Millions evaporate as shutdown forces delay of Tampa defense conference

Downtown Tampa stands to lose $5 million from the postponement of a big defense conference.
Downtown Tampa stands to lose $5 million from the postponement of a big defense conference.
Published Oct. 10, 2013

TAMPA — A four-day national defense and intelligence conference at the Tampa Convention Center was abruptly postponed this week because of the federal government shutdown, erasing more than 7,000 hotel room nights and an estimated $5 million from the local economy.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the impact will be big, rippling to hotels, restaurants and merchants.

"This is affecting real people who have nothing to do with this," Buckhorn, a Democrat, said of the shutdown. "This is not their fight. This is a bunch of tea partiers who are trying to make a point, holding the U.S. government hostage."

The GEOINT 2013 Symposium, a conference for more than 4,000 intelligence, defense and homeland security professionals and 265 exhibitors, had been scheduled to start moving into the convention center Wednesday, with a weekend golf tournament and several days of meetings to follow.

Instead, the conference organizer, the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, notified local officials at it had to delay the conference until spring because of the shutdown.

Although Congress passed and the president signed the "Pay Our Military Act" shortly before the shutdown began, the act prevented government personnel from traveling to events, including the GEOINT symposium, foundation chief executive officer Keith J. Masback wrote in an email Wednesday to Buckhorn.

"It made it impossible for us to move forward with the event as planned," Masback said.

"Their speakers for the conference itself started canceling due to the fact that they were either military or government employees," Tampa Convention Center director Rick Hamilton said. "Without speakers or conference leaders, there could be no conference."

Local tourism officials can't remember anything like this happening before.

"We need our folks in (Washington) D.C. to get on the same page and end this, because there are lots of ramifications," said Santiago Corrada, chief executive officer of Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County's nonprofit convention and visitors agency. The symposium had an estimated economic impact of $5 million, he said.

The convention center alone expected to see $750,000 in business. City Hall will lose an estimated $363,000 to $413,000 in convention center rent and other event-related revenue due to the postponement. The rest of the lost convention center revenue will hit private companies that provide catering, technology, electrical and other services there.

At the 520-room Hilton Tampa Downtown, attendees had booked more than 400 rooms per night during the event.

"It was our major group this week," said Lori Duke-Vaccaro, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. "It's unfortunate not only for our hotel but for the city."

This was the first time the symposium, which has been held in Orlando and San Antonio, Texas, was to come to Tampa. The city was seen as a good fit because of the convention center's proximity to MacDill Air Force Base, home to U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command.

"This was a big deal, a chance to showcase Tampa," said Gregory Celestan, chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and CEO of the Tampa-based defense company Celestar Corp.

For the intelligence community, it's "one of the few times in a year where we all get together," Celestan said. In addition to the convention center, a lot of meeting space around downtown was booked for "tens of side meetings" between government officials and vendors as well as businesses in the field, he said.

Despite the postponement, the symposium is looking to bring the event to Tampa April 14-20.

But Buckhorn said that doesn't help businesses being hurt now.

"The ripple effect is only now starting to occur," he said. "It is absolutely embarrassing to think that we sent some of these folks up there, and they're just like kids in the sandbox."