SAFETY HARBOR — More than 500 small business owners packed into the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa Thursday, all looking for the same thing: the keys they need to sell their goods and services when the Republican National Convention comes to town.
"The buzz is out there," said Sheree Johnson, who owns Image Masters International, a photography and video production company in Clearwater. "There is a lot of talk, knowing the amount they're anticipating spending. We want to be a part of it."
The standing-room-only crowd came for a forum sponsored by the Tampa Bay Host Committee, the nonprofit group raising money to support the convention and promote the bay area.
Scheduled for Aug. 27-30 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the convention is projected to generate an estimated $175 million to $200 million in direct spending.
But not necessarily all will be spent in Tampa Bay. For example, the estimate includes $50 million in federal funds that Tampa is getting to provide convention security. Much of that will pay out-of-state suppliers of police equipment and officers temporarily hired from other parts of Florida.
Still, consider the numbers that do impact Tampa Bay: 50,000 visitors will occupy 15,000 local hotel rooms each night of the convention. The GOP, its 56 state and territory delegations, plus major corporations, trade groups and big media companies are expected to book 75 Tampa Bay venues for parties. To host those parties, they'll need products or services in nearly 50 categories, from catering to electrical engineering to janitorial services to gift baskets.
SP Plus Gameday, an Orlando company hired to bus 5,000 conventioneers around Tampa Bay, told the crowd it will need airport greeters, bus and administrative staff, tow trucks, barricades, parking lot preparation and restoration services, signs and banners, tents, chairs, trailers, fencing, boxed lunches and portable toilets.
To help local companies connect with buyers, the host committee is creating a small business networking program. It also has asked its corporate supporters, both local and national, to do business with Tampa Bay companies when they can.
It is the first time a GOP convention has launched a business development program for local companies in the host city, organizers say.
On Thursday, though, part of their job was to manage expectations.
"We cannot promise you contracts," host committee chief operating officer Matt Becker told the crowd. "We're here to help you. We're here to promote you, and we're here to support you."
Of course Martin Saavedra Jr. of MLI Integrated Graphic Solutions in Tampa would welcome the chance to see his printing and marketing company get involved with the convention.
Beyond that, however, he said it will be a huge event that will do wonderful things to promote the city, "and promoting the city is going to be great for everybody."
Saavedra also noted that the small business networking program represents a chance for companies of modest means to participate in an event largely shaped by huge political and corporate players.
"The main reason a lot of these companies are here is they don't have the sponsorship dollars to stroke a check for $100,000 and become a corporate sponsor," he said.
In fact, qualifying for the program does not require a buy-in, but a sign-up.
First, the business must be located in and its owner must live in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk or Manatee county.
Second, it must be certified as a small business enterprise (SBE), women/minority business enterprise (WMBE) or service-disabled veteran enterprise (SDVE) by the cities of Tampa or St. Petersburg or by Hillsborough or Pinellas counties.
That means companies that want to bid for convention-related business and are not already certified need to contact the business development office in one of those cities or counties.
While they were heartened by the turnout, organizers say businesses that did not attend the forum can still sign up for the networking program. To do that, they can register online at 2012tampa.com/small-business-network.
The host committee plans to publish a directory of participating businesses in March to help connect buyers to local sellers before, during and after the convention. Each business enrolled in the program will have a link to its own website on the directory's website, with companies listed by product or service.
Also in March, the host committee plans to hold a matchmaking forum for buyers and sellers.
Host committee members say the networking program is not just for the convention. It's good if it creates business opportunities outside the convention and good if it lasts beyond August.
"We want things that are legacy projects," host committee president and chief executive officer Ken Jones said. "We want things that are going to live beyond the convention."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.