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Center holds key to Tampa tourism

The opening of the Tampa Convention Center has provided the city with perhaps the single biggest marketing tool it needs to attract visitors, according to officials of the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention Visitors Association (THCVA). The association combined its annual meeting with a Travel Outlook Forum on Wednesday at the newly opened convention center.

There was much praise for the attractive, coral-and-periwinkle blue convention center on Garrison Channel, and a great deal of optimism expressed regarding the center's impact on Tampa.

"The most significant marketing factor (for Tampa) is this structure," said LaMar Williams, director of convention marketing at the association. "Now we have the product."

The product apparently was good enough to entice a major New York-based trade association into a 10-year contract to stage its national trade show at the convention center starting in 1993 (and possibly '92), said Williams, who said the identity of the organization will be revealed next week. The agreement would bring 110,000 room nights to Tampa hotels over 10 years.

But, the city still faces some obstacles in selling its new convention center, experts attending the meeting said.

Not only does the convention center face booking problems because it does not have a headquarters hotel, the 22 meeting rooms are insufficient to attract large conventions.

"I think Tampa needs to understand it is going to have to double the size of its facility very quickly, said G. Dano Christensen, a leading expert on convention centers. Christensen said the center's meeting space is "under what it should be."

Christensen also said the 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall cannot compete with other convention centers in the area, especially Orlando, which is expanding its convention center space to 1.2-million square feet.

"This is a relatively small convention center for the industry," said Christensen, who recently left his post as manager of American Society of Association Executives and will now represent Tampa and other cities in their bids to attract convention business from the 3,000 associations based in Washington, D.C.

Jim Clark, executive director of the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association, agreed the convention center "is a little short on meeting rooms."

"Classically, most cities double the size of their building in eight years," he said.

Barry Strafacci, the center's director, said he was "taken aback" by Christensen's comments.

"We're not having any problems in matching conventions with meeting rooms," he said. So far, 32 conventions are scheduled for 1991. He noted that Tampa will be concentrating on attracting trade shows, which do not need a large number of meeting rooms.

Joe Abrahams, the city's director of parks and recreation, said "expansion is not in our plans."

Williams said the visitors group will not lobby for more hotel space this year, but will promote "what we have, not what we will have."

For 1991, THCVA's marketing efforts will revolve around some key objectives: developing Tampa as a important second-tier convention destination, promoting Tampa as a prime tourist destination and maximizing Tampa's exposure during the Super Bowl.

Both the tourism division of THCVA plans to rely heavily on partnerships to sell and market Tampa to tourists and convention organizers, said Williams and Woody Peek, director of Tourism marketing. THCVA will team with area businesses, hotels, airlines and travel organizations to jointly promote Tampa.

For the first time, the convention division will commit its advertising dollars to those of partners to promote Tampa as a convention site, Williams said. THCVA has committed $80,000 to advertising and expects a similar commitment from the convention center, he said. The division will launch a new ad image campaign based on the convention center.

On the tourism side, the group's efforts to form relationships have already borne fruit, Peek noted. In the past several weeks, advertisements sponsored by American Airlines and the American Express Card have run in national publications _ including Time, People and the New York Times Magazine _ featuring Tampa as a vacation "hot spot."

_ Times staff writer Jennifer L. Stevenson contributed to this report.