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RNC could be lucrative for Tampa Bay hotels now — and in the future

TAMPA — First, the obvious: the 50,000-plus visitors heading our way for the Republican National Convention will be a boon to Tampa Bay's hotels and motels, industry analyst Chad Church told local proprietors Thursday.

But the convention could also help Tampa Bay rebuild a key area where hotels lost ground during the Great Recession: the lucrative convention business.

"It puts you on a national stage for an extended period of time," Church told the hoteliers. "It really allows you to showcase the area and make that pitch for other large groups to come to Tampa."

Church, a senior director at Smith Travel Research Inc., briefed several dozen operators at the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association's 13th annual forecasting forum.

The hotel industry breaks down visitors into two categories: "transient" customers, or individual and small groups of travelers, such as families; and the "group" category, or groups that book 10 or more rooms when they gather for conventions and meetings.

The group category is more lucrative because they book rooms in advance (it's guaranteed business) and they tend to pay for extras, like banquets, room service and golf. By filling rooms in advance, group bookings let hotels charge transient visitors a premium.

But as business travel dropped off and group bookings fell during the Great Recession, transient customers thrived and turned more to online discounters like Priceline.com.

In 2006, according to STR, group bookings comprised 46 percent of the hotel bookings in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market. Transients made up 54 percent of local bookings. By June 2012, those group bookings fell to 33.5 percent of the market and transient bookings comprised the rest, or 66.5 percent.

But the Republican convention, set for Aug. 27-30 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, could give the bay area a launching point to recapture the group market.

The first step is out of the bay area's control: businesses that have been sitting on cash during the downturn need to start spending on travel, conventions and meetings.

To get ready for that, Church said, Tampa Bay needs to project a positive image at the convention. That will get meeting planners thinking about the area.

Kelly Miller, president of Tampa Bay and Company, Hillsborough County's tourism agency, said that the bay area has been a bit of a hard sell with those planners.

"We can talk about the great convention center, the Forum, the hotels, the attractions, and the friendliness of our community," Miller said. "But until they actually come and experience Tampa Bay, it's rather difficult."

So what can go wrong for Tampa Bay? Church isn't all that worried about protesters clashing with police on national TV. No one planning their convention here will expect the same unrest.

"They understand that the protest or whatever is a function of the convention," Church said, "not the city."

What should worry the bay area, Church said, is the perception of whether or not the area has its act together. He pointed to London, host of the summer Olympics. The headlines there have highlighted poor planning and potential strikes.

Church said that Tampa and Charlotte, host of September's Democratic National Convention, will also benefit in ways that 2008 hosts Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul could not.

"Those guys had the convention and then the economy fell," Church said. "We're at the trough and moving up."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

RNC could be lucrative for Tampa Bay hotels now — and in the future 07/26/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 27, 2012 4:20pm]
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