Friday, May 25, 2018
Business

Tampa's tourism strategy pays off as city hosts its second Frozen Four

TAMPA — St. Petersburg has its beaches. Orlando has its theme parks. And Tampa — well, as Santiago Corrada put it, Tampa has its "blessings."

"We're blessed with some great physical assets," said Corrada, the CEO of Hillsborough County's tourism agency.

He doesn't mean natural assets, however. He means man-made assets such as Raymond James Stadium, the Sun Dome and Amalie Arena, which is hosting the Frozen Four this week.

They're big venues meant for big crowds that are basically "begging" for the city to host national sporting events, Corrada said, helping transform the city into a "sports destination."

"The sports market is a great market to bring fans to town, who will prolong their stay and spend money on our attractions," he said. "Our mission is to put heads in beds in our hotels and further economic development."

Pinellas' tourism strategy is built around its world-famous beaches. But the Tampa/Hillsborough area has to rely on other assets: Cuban culture, urban nightlife and, in recent years, sporting events.

The ability to host those events has become an essential element in Hillsborough County's strategy to attract tourist dollars from around the country. This week's Frozen Four is the second of five consecutive college sports championships that the city will host from 2015-19 — and the second Frozen Four the city has hosted since 2012.

As college hockey players duke it for the Division I Men's Ice Hockey Championships, Hillsborough County hopes to reap the economic benefits.

When Tampa first hosted the Frozen Four, tourists spent about $10 million in the county and booked about 15,000 hotel room nights, said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. He expects this year's hockey tournament to produce similar numbers.

It's the job of Higgins and the sports commission to lure sporting events to Hillsborough, often by offering financial incentives. In fiscal year 2015, Higgins said those events resulted in more than 180,000 hotel visitor nights in Hillsborough, which includes last year's NCAA Women's Final Four basketball tournament.

The sports commission offered a seven-figure subsidy to the NCAA to lure the women's tournament last year, but Higgins would not disclose the incentive for this year's Frozen Four.

In the past decade the city has hosted a long list of NCAA events and is slated to host college sporting events through 2022. In 2009, for example, the city hosted the ACC Football Championship and the NCAA Women's Volleyball Championship. Next year, Raymond James Stadium will host the College Football Playoff National Championship. In 2019, Tampa will host the NCAA Women's Final Four for the third time in 11 years.

"I think we've continued to play an important role in the tourism strategy," Higgins said. "(Tampa's) got a really well-oiled, working tourism machine."

He looks for three main things when deciding what sporting events to bring to Tampa: economic impact, social impact and the exposure it will bring the city.

"It really portrays our community in a great light," Higgins said. "It's an exciting stage for our hometown to be on."

Especially when those events are broadcast nationally on ESPN. That exposure could introduce Tampa to potential tourists.

Higgins also sees the Frozen Four as a way to introduce college hockey to a state that doesn't have any Division I college programs of its own.

The Tampa Bay Lightning has already done its part to bring hockey fans to Tampa, appearing in two Stanley Cup finals and hoisting the cup in 2004. Tampa was the first city in the southeast to ever host the national college hockey tournament in its six-decade history.

Boston's Heidi Paulson is an avid college hockey fan who regularly attends the Frozen Four. She was skeptical when it was announced that Florida would host the 2012 tournament.

This time around, she has no reservations. She plans to walk the city's streets, enjoy its restaurants and bask in the sunshine while watching her favorite sport.

"We left the snow and the cold, and this is wonderful," she said Wednesday while watching the University of North Dakota practice at Amalie Arena.

The NCAA is into Tampa, too.

The city "takes it to the next level," said the Kristin Fasbender, the NCAA's director of championships and alliances.

There were NCAA officials, youth hockey players and local fans waiting to greet the hockey teams at the airport. When they arrived at the arena, there was a literal red carpet.

"We want to make sure they understand . . . there's a community that couldn't be more excited to have them here," Higgins said.

Tampa may be a "nontraditional" city for college hockey, Fasbender said. But when the sports commission first made its pitch for the 2012 Frozen Four, local officials made it clear that they wanted the college sport to find a new home in Tampa.

Two Frozen Fours later, Hills­borough is now starting to attract a number of youth hockey tournaments, Corrada said, which will produce its own economic benefit.

"Other cities look at ours as kind of model," he said.

Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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