TAMPA — If a billboard helps tell the story of a place and its people, the new one on Kennedy Boulevard went up just in time.
"Arghrested on Gasparilla?" it asks, next to the photo of a defense lawyer dressed as a pirate.
Yes, it's Tampa in ye mystic season of Gasparilla, the boisterous annual invasion and parade of fake pirates that attracts an estimated 300,000 people, many of them reaching for beads and downing beers and rum drinks sold along the parade route.
The lawyer's billboard is an example of how businesses hunt for customers at the city's signature event. No wonder. A 2007 study found Gasparilla is a potential treasure trove, leaving a $20 million economic impact.
That presents a clear opportunity for some, but the marketing calculation can get tricky for others when the most prominent pirate is Captain Morgan.
"They need to be ready for the potholes," said Karen Post, a Tampa marketer and author of the book Brand Turnaround: How Brands Gone Bad Returned to Glory … and the 7 Game Changers that Made the Difference.
Such risks include identifying a business with the rowdier aspects of Gasparilla. Two years ago, for instance, residents of historic Hyde Park launched a campaign to tamp down the excesses that spilled into their neighborhood: public urination, underage drinking, passed-out spectators.
"Anything your business aligns with makes a statement about your brand," said Nancy Walker of Walker Brands in Tampa.
For many businesses, marketing to the Gasparilla crowd is a no-brainer. Top sponsors include Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Pepin Distributing Co., the Anheuser-Busch distributor.
A number of South Tampa restaurants and bars have declared themselves Gasparilla dining and drinking headquarters.
At the Lodge on S Howard Avenue, co-owner David Pullman bought about five times what he usually needs for the week and called up extra staff.
"It's probably the craziest weekend, to be sure," he said.
Even staid dining institutions get in on the action, though they don't get too swashbuckler about it. Bern's Steak House is packed every Gasparilla, said Brooke Palmer, director of public relations. It loosens its dress code to accommodate pirate regalia.
But for the first time, the owners decided to close the Side Bern's restaurant this year to free up extra parking. Like a number of South Tampa organizations, Bern's, which has a 232-space parking deck, has found that selling spaces can pull in decent cash.
Parking is a premium at Gasparilla, and businesses often charge about $20 a space.
The Bead Barn, also in South Tampa, counts the two-weekend event — last weekend's children's parade and Saturday's pirate parade — among its busiest.
General manager J.B. Mason said it gets about 40 million strands of beads — on seven semitrailer trucks — to last through Gasparilla and St. Patrick's Day.
"It's pretty busy," he said.
And then there's the criminal defense lawyer, Andrew Shein, who put up the Gasparilla billboard, the first time he's done so.
Shein said he wants the thousands expected to drink this weekend to think of him should they get in trouble. "It's getting recognition," he said.
Some businesses seek ways of tapping into the huge crowds, but only with caveats.
McDonald's and Publix lend their names to the alcohol-free parts of the Gasparilla celebration— the children's parade and road races, respectively.
At Publix's GreenWise Market in Hyde Park, a display offers beer and pirate-themed snacks and includes a pirate mannequin. But Gasparilla isn't named.
Larry Salkin, who runs the Tampa Water Taxi, does good business between the children's parade and pirate invasion. Two of his three boats were booked as of last week.
But the first year he ran the charter boats, Salkin said he made a mistake: He let different groups on the same boat. It left an awkward mix of older people who came to watch with younger people who came to party.
"We decided, 'You know what? Let's have like groups together,' " he said.
So now, the boats are chartered out to entire blocks of friends.
Sponsors also take their intended audience into account when deciding where to locate on the parade route.
Darrell Stefany, whose company, EventFest, coordinates the festivities, said the celebration has a diverse enough crowd that there's something for the businesses that pay sponsorship fees for the right to hand out samples or advertise services at the event.
He said organizers put companies hawking products geared to families at the start of the parade, because parents with children may not walk the entire route.
Businesses aiming for young adults locate downtown, where the party keeps going.
"We really have everybody at Gasparilla, from the young to the grandparents," he said.
Post, the marketer, said companies should find a way to stand out to make the effort worth it.
Sponsors are smart to hand out samples, she said, especially to the 20-something crowd.
That way they'll have something they can take home and wake up with the next day.
Reach Jodie Tillman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.