TAMPA — Dysfunction in Washington, D.C., blew holes in the calendar and the bank account of the Tampa Convention Center in 2013, prompting city officials to explore ways to broaden their revenue stream in the coming years.
The convention center lost four large events this calendar year, all of them connected to the federal government.
Three — two military technology conferences and one energy trade show — were scheduled during the city's 2013 budget year, which ended Sept. 30. The third, a 4,000-person gathering dedicated to mapping and geographic analysis, was set for October, the first month of the city's 2014 budget year.
The earlier cancellations happened when the federal budget sequester cut the funding attendees would have used for travel. GEOINT 2013, the mapping conference, was a victim of this year's government shutdown.
The sequestered events cost the convention center $3.3 million, or more than 30 percent of its 2013 budget. GEOINT threatened to cost another $2 million until city officials rescheduled it for April.
But that couldn't reverse the damage done to the convention center's bottom line, which lost about 20 percent on the revenue side in just a couple phone calls.
“I don't know that we can ever recover from the two we lost last fiscal year,” said Rick Hamilton, director of the city-owned convention center.
Tampa's problem is playing out in other convention cities, too, said Deborah Breiter, a professor at the University of Central Florida who specializes in convention centers.
“There's been a general pullback on government funding for travel,” Breiter said. “I know that Orlando has been affected. There are some shows here that were canceled or are smaller than they used to be.”
In Tampa, the convention center has often operated in the black, pumping unspent revenue into the budget's bottom line. This year, the center may need a $90,000 bailout from taxpayers when the city closes its books on the current budget next fall.
With those losses fresh in his mind, Hamilton has begun adapting the sprawling waterfront complex for an environment with less certainty.
The city plans to put out a call for vendors to run an in-house print shop that can make convention materials on-site as well as ship them to and from the convention center. There also are plans to open the center to a company that could check visitors and their luggage onto their flights home while they catch the final hours of a convention.
Both vendors would pay rent or a percentage of their income to operate within the convention center, Hamilton said.
“It becomes another selling point for us being a one-stop shop,” Hamilton said.
Last year's Republican National Convention left behind massive amounts of wireless bandwidth and miles of fiber-optic cable as well as production-quality audio-visual equipment, all of which open the convention center to markets it might not have considered before, he said.
Even as Hamilton looks farther afield for convention customers, he wants to weave the convention center more tightly into the fabric of downtown living.
From his fourth-floor office, Hamilton can see the Channel District, a source of downtown's growing residential life. The convention center sits near the midpoint of the Tampa Riverwalk, making it an ideal spot for a waterside wayside.
“We are a generator of critical mass of the entire downtown area,” Hamilton said.
Adding restaurants and retail space as Tampa International Airport has done will make the convention center a destination for everyone, not just out-of-town visitors, he said.
Breiter said that approach can be risky because it puts the convention center in direct competition for customers with restaurants and other venues that usually complement a convention site.
“It's really a difficult situation for the centers to be in,” she said.
“Their focus is on being busy year-round,” said Santiago Corrada, head of Visit Tampa Bay, the region's tourism agency. Visit Tampa Bay works with the convention center to bring meetings to Tampa.
Diversity is an important part of protecting the area against expected losses like last year's sequestration-related cancellations, Corrada said.
“But government and military conferences you can't turn your back on,” he said.
Still, Visit Tampa Bay has begun reaching out to trade associations, unions and other groups that haven't been here before. Two or three medium-sized gatherings can be just as profitable as a single large one — and they're less likely to leave the city holding a large, empty bag, he said.
“So if we can put two or three medium-sized conventions together that add up to a mega-convention, we're happy with that,” Corrada said.
Meantime, Corrada said, Visit Tampa Bay has been talking with attorneys from the city's large hotels about writing contracts that give the hotels some protection if things go bust suddenly, as they did during sequestration and the shutdown.
It's a tricky process in an industry built on personal contacts and positive experiences.
“I don't think we've come to any conclusions yet,” Corrada said.