5 distinct experiences to take advantage of during meetings

Tampa Riverwalk

Tampa Bay’s in the big leagues now, literally and figuratively. With a regional population of 4.5 million, it’s an emerging metropolis, with a vibrant cultural life, some of the best restaurants in America, outdoor activities every day of the year, a stunning waterside location and a unique history. And oh, yes, the Big Leagues: three major-league sports teams, with a fourth, the NBA’s Orlando Magic, in nearby Orlando.

But more than anything else, Tampa is a city of neighborhoods with interesting histories and architecture, sweet cultural surprises, different ethnic accents and a variety of catchy aromas, from food to cigars, that will lure you into a hundred little doorways.

“Tampa Bay has a record of handling events of all sizes and types with aplomb,” says Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “You’ll get the same level of service and professionalism whether you’re bringing in an international convention or a small board meeting. We help everyone who meets here make the whole place their own, from morning on the Riverwalk to a nightcap in Ybor City.”

Each neighborhood has its own distinct personality and is very proud of it. Here are five of the most interesting and colorful Tampa Bay neighborhoods in which to meet, eat and play.

Booming Downtown

tampa bayAqua, The Westin Tampa Bay

Tampa has grown up and is still growing. A $1 billion development project is in the works, including a new 400-room hotel with 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in the heart of the city’s convention district. The new hotel will go up between Tampa Convention Center and the existing Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, which will be renovated. The project is backed by Jeff Vinik, owner of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. He purchased the Marriott last year.

“Mr. Vinik’s vision and planned development for downtown Tampa will create a truly urban meeting destination that positively impacts the attendance and future viability of Tampa Convention Center,” says