee and Sarasota, merchants collected $1.508 billion in gross sales last August, the worst monthly showing of 2011, according to the Florida Department of Revenue.

The ultimately goal, however, is for RNC visitors to fall in love with the area, booking a longer beach vacation here in the future, said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We're trying to plant that seed in the minds of attendees so they dig into our website and plan a future vacation here," Falcione said. "We will be prepared for the impact."

And the demographics play right into his hands.

The average age of Anna Maria's visitors is 52, with a median household income of nearly $100,000. Those invited to the RNC closely fit the bill.

The Bradenton visitor's bureau has spent $75,000 on advertising for the event to make sure they get the message across -- with two billboards on Interstate 275 and another on Interstate 4 welcoming Republicans. The agency also ran an ad in the event's official visitor guide as well as Politico Magazine.

In Sarasota, the tourism arm hasn't dedicated any marketing directly to the convention, but the county already focuses its summer advertising largely on Tampa's drive market, so officials are hoping to catch the interest of locals and party visitors.

"This is purely a business trip for the attendees," said Erin Duggan, communications director for Visit Sarasota. "But we know these groups like to stay together, and if they can't get a room block in Hillsborough, they may leak to Manatee and Sarasota."

The projected impact doesn't stop at tourism.

Economic development officials hope to leverage the convention for potential business relocation opportunities, snagging the attention of high-level decision-makers across the country.

The Tampa Bay Partnership, which consists of economic development groups including those in Manatee and Sarasota, has organized four days of forums in conjunction with the RNC to sell every aspect of the business community to prospective targets.

The Front Row Tampa Bay initiative will feature a panel of economic experts discussing topics ranging from energy to health care and entrepreneurship opportunities from Polk to Sarasota. The event will be broadcast live online and hosted just a mile from the site of the convention.

"We're well known for our quality of life," said Betty Carlin, vice president of marketing and communications for the Tampa Bay Partnership. "What's lesser known is some of the business strengths we have."

Florida Realtors will be presenting home-buying opportunities, and technology companies will be showing off their latest.

Even boat manufacturers from across the nation will gather at the RNC this year, with booths, product demonstrations and boating excursions designed to showcase the importance of the $72 billion annual industry.

"We just saw the RNC as a great opportunity to tell our story, and we think it will resonate well," said Nicole Vasilaros, manager of government relations and legislative counsel for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. "Especially in the state of Florida, boat building has a strong influence on the economy."

Restaurants and shopping areas along the I-75 corridor have the best chance to see a direct uptick in patronage, officials said.

For now, most are just eager to take what they can get, because every little bit helps -- especially in August.

"We're excited about the potential impact that this will have on our center," said Sarah Ozgun, assistant general manager of Ellenton Premium Outlets. "We're certainly prepared and hoping to benefit. Shopping is an activity we hope will appeal to conventioneers and those traveling with them to the area."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman

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