RNC's expected benefits to Manatee tempered by Isaac

MANATEE -- For eager businesses across Southwest Florida, the Republican National Convention has yet to live up to its hype.

As light crowds in Tampa worry downtown vendors, who added staff and extra supplies preparing for a boon, those in Manatee expecting a trickle down effect have also had mild disappointment.

Tabbed as the biggest event ever hosted by Tampa Bay, tourism officials remain optimistic the conference will end strong.

The RNC has delivered some extra visitor spending to Manatee merchants battling their slowest time of the year. But the impact has been tamer than many had hoped.

As fears of Tropical Storm Isaac washed away Monday's activities, many conventioneers who had reserved rooms in Manatee were instead able to snag a stay closer to the venue. As a result, some of their shopping and dining money left along with them.

"We have had a few people say they were in town for the convention, but not enough to say we've had an influx," said John Horne, owner of the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, which has two restaurants in Bradenton and another in Ellenton. "The storm definitely played spoiler. People were more worried about their businesses and their homes than the RNC the first few days."

More than 50,000 out-of-state visitors have convened in Hillsborough and its surrounding communities for the RNC at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Officials have compared 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, according to information provided by those cities.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has estimated a $150 million impact, says Isaac put a damper on the first day, but he's confident things will rebound by the end of the week.

Meanwhile in Manatee, tourism officials have long hoped to capture any overflow from the event.

RNC visitors initially reserved 3,400 hotel rooms, or about half of the 6,200 rooms in Manatee's short-term rental pool. That tally has since slipped to under 3,200, according to the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

Given the time of the year, the CVB still considers it a gift. At an average daily rate of about $100 a night, the RNC has created $1.28 million in hotelier spending alone.

"We felt it, just not significantly," said Rob Ferguson, director of sales for Kinsman Resorts, which operates a Holiday Inn and Fairfield Inn at Lakewood Ranch. "We did have some cancellations, but not as many as I expected. But we also didn't pick up any last minute reservations either."

Tourism officials, however, remain hopeful their marketing efforts will plant a seed into the minds of RNC visitors, with hopes they book a future vacation here.

Any impact during the event is just the icing on the cake, said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area CVB.

"We're trying to create awareness for our destination," he said. "That's the meat of what we're trying to accomplish."

Florida Realtor associations had planned events at the RNC to pitch home buying opportunities in greater Tampa Bay.

But those efforts haven't led to any calls.

"Certainly the increased exposure should lead to buyers down the road," said Peter Crowley, broker and co-owner of the Re/Max Alliance Group, with offices in Bradenton and Sarasota. "But we haven't seen that yet."

Even the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, counting on a boost from private aircraft owners flying in for the convention, had a let down.

The RNC called off many of Monday's events, lifting the temporary flight restriction placed around Hillsborough and Pinellas.

That subsequently allowed many private planes to fly right into Tampa instead of landing at SRQ for clearance.

"It didn't result in a lot of general aviation for our fixed-base operators like we thought," Airport President and CEO Rick Piccolo said. "A lot of the traffic we were expecting went straight to Tampa."

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