In an arena dominated by lodging and travel executives, Maryann Ferenc is looking to influence how the Tampa Bay area and federal government support tourism. Co-proprietor of Tampa's landmark Mise en Place restaurant, Ferenc is chairwoman of Tampa Bay & Co., the public/private group that promotes tourism in Hillsborough County. In February, she was appointed to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Board, which advises the secretary of commerce on travel and tourism policy.
Ferenc recently talked with the Times about Tampa's growing stature as a convention destination and ideas to grow tourism locally.
Where did you get your interest in tourism as an economic driver?
When we opened (Mise en Place), our landlord kept talking about how we were going to be a destination city with all this convention business with the Tampa convention opening. I liked that I was part of what defined the destination.
Of course, you've got a profit motive working as well, right?
Business is up as much as 30 percent in a good convention year. And it's almost always higher margin business. At a business (dinner), there are more people you're entertaining. You're not ordering just one course. Dinner is the purpose of your being here.
Tampa's had a good run recently, landing the Republican National Convention for 2012 and advancing in the competition to host the FIFA World Cup soccer championships in 2018 or 2022. How important has that been?
Just being involved in the World Cup bid changes how we are seen. You're seen as being in a group of cities that are great destinations. You have a certain amount of culture and openness, a broad spectrum of people. You have a certain level of activities. Not as much as New York but like a New York.
What's the benefit going forward?
We're not just going to get big unknown conventions but (high-profile) large conventions with 10,000 or 15,000 people. You've passed a whole lot of tests to get where you are.
As chair of Tampa Bay & Co., you've asked members to tackle some big, long-term issues. What's on the agenda?
We want to look at how do we as a community make the most out of (tourism) and have an economic impact. Transportation is an issue, certainly light rail. Also economics — we've looked at the city's budget shrink and so has money for services to support events. How does the industry help support that? It feeds our business.
Are you looking beyond Tampa?
Working with Pinellas is where it begins. We're already working together on big events (such as the Super Bowl and Republican convention bids). We need to look at the everyday stuff ... and presenting ourselves as a complete destination.
Do you mean jointly advertising Tampa Bay as a single destination?
How did you get appointed to the Travel and Tourism Board?
I know Frank Sanchez, the undersecretary of commerce for international trade. I worked on his campaign for mayor (of Tampa in 2003). They were looking for someone from this market who was representative of independent business. Small business is very valuable but doesn't get as much time at the table.
Isn't it a little intimidating to be on this panel with the leaders who run Delta Air Lines, Visa, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Hyatt Hotels?
I absolutely belong at the same table. In travel and tourism, (Mise en Place) is the kind of business that creates a destination and makes it distinctive.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.