Geoff Karlavage had no idea what he'd do when he moved here from Harrisburg, Pa., at age 25. He just knew he liked the warm weather, and he had a buddy who said he could crash on his couch.
Seven years later, here he is, one of the city's biggest fans and a tourism industry pioneer of modern times. He's convinced 18 of his friends from up North to come down and visit the sunshine over the years. Some became Tampa residents like him.
"The girls always went back," he said. "A lot of the guys stayed, though."
If you haven't seen 32-year-old Karlavage yet, you will soon enough.
Who's that guy wheeling over Platt Street Bridge at sunset or gliding past million-dollar homes on Davis Islands on a Segway with two or three riders trailing behind?
"People are starting to recognize me, I think," he said. "It's no longer, 'You're doing what?' Now it's, 'Oh, you're that guy.' "
With the economy sputtering, it can't be the easiest time to be that guy.
He started his Segway tour business in September, investing in five $5,500 Segway i2s, the kind that go a little faster and turn easier than the original Segways. He wanted it to be the best possible ride, to turn first-timers into Segway addicts.
He set up a kiosk at Channelside and waited for the cruise ships to come in, showering him with tourists looking for some fun. He soon realized that cruise ships don't bring as many dollars to Channelside businesses as people may think.
"People get off, and they've just spent all this money and they don't want to spend any more," he said.
Yet slowly but steadily, people are asking him about tours, he said. Karlavage gets a lot of people from North Tampa, he said, who want to visit South Tampa, but don't want to hang out in bars all night. He's also had customers from Sarasota, New Port Richey, St. Petersburg. (St. Petersburg, by the way, has two Segway tour companies called Bayside Tours and Tampa Bay Segs. Karlavage is the first to do it in Tampa.)
People from South Tampa want to see parts of the city they've never seen, or they simply want to try out the Segways.
Once in awhile, he might get approached by the media.
St. Petersburg Times photographer John Pendygraft and I decided to give Karlavage's tour a try. We thought we'd be there for maybe an hour, taking notes and pictures. Almost three hours later, Karlavage practically had to tear the Segways out of our hands.
One thing about Segways: They're a lot more fun than they look. It's a strange sensation, unlike riding a motorized scooter or a bike. You shift your body weight slightly forward to make it go as fast as 12 mph, which feels pretty fast when you're just standing there. You lean slightly back to stop it or reverse. On Karlavage's Segway i2s you simply have to tilt the handlebar slightly to the left or right to turn.
It's almost impossible to fall off, Karlavage said, unless you're doing something reckless or crazy. It has settings for beginners, so first-timers can't ride or turn too fast.
The second thing about Segways: They get you into nooks and crannies of the city that you'll never see from a car.
Ever been behind the Convention Center? Through all the new, pristine parks of Riverwalk? At the top of Tampa General Hospital's parking garage?
Plenty of people who have lived here for years (like me) have not, and it's kind of a shame. Everyone gripes about how the water, one of downtown Tampa's best assets, is obscured. Well, not anymore.
Karlavage never gets tired of showing off the joys of Segway sightseeing in Tampa, and it's fun to follow along.
He whips around the Convention Center and reaches up and smacks palm tree branches — "high-fiving nature," he calls it. He still gets excited every time he sees a gannet bird dive into Hillsborough Bay to catch a fish.
As Karlavage glides along Bayshore Boulevard, he nods to his homeless friends. They used to heckle and harass him, he said, so he got a box of those little paper firework snappers to throw on the ground when he passed. Now he's friends with them, and one guy even passes out leaflets advertising his tour.
He waves at University of Tampa crew girls rowing by Davis Islands, and they smile and wave back.
"Just think," Karlavage said, turning to me and the photographer. "We're all working right now."
Karlavage is still waiting for his business to take off, and is confident it will happen very soon with his night tours of Lights On Tampa starting this weekend, and Super Bowl XLIII coming up.
And if it takes a little while longer than that?
In the meantime, he loves going to work every day. He really does enjoy being that guy.
Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.