Tourism week offers glimpses of industry's future in Tampa Bay

China, smartphones and public funds figure in Tampa Bay's future. So does Santiago Corrada.

Tampa Bay marked National Tourism Week with luncheons and pep rallies, speeches and PowerPoint presentations to thank those who work in the bay area's most important industry.

But amid all the cheering and back-slapping, tourism week also offered important glimpses of the industry's future: China. Smartphones. Public dollars.

It was also a coming out party for one of the most important figures in Tampa Bay tourism: Santiago Corrada, the new president of Visit Tampa Bay & Co., the tourism agency of Tampa and Hillsborough County.

Corrada's first official day on the job was Monday, and he started by bounding onto the stage of a tourism pep rally at Tampa International Airport to help celebrate the unveiling of the $27 million renovation of Airside F.

He emphasized the unity that binds Tampa Bay tourism, Hills- borough and Pinellas counties working together to sell the bay area's assets across the country and the world.

"When we're out on the road together we're selling America's best beaches, we're selling our beautiful city, we're selling the fact that you can fly into Tampa," Corrada said. "You don't need to fly into Orlando. You don't need to fly into Miami. You've got it all right here."

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The latest tourism buzzword in Tampa Bay: China.

The most populous nation on Earth will also soon become the biggest traveling nation on the planet. Pinellas County is already trying to grab a share of that travel boom. D.T. Minich, the CEO of the Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, recently returned from his first marketing trip to China for Pinellas' tourism agency.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has partnered with Orlando to lure Chinese visitors. Just as Europeans were once introduced to Pinellas' beaches while visiting Central Florida's theme parks, tourism officials hope to repeat that success with Chinese visitors.

"It will be a multidecade process," said Travelocity executive Stephen Fitzgerald during Tuesday's 2013 Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach.

David Downing, the deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, compared it to Pinellas County establishing its first office in Germany three decades ago. The Sheraton Sand Key's general manager, Russ Kimball, was a key figure in getting that done.

"From what I understand, people thought we were crazy," Downing said. "Now it's our No. 2 international market. We have been in that market for a sustained way for many years and the fruits of all that labor are paying off now in big ways."

Pinellas County doesn't plan to spend marketing dollars in China yet, and right now Florida attracts only a fraction of Chinese visitors. But Pinellas wants to start positioning itself as Chinese travelers take over tourism markets all over the world in the coming decade.

"This is a long-term process," Downing said. "We didn't go there thinking we were going to put up signs next week."

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A new digital tool is revolutionizing the tourism business, Travelocity's Fitzgerald told the crowd at the beaches chamber luncheon on Tuesday, and just about everybody has one: smartphones.

The devices now account for more than 75 percent of cellphone sales in the United States, according to InformationWeek. Fitzgerald, the vice president for hotels at Travelocity, said travelers will soon research and book most of their room and dinner reservations using those devices and mobile websites. The revolution is just three to five years away, he said.

Fitzgerald shared some of his company's research: 20 percent of smartphone users already use their mobile devices to research and buy travel-related products; in the next two years more than half of the smartphone population will use it to shop for travel; and the continued adoption of smartphone-fueled travel is growing at a "staggeringly high" rate, he said.

To prepare for the mobile revolution, Fitzgerald told hospitality industry leaders that they need to have both mobile websites and apps. Mobile websites help consumers research hotels and restaurants. Once they book a table or room, they'll likely want to download and use mobile apps specifically designed for those restaurants or hotels.

If businesses can choose only one route, Fitzgerald said they should build a mobile website that anyone can look at with their smartphone. Mobile online tools will be especially important for last-minute bookings, he said.

"If you're looking for a hotel that night," Fitzgerald said, "then you're going to be shopping on your tablet or smartphone."

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Tourism is Florida's most important industry. But the state didn't always spend like it was that important.

That's starting to change, and Carol Dover credits Gov. Rick Scott. Dover is the longtime president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, an industry lobbying group.

The Legislature recently allocated a record $63.5 million to the state's tourism agency, Visit Florida, to promote the state's tourism industry.

"We stayed flat for as long as I can remember with 82 million visitors," she told the crowd at Tuesday's beach luncheon. "When we stayed flat we were getting about $25 million in the state budget toward marketing."

Florida's tourism budget has steadily increased in recent years. It was about $35 million in the 2011-12 state budget. The current 2012-13 fiscal year saw a 54 percent increase to $54 million. Now there will be an 18 percent jump to $63.5 million in the coming fiscal year, 2013-14.

"It brought in 8 million more visitors," she said. "That's more hotel beds, more restaurant meals, more gas, more tickets to attractions, the list goes on and on."

Last year, Dover said, Florida went from 82 million visitors to almost 90 million visitors. A record budget could help the state hit a record for visitors: 100 million.

That's why Scott originally asked the legislature for $75 million to market the state in the coming fiscal year, before legislators settled on $63.5 million. She said Florida should have added dollars to tourism marketing long ago.

"Now we're waking up and realizing there's a lot of untapped revenue in tourism," Dover said.

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Corrada's first official day was Monday. But unofficially he has been working ever since Tampa Bay & Co.'s board of directors made him the top choice on April 2.

A former principal at one of Miami's toughest high schools, Corrada then went to work for the cities of Miami and Tampa. He developed a reputation as Tampa's top troubleshooter for two mayors and once ran the Tampa Convention Center.

That last job was especially important for Corrada, 49, in his new role as CEO of Tampa Bay & Co., which markets to leisure and business travelers and books the convention center.

After he addressed his own staff and guests at Tampa Bay & Co.'s luncheon Wednesday at the A La Carte Event Pavilion, Corrada shared his vision with the Tampa Bay Times. He talked about the agency's new name and brand, which will be unveiled at the end of the month.

"We've got a lot of things going on," he said. "We have the branding initiative we have to finish. It's going to lead to a new name and a new website. Then we have to look strategically at what are the best areas for us to attack internationally, what are the best areas for us to attack domestically? Because we've missed a lot of other parts of the country."

Domestically, Corrada wants his agency to start making inroads into new markets across the United States: Nashville, Denver, the Midwest, even the West Coast.

"We've been heavily dependent on the East Coast," he said. "There's a lot more country left."

Brazil and Latin America are already important tourism markets for Florida, but Tampa Bay is still catching up. Corrada wants to do whatever he can to improve the bay area's ability to attract those visitors and help Tampa International's ongoing efforts to land direct routes to Brazil, Colombia and Panama.

"It's pretty hard to go into Central and South America if there's not a direct flight to Tampa," he said. "If we have direct flights then all of those markets open up to us."

Corrada also wants to chase after new convention opportunities. The Hillsborough County Fairgrounds would be ideal to host more heavy machinery shows, he said, like John Deere tractor shows. Tampa Bay Comic Con is also moving to the convention center.

The new brand will be Corrada's first step in implementing his vision. The current name, Tampa Bay & Co., has been criticized for being vague: How does it specifically sell Tampa and Hillsborough County? Yet Corrada will continue to pair Tampa alongside the Pinellas beaches.

How can his agency do both, but also have a distinctive enough brand to separate Tampa and Hillsborough County from its partners across the bay? His answer: Wait and see.

"I think it's going to be a home run," he said.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.