International travel conference in Orlando to be a boon for Tampa Bay

Published May 30, 2015

Writers, tour operators, airline representatives and other tourism boosters will descend upon Orlando this weekend for the start of the U.S. Travel Association's 2015 IPW conference, the industry's premier international travel confab.

Representatives from travel destinations across the United States — including Visit St. Pete-Clearwater and Visit Tampa Bay — will be at the Orange County Convention Center hoping to lure travel writers from countries like Sweden, Germany and China to the Tampa Bay region, and to sign deals with tour operators from airlines like British Airways and travel websites like Expedia.

More than 6,000 tourism industry professionals will be there. That's hardly one of the biggest conferences Orlando, a business travel mecca, will see this year. But IPW, which stands for International Pow Wow, is one of the most important tourism events of the year, said Malcolm Smith, general manager of the show.

"IPW accounts for more than $4.7 billion in travel to the U.S. each year. Over three years, that represents 8.8 million travelers," Smith said. "That's really what IPW is all about. Tourism is an export, and it's all about bringing more people here."

This is the seventh time in IPW's 47-year history that the conference is being held in Orlando. That's more than any other host city, which includes Las Vegas, Miami, New York and Washington, D.C. It also provides Florida destinations like Tampa Bay with a home-field advantage.

Visit St. Pete-Clearwater is bringing more than 100 vacation planners and travel journalists from Latin America to Clearwater and St. Petersburg beaches before and after the conference.

"Latin American visitation is up by 80 percent over the last two years here, and we want to continue to expand that," said David Downing, executive director of the tourism agency that promotes Pinellas County. "Being in such close proximity to the trade show gives us the chance to show them firsthand."

For those who can't make it to the beach this week, Visit St. Pete-Clearwater will give writers and operators a chance to see it virtually. The agency is debuting a virtual realty simulator at its booth at IPW, which allows users to virtually stand on the beach while wearing three-dimensional goggles made by technology company Dome 3-D.

Visit Tampa Bay will bring a group from IPW to Tampa to experience Busch Gardens and to tour the region's craft breweries. More than 80 of their guests are coming from Brazil. Others are coming from Germany and Switzerland. About 25 are journalists.

"Almost everyone can imagine Florida destinations like Miami, Key West or Orlando even if they haven't been there," said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of the Tampa organization. "Tampa Bay isn't quite there yet, but we have so much potential."

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Orlando's many attractions, including SeaWorld, will host IPW events during the conference. The Central Florida city and all 300-plus Florida destinations will be prominently displayed in the conference center, said Paul Phipps, the chief marketing officer with Visit Florida, the state's tourism industry.

"Florida will be the highlight of the conference," Phipps said. "And Florida destinations will be among the first to chat with representatives from countries we've never really had interest from before, like Southeast Asia."

Industry professionals will have the chance to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing the tourism industry. While the Sunshine State has seen four years of record-breaking tourism growth, some are worried about how the strength of the U.S. dollar will affect international travelers' ability to visit places like Clearwater Beach or downtown Tampa in the future.

New markets, like China, are emerging for Florida destinations, too. And while no tourism group expects Cuba to be a hot topic this year, most are keeping a close eye on how this new and exotic destination will lure U.S. travelers in coming years.

Contact Justine Griffin at Follow @sunbizgriffin.