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TDC discusses market’s lack of meeting space as conference sector surges

Veronica Brezina

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Photo by Laura Heimann/Unsplash.

The debacle of a potential convention center and the need for more meeting space in Pinellas County has been resurrected once again as the business travel market resurges. The market is constrained by the county’s limited supply of meeting space, creating a missed opportunity to capture larger conferences. 

During a Pinellas County Tourist Development Council meeting Wednesday, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater executives showed the tremendous projections of bed tax collections and how meeting planners are hustling to book events at venues. 

“It’s surging back, and the talk of the town is more leads are coming in than there is space for the meetings, and hotel room rates are sky-high,” said Suzanne Scully Hackman, VSPC’s VP of Business Development. 

The boost in activity, both in leisure and business, is evident in the bed tax collections. For this fiscal year, VSPC budgeted $67.1 million in bed tax revenue, but the region has far surpassed that projection as it’s on pace to collect $86.1 million this year, representing a $19 million jump from projections. 

Hackman said 66% of meeting planners are sourcing sites six months in advance for meetings, and meeting cancellations, which were hovering in the 80% range during the pandemic, are now at 10% – an all-time low.  

“One of the comments we heard out of our strategic plan was [having] a meeting facility, but you need to feed the beast,” VSPC President and CEO Steve Hayes said, explaining a conference space or convention center would need to fit the market and there would have to be an appropriate amount of hotel keys to support it.  

Typically, many of these groups find meeting space within the county’s hotels, as there isn’t a convention center connected to a hotel. 

Hackman provided the example of how the Tampa Convention Center is usually a packaged deal when bidding for events, offering hotel rooms and easily accessed conference space. 

“For years we talked about a right size convention center on this side of the bay,” St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said. 

Currently, in Pinellas County, some of the most popular options for meeting planners include booking space at the Innisbrook Golf Resort, the Wyndham Grand and the Vinoy.

TDC board member Michael Williams, the managing director of the Innisbrook Golf Resort, said the resort has a 14,500-square-foot hall that features an 8,300-square-foot pre-function area that can accommodate 1,200 people for a banquet or 1,500 people in a theater setup. 

“In addition to the largest ballroom, what’s perhaps been more enticing to the meeting industry are the small ballrooms. We have two 8,000-square-foot rooms that are separated by 28 smaller breakout rooms. It’s something attractive to meeting planners when they have the flexibility of the general session and can break it out into smaller groups,” he said. 

While the resort offers large space within the county, it’s miles away from St. Pete’s bustling downtown scene. 

“The problem is [in St. Pete] there are really only two major properties there – the Vinoy and the Hilton – with a lot of meeting space where they can host a group of 350, 400 or 500 people,” Hackman said. “The need becomes greater for a hotel to meet and feed a group like the size of a Wyndham Grand or TradeWinds on Clearwater Beach [could]. We are a good market for 350 people or less where they have a lot of choices, but for 350-750 people, we don’t have enough hotel and meeting space to offer.” 

“For St. Pete, the need becomes so great now, especially in the Grand Central District where the Trop sits. It [a conference space/convention center] would need to be 100,000 square feet or more with two key hotels,” she said. 

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said the 17-story Opal Sands Resort on Clearwater Beach is building a second tower that will add 500 rooms and create more meeting space.

Welch also noted during the meeting how one of the prospective Tropicana Field developers is planning to build a convention center, if selected as the master developer. 

The Sugar Hill Community Partners group initially proposed building a 1.2-million-square-foot center; however, in the newly revised plan, it has significantly downsized the center to 150,000 square feet accompanied by a 500-key hotel. 

“We believe that this size facility will be successful regardless of broader meeting market trends that may emerge or persist. While the radius and size of the broader economic impact of this facility will be more limited than a convention center, it will still deliver significant economic benefits to the community. More importantly, this size venue can be privately financed so, unlike a convention center, no direct public investment will be required,” the team wrote. 

Midtown Development, the other master developer finalist, is also proposing to incorporate a conference center in its plans. 

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    Jonathan Myers

    April 22, 2022at9:02 am

    I travel for business every week travel quite a bit. I have never stayed in a hotel surrounded by 3,000 units of affordable housing. I have also never seen a convention center surrounded by 3,000 units of affordable housing.

    The Trop isn’t going to solve every problem or need of the City. It is unrealistic.

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