Travel and Beaches
Will Isaac hurt convention business in Tampa?
TAMPA - Michael Steele, former head of the GOP, had some strong words Monday for anyone questioning Tampa's selection as host of the Republican National Convention. Even if Tropical Storm Isaac canceled the convention's first day, Steele was taking no guff. "All those people who are finger-pointing and second-guessing just need to shut up and enjoy the moment," he told a Tribune reporter. "We knew there was a probability of rain, we played the odds and it happened. Big deal. This is a beautiful city and the locals are treating us right." His confidence aside, the close call with Isaac prompted several national outlets to write articles on the wisdom of choosing Tampa during hurricane season. That raises a question: will trade show and convention planners steer clear of Tampa in the future?The good news, at least for chambers of commerce and other business interests, is that the stormy weather probably won't affect efforts to land big events, according to interviews with convention planners across the country. Most convention planners nowadays are used to dealing with risk from severe weather, from tornadoes in the Plains states to blizzards in the Northeast. And most big conventions take out cancellation insurance that protects them against some or all loss from canceled events, the planners said. "If you're planning a meeting in San Francisco, there might be an earthquake. I know that," said Samantha Bowerman of Strategic Meetings Group of Englewood, N.J. Tampa convention officials have reassured meeting planners for years that conventioneers probably won't be ducking debris during a hurricane. Tampa tried to lure the RNC twice before finally landing this year's convention, and each time city leaders had to calm the site selection committee's fears, said Paul Catoe, former chief of the tourism agency Tampa Bay & Co. Catoe got word that the site selection group awarded the 2008 convention to St. Paul, Minn., because of the threat of tropical weather in Tampa. He thinks that theory was "poppycock," though, because the site selectors never raised weather as an issue at the time. "The reality is this: in Tampa, we haven't had a hurricane here in God knows how many years," Catoe said. "And we still haven't." Several political and corporate convention planners, too, seemed to take the threat of hurricanes in stride Monday. Gregg Talley, chief executive of Talley Management Group in the Philadelphia area, said weather is always a consideration. But few groups are willing to write off whole parts of the country for an entire season. A convention planner might worry about, say, Florida in the summer. But then again a big financial backer might want it in Florida, or organizers might think a convention in the Sunshine State will draw the most attendees. Those other realities outweigh the initial fear of Florida's weather, Talley said. New Orleans, which now looks to be in Isaac's sights, lost convention business after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. But that was mainly a result of all the problems the city was having, rather than fear of another storm, said Paul Henning of Conference & Logistics Consultants in Annapolis, Md. Within a few years, party planners began booking in New Orleans out of sympathy, and in some cases conventioneers volunteered their off time in the community. "I know that New Orleans is doing quite well," Henning said. Coincidentally, Republican leaders canceled the first day of the RNC in St. Paul four years ago because of Hurricane Gustav. The hurricane was no threat to Minnesota, but convention planners wanted to delay it out of respect for those in the storm's path. Al Austin, the Tampa businessman who worked for years to bring the convention to Tampa, dismissed any thought that Isaac will hurt Tampa in the long term. "The people are all having a good time," he said. "The only people it scared off were the protesters."
Tribune reporter Michelle Bearden contributed to this report. [email protected] (813) 259-7865 Twitter: @msasso