TAMPA — The term "game changer" is a cliche. But to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, it also perfectly describes the new Copa Airlines route connecting Tampa Bay to Latin America.
The flights started in December, giving the bay area its first connection to a major Latin American hub, Panama City. From there, the rest of Central and South America is just one connecting flight away.
"That was a game changer for us," Buckhorn said. "I know that is used frequently and oftentimes overused, but it fits this situation."
Buckhorn recently returned from his third trip to Panama in as many years with a coalition of more than 40 Tampa Bay leaders in economic development, business and education. On Thursday, they discussed their trip and how they expect the ties they're building in Panama to soon flower.
"This trip was all about building relationships," said Rick Homans, the CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.
The delegation included Buckhorn, Homans, Tampa International Airport chief executive Joe Lopano, Tampa Port Authority CEO Paul Anderson and SunTrust Bank CEO Allen Brinkman.
They all flew on the new Copa route. In the past, traveling from Tampa to Panama City required a trip to Orlando or Miami first. The entire trip could take a whole day.
But the new route — Copa planes land and take off from Tampa International four days a week — has reduced that trip to a matter of hours. The passenger numbers show the route has been successful, officials said, though they did not disclose those figures.
"The Copa flights are a barometer of the level of success and activity," Homans said. "As that increases to daily flights, which we're confident it will at some point, that will be a major tipping point in our relationship.
"It will make doing business so much easier. That's what businesses want, that accessibility and connectivity."
Homans said some time this year he will lead a trade mission to Panama, taking along Tampa Bay companies so they can make business connections there.
Meanwhile, Buckhorn's work is not done. He has visited Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Israel, Switzerland and now Panama for the third time. This weekend he'll head to India to promote the "Bollywood Oscars" awards weekend in Tampa coming up April 24-26.
"We're going to continue to spread the gospel of Tampa, Fla.," the mayor said, "as long as we're breathing."