Could Florida politics drag down Tampa Bay tourism?
Some business and lifestyle conventions hosted in Florida face a new challenge this year: convincing attendees they’re safe in the state.
Conventions attracting vulnerable groups — LGBTQ+ people, educators of color, abortion providers — are responding to concerns from attendees and vendors who perceive Florida as hostile to their identities, or the state’s policies as anathema to the convention’s purpose.
Take MetroCon, Tampa’s annual anime convention, which took place at Tampa’s convention center last weekend.
President Alex Craddock’s biggest headache? The passage of Florida laws restricting bathroom access for transgender individuals and limiting drag performances.
Many anime fans in the convention’s targeted age range, 16 to 22, are members of the LGBTQ+ community, Craddock said. Fans worried Florida’s drag law — which has since been held up in the courts — would limit their ability to cosplay as their favorite characters, particularly if it could be perceived as drag.
Fortunately for Craddock’s purposes, Florida’s drag law only restricted performances of a sexual nature. Dressing as an anime character arguably doesn’t fall under that category, he said. And to protect transgender individuals, he made sure there were gender-neutral restrooms on premises.
Still, he worries.
“Somebody’s going to end up being a test case” for enforcement of these new laws, he said. “I hope that’s not me, because that sounds expensive.”
A few MetroCon vendors also dashed for the exits, citing their queer identities.
“They have pretty explicitly said, ‘We just don’t want to be in Florida more than we have to. We don’t feel safe at the rest stops we’re stopping at while driving into town,’” Craddock said.
In recent months, MetroCon’s Instagram page has broadcast messages assuring attendees that they won’t be at risk due to state laws. For the 30% of attendance that comes from outside the state, Craddock said he’s “constantly working against” Florida’s reputation.
“We have to drive home to people, ‘I know what you think of Florida. But there are parts of Florida that aren’t like this,’” he said.
Business travel constitutes a small portion of overall travel in the state. Even in Orlando, Florida’s convention mecca, business travelers represented about 11.5% of visitation to the city last year. Still, industry events are a “significant part of the pie” for tourism revenue, said Stephen Pratt, professor of tourism, events and attractions at University of Central Florida.
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The Tampa Convention Center has ramped up its events since July 2022, generating $170 million in estimated economic impact in fiscal 2023 and surpassing 2019 figures by nearly $40 million.
Tampa Bay’s tourism agencies say they see clear skies ahead. Numbers released in April 2023 show 25 months of year-over-year growth in revenue for Tampa hotels, said Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada. But May and June numbers released by Smith Travel Research, a leading industry publication, show a 2% dip in hotel occupancy compared to 2022 — from 71% to just under 69% — and less revenue per room.
That dip could stem from economic pressures, particularly competition from international destinations and high inflation. The wild card is how much souring attitudes toward Florida play a role.
Corrada said he’s most wary of competition among destinations, not fallout from Florida laws. “You have to ask yourself how many people are motivated to travel or not to travel” based on a vacation spot’s politics, he said.
Any politics-related decline in tourism revenue would likely come from meetings and events, said Daryl Cronk, director of hospitality analytics for CoStar Group, which owns Smith Travel Research.
“Meeting planners would be more sensitive to the politics of the location and may see not going there as a way to avoid a political situation,” he said.
In Tampa, MetroCon isn’t the only group that’s weathered pushback after staying in Florida.
The Mathematical Association of America, a national higher education group, sent a letter to attendees after facing an outcry from professors of color over basing its marquee event in Tampa this August.
“We know that the location of MAA MathFest this year is a source of concern in our community,” the letter said. Of particular concern to attendees were Gov. Ron DeSantis’ crackdown on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in higher education and Florida’s bathroom law.
The letter then made a distinction.
“Florida is not homogeneous, and the Tampa community does not reflect the perspectives expressed in these laws,” it said.
MAA’s assurances haven’t completely stamped out the fire, executive director Michael Pearson said. He’s expecting about 20% less attendance compared to an initial expectation of 1,600. And he worked with the three hotels the convention booked — two Marriott venues in the Water Street district and downtown’s Embassy Suites — to lower minimum occupancy requirements.
