TAMPA — As tourism analyst Chris Klauda was on her way from Tennessee to Tampa, she chatted with a fellow traveler: "a classic millennial."
"She told me Tampa was the new Miami," Klauda said during a Thursday morning presentation to a group of Hillsborough County hoteliers.
Of course, the local crowd was happy to hear that description of its city on the rise. Since the recession, Tampa Bay's development and tourism scene has exploded. Visit Tampa Bay reported this week visitors pumped $6.6 billion into Hillsborough County last year, fueling tens of thousands of local jobs. More than 2,000 hotel rooms are under construction right now in Tampa Bay, with big events on the horizon that promise to bring even more visitors.
"You guys have a lot to look forward to," Klauda said during the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association forum.
Local hoteliers and vendors are in the midst of celebrating the area's growth while attempting to predict the future. They're uneasy about even the slightest possibility of a recession, but already anticipating the onslaught of Super Bowl visitors come 2021. Klauda, a senior director with tourism researcher STR Inc., and other experts used data during Thursday's presentation to forecast for the local industry what they can expect.
Overall Tampa Bay is in a good place: The number of trendy hotels opening over the next 12 months doesn't outpace the anticipated demand of those who are looking for high-class visits or business trips.
A record 126.1 million people visited Florida last year, according to Visit Florida. More than 30 million people of them visited Tampa Bay, according to data from local tourism groups Visit St. Pete/Clearwater and Visit Tampa Bay.
Visit Tampa Bay, which promotes Hillsborough, just published a study it commissioned through analysts at Tourism Economics this week that showed overall visitor spending up nearly 7 percent in 2018, at about $4.2 billion. Pinellas County has reported a total economic impact of about $8.4 billion from its tourism industry.
But across the state tourism-related businesses are adjusting to fewer, or a stagnant number of international travelers.
"International travel has been in a rough patch for the last few years," said Visit Florida analyst Jacob Yancey. "Overseas markets have mostly declined."
Just over a half-million visitors came to the Tampa area from other countries — a slight uptick from 2017. Yet that 2 percent of overall visitors made up about 16 percent of overall visitor spending in Hillsborough County.
Yancey suggested hoteliers, and the tourism industry at large, continue to focus on the experiences of their destination to keep increasing their visitor numbers. Several studies presented Thursday showed millennials prefer to feel like they are part of the city they're visiting by embracing local foods and night life, rather than feeling like a tourist at theme parks.
"People think they know Florida," he said, "it's still about changing hearts and minds."
Analysts also told attendees to be begin renovations and up their own prices to compete with the several higher-end boutique hotels slated to open in Tampa in the coming months, like The Current Hotel slated to open this summer.
Overall, Kadula told the hoteliers that the next 12 to 18 months will likely wobble between negative and positive, pending an unpredictable event that would prompt a sudden drop. As for Tampa becoming the new Miami?
Kadula said the national stage at 2021's Super Bowl will be the perfect time for the city to make its case.
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