Nearly 450 operators who work in the travel industry in Latin, Central and South America are about to convene in downtown St. Petersburg for the La Cita de las Americas conference. Beginning today, those who work in the travel industry, specifically in Latin America and the Caribbean, will participate in a travel industry networking conference at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club. This is the first time the conference, which has always taken place in Florida, will be held on the Gulf Coast, said Rick Still, the managing director and founder of La Cita. The networking event and conference, which is by invitation only, has previously been held in Boca Raton and Miami. "The focus is that business is personal," said Still, who worked in the tourism industry for several years before founding this conference. "Especially in Latin America, travel and tourism is about relationships." The three-day conference is where travel industry suppliers, operators, buyers and marketers will meet and make deals, Still said. Visit Florida and Visit St. Pete-Clearwater are supporting the conference, Still said, which has helped draw the largest delegation of tour operators in the conference's history. "Because of the support of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater and Visit Florida, we're able to host a buyer program at a significantly reduced cost. We've never had this large of a delegation before," Still said. Previous Coverage: Where are Orlando's beaches? Pinellas tourism pitch urges visitors to head west Latin American travelers are an important and growing market for Florida's tourism industry. While Canada is still the top international market for tourism in Florida, Brazil was Florida's No. 3 largest international market, followed by Argentina at No. 4, Colombia at No. 5 and Venezuela at No. 8, according to 2016 data from Visit Florida. Latin American travelers are easily some of the biggest vacation spenders too, Still said. "Sixty-two percent of all travelers coming to the U.S. from Latin America go to Florida," Still said. "You see that in Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They also spend roughly four times as much as Canadians spend while they're here." While South Florida continues to be the hub of activity for Latin American travelers, Still said Visit St. Pete-Clearwater's investment in attracting this type of international traveler is beginning to pay off. "We expected to see some attrition when we chose the Vinoy and St. Petersburg" as a host site, he said. "But this region has been aggressive and (Visit St. Pete-Clearwater) has taken their gloves off to go after Latin American business. They're a pioneer in this. And that's why they're the first on the Gulf Coast to host us." In 2013, Copa Airlines announced it would begin offering nonstop service four times a week to Panama from Tampa International Airport, which opened up Tampa Bay as a gateway to Latin American countries for the first time. "They're realizing there is a history here that his hip and upscale," he said. "And they're realizing that it's a new product that's only 90 minutes away from something like Orlando and its theme parks." Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.