“It is costing on every side,” Pearson said. “The private side for the hotels, the city side for the amount of revenue that will be generated at the convention center, and us in terms of reduced registration counts.”
Educator groups are all encountering the same problem, said Pratt, from UCF. Some places, like California, won’t fund public university professors’ trips to states like Florida.
What’s more, the state’s crackdown on higher education means professors are avoiding research on how Florida’s politics affect tourism, Pratt said.
“There’s probably a bit of wariness about trying to poke the bear, so to speak,” he said.
To stay or not to stay
No events booked at the Tampa Convention Center have pulled out this year, Corrada said, though he noted he “can’t speak for hotel companies” that may have lost business.
Major conventions must book space years in advance, and they incur financial penalties if they withdraw. MAA emphasized that point in its letter to educators.
Nevertheless, a handful of groups elsewhere in Florida decided to endure the financial toll. In Orlando, at least five events have pulled out of contracts or announced they won’t be returning to the convention-rich city. The list includes events for Black engineers, women and nonbinary people in the sciences, abortion providers and a Game of Thrones convention.
Since April, Orlando’s tourism revenue has been declining relative to last year.
The Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, a group of providers and researchers who focus on late-term abortions and high-risk pregnancies, decided to renege on their contract with Gaylord Hotels and shift their 3,000-person conference to Maryland earlier this year after Florida passed a law limiting abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
The risk of convening in Florida is “a bit more extreme for organizations like ours,” strategic communications lead Kerri Wade said. “For our folks there became questions of, ‘How safe are we in going there if abortion providers might be either sued or incarcerated for doing their jobs?’”
Fees were a worthy penalty, Wade said, for “sticking to our stated positions and our advocacy agenda.”
MAA won’t return to Florida for at least a decade, Pearson said, since the group serves a national audience.
Events like MetroCon, which has been a Tampa staple for over 20 years, have a different outlook.
“Some of us have to be here to pick up the pieces,” Craddock said. “This is our space, too, and you can pry it from my cold dead hands.”
MetroCon attendees this weekend were similarly bullish. Cecil Givens, a Eustis resident who identifies as male and cross-dressed as a feminine character for the event, said he was “definitely a little bit nervous” walking around downtown in cosplay attire.
“But on another hand, I spent like $300 to be here,” he said. “I’m still a Floridian, and there’s not much you can do to get rid of me anyways.”
Do numbers reflect the wariness?
Summer is Tampa’s busy season for conventions, Corrada said. It’s a strategic move to counter the decline in leisure travel during Florida’s hottest season. Right now, analysts are holding off on judging whether anecdotal accounts from event leaders will translate into a serious hit to the region’s tourism coffers.
Travelers are now receiving formal warnings to steer clear of the state.In late May, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued a travel advisory for Florida, which the NAACP called “openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.”
Brian Lowack, the interim CEO for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said he’s hopeful tourists will recognize that Florida’s not “one-size-fits-all.”
“All indications are that [tourism will] be strong” this summer, he said.
Business travel aside, some categories of leisure travel are waning amid a tight economy, Cronk said. For example, Walt Disney World Resort had unusually light attendance during the first part of July, theme park analytics website Touring Plans reported.
Theme parks have slowed down nationwide, likely a result of higher ticket prices, said Dennis Spiegel, CEO of International Theme Park Services and an industry expert. But Disney may feel additional strain, he said.
“Do I think the DeSantis-Disney issue has dialed in there? Yes, I do, and it didn’t help,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s had a horrendous impact.”
Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn echoed Spiegel’s sentiment: even if the impact isn’t measurable, the state’s outsized reputation is of no help for attracting visitors and residents to cities.
“I think what is happening at the state level flies in the face of what we believe here and what we celebrate here and what we honor here,” he said. “I don’t think it is helpful for our economic development. Why would you come to a state where the governor and the legislature preach and pass laws that are inherently spiteful?”