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PLANTING SEEDS

It's Day Two of the Healthcare Assembly's convention and Beatriz Bare and Yvonne Biglow of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce are gearing up for a final five hours of meet and greet. But first Biglow ransacks her purse for sinus medicine to relieve a splitting headache.

Letting a tight grin slip temporarily, Biglow explains how she remains relentlessly pleasant to hundreds of conventiongoers despite a pounding headache.

"You just do it," says Biglow, who once played the teacher on TV's Romper Room. Then the smile returns and Biglow is again on duty doing the job she loves: selling Tampa.

Biglow and Bare were in Boston recently for the annual convention of the Healthcare Assembly, a national association of health care professionals. It is the third year the Tampa Chamber has taken a booth at the meeting, which attracts about 5,000 doctors, nurses, hospital administrators and health care consultants. Tampa stands out like a sore thumb in the exhibit hall, which draws nearly 300 exhibitors touting everything from ambulance services to flowered nurses' scrubs to fake mahogany hospital beds.

"That's exactly why we like this show," says Biglow, a 58-year-old Tampa native. "We stand out because we're different. And we get a great response here."

As senior project managers with the chamber's Committee of One Hundred, Biglow and Bare are on a mission to encourage economic development in Tampa and Hillsborough County. They are so single-minded in their focus that many of their maps stop at the Hillsborough County line, and when a visitor says he has just visited Disney World, Bare replies, "We'll forgive you."

Representing Tampa at trade shows like the one in Boston is a minuscule part of Bare's and Biglow's jobs. Most of their time is spent shepherding dozens of relocation projects through to completion, answering requests for information or ironing out problems for companies that have made the move to Tampa.

Two or three times each year the women venture out into the field to trade shows to "plant seeds," as they put it. But if farmers' expectations were as low as Biglow's and Bare's, the populace would be starving.

"We're not looking for leads, we're looking to promote Tampa," says Bare, 51, who insists that results in her field can only be measured over the long term. "If a lead comes out of this, great, but we're here working on a relationship we started a few years ago. And you never know where these efforts may lead."

The Boston conference, which costs the chamber about $10,000 in travel and expenses, meets the criteria for a good show because it attracts plenty of fast-growing health care companies looking to expand. Many of those companies, in fact, are exhibitors at the show, so Bare and Biglow spend time walking the floor as well as staffing their booth.

"A lot of decisionmakers come to this convention," Bare says. "And though they might not be ready to think about expanding today, they might be in a year or two. That's when we hope they'll think of us."

In Boston's cavernous Hynes Convention Center, Tampa's booth, twice the size of most of its neighbors and beached on aqua carpet, stands out. The back wall features a giant photo of the city's skyline at night; on a deep purple backdrop that ripples out like a wave are a dozen more photo boards, each capturing a Chamber-perfect snippet of life in Tampa: a Buccaneers player in mid-flight; the Moorish towers of University of Tampa; a home fit for Ward Cleaver on Davis Island.

"Tampa . . . What a Great Idea!" is scrolled out atop the pictures, and as conventiongoers wander by, a surprising number of them read the slogan out loud then stop, stymied at finding a city at a health care convention.

"Why in the world would you be promoting Tampa up here?" asks Eric Oliver, director of facility planning for Hartford Hospital in Connecticut.

Bare and Biglow enjoy the confusion. It gives them an opportunity to make their pitch for bringing health care companies to Tampa, with the words "young," "growing" and "healthy" repeated by the duo like a mantra. They are unfailingly polite, whether they're talking to a couple of graduate students who stop by the booth or an anxious-looking hospital executive who pulls a resume out of his briefcase and asks for referrals.

Though most of the hundreds of visitors seem less like prospects than locusts, descending on the booth for free plantain chips and paper clip holders shaped like pill bottles, Bare and Biglow are upbeat. Everyone seems to have a Tampa Bay connection: a mother in Dunedin, a trip planned to Busch Gardens, a golf vacation just ended at Innisbrook. It's a far cry from 1980, when Bare started working for the chamber and she couldn't mention Tampa without adding "Florida."

"Back then, Atlanta was the only spot known in the South," says Bare, who interrupted her work in Tampa with a seven-year tour of duty at the Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. "We've come a long way since then."

When a trainer for Oxford Health Plans, which has a customer service center in Tampa, stops by to say he was impressed by the quality of local employees, Bare positively beams. When the president of a small company specializing in hospital information systems says he'd love to relocate to Tampa, Biglow smoothly takes his card, answers a few questions, then promises to be in touch.

"We'll have some follow-up contact with everyone on the exhibition list in the next week or so," Bare says. "And we'll respond to special requests within three to four days. You have to be quick and you have to get in front of a client's face as often as you can. Prospects get lots of mail from us."

Dressed in matching blue blazers and sensible flats, Bare and Biglow seem to have boundless energy and unlimited capacity for fielding stupid questions.

Asked by one New Englander where Tampa gets its work force, Biglow gently suggests that Florida is able to attract talent from many areas of the country, including New England.

When a New Jersey woman comments that she was surprised to find "culture" in the Tampa Bay area during a recent visit, Bare forces a smile and sighs, "There's still a lot of education to be done."

Well aware of their status as billboards for Tampa, the two women refuse to be critical of competing communities. When a visitor says her company recently decided to relocate from Boulder, Colo., to Daytona, they quiz her about the decision then compliment the competition. "The Daytona chamber did a good job," Bare says.

And when a passer-by is bold enough to criticize Tampa they try to deflect the criticism, with mixed success. A hospital executive's concern about Tampa's high crime rate, for example, elicits Bare's response that the rate has actually improved in the past four years, thanks to a new mayor's decision to let police chase lawbreakers. The executive doesn't seem particularly convinced, but Bare has given it her best shot.

As the last few stragglers leave the exhibit hall and Bare and Biglow prepare to break down the booth, they allow themselves a moment of candor.

"Coming to trade shows like this is difficult because you're always on. And you're always saying the same thing, but you want it to be fresh," Bare says. "But it's also re-energizing to hear what other people think of what I consider home."

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