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VALUABLE FIRST IMPRESSIONS

If Irma Bridgeford had been the protocol officer accompanying the Obamas to Buckingham Palace, those embarrassing handshakes and hugs would never have happened.

Her job, orchestrating VIP visits, ceremonies and special events for foreign officials and heads of state, prevents such faux pas.

"Every country is different, and their rules are never the same," said Bridgeford. "Monarchies like England and Spain have many very formal steps to be taken."

Bridgeford is the first director of the Tampa/Hillsborough International Protocol Office.

She is, in effect, Hillsborough's queen of protocol.

The position, along with a part-time assistant, was created in 2004 by a consortium of eight organizations and local governments. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce provides office space in the Channel District. Four partners - city of Tampa, Hillsborough County, Tampa International Airport and Tampa Port Authority - fund a $140,000 budget, which includes the two workers' salaries and welcoming expenses, among other things. Three offer in-kind support, such as printing. She reports to a committee of eight "bosses" representing each entity.

About 25 foreign dignitaries come to the area each year, said Bridgeford, who has handled more than 160 visits representing 50 countries.

Once she learns the purpose of the visit, she contacts her counterpart at the guest's embassy to be briefed on the agenda.

"Then I will suggest an itinerary to experience as much of Tampa and Hillsborough County as possible,'' she said. She might arrange face time with Mayor Pam Iorio, port officials and trade delegations. If needed, she acts as liaison to the Tampa Police Department, Secret Service and the State Department to facilitate security and transportation.

Born and educated in Bolivia, Bridgeford learned to speak English in a boarding school in New York, where her diplomat father was stationed. After he died and her mother remarried, the family lived in Caracas and her stepfather served the Venezuelan diplomatic corps.

Bridgeford earned a degree in accounting from a Bolivian college before studying international relations and protocol administration at the Protocol School of Washington (D.C.). Her training included cross-cultural sensitivity, forms of address, precedence and seating.

Discretion is her business, and that applies to revealing her age. Never ask a Latina woman that, says Bridgeford.

Prior to heading the protocol office, the 20-plus-year St. Petersburg resident served as social coordinator to the vice president of Bolivia and his wife. She and her ex-husband have four adult children and three grandchildren.

Her favorite part of the job, she says, is studying up on customs and current events in the visitor's country. "I love that," she says. "That's not work."

Of course, it would be improper to single out a favorite, but she was especially delighted to meet Imperial Highness Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie, president of the Crown Council of Ethiopia.

"My parents knew his grandfather, Emperor Haile Selassie, when they lived in New York," Bridgeford said. "He is heir apparent should the republic revert to a monarchy."

Welcoming an armada of Japanese warships and the Spanish Navy training ship Juan Sebastian de Elcano also stand out for Bridgeford.

"She does everything in the background, without looking for any credit or thanks," said David Straz Jr., ambassador at large and honorary consul general of the Republic of Liberia.

Straz recently enlisted Bridgeford's assistance when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, arrived to give the commencement address to the University of Tampa Class of 2009.

"Irma's a treasure," Straz said.

Queen of protocol

Irma Bridgeford,Tampa/Hillsborough International Protocol Office

Eight organizations partner to maintain the office through in-kinddonations and contributions to its $140,000 budget: city of Tampa, Hillsborough County, Tampa International Airport, Tampa Port Authority, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Tampa Bay & Company, University of South Florida and University of Tampa.

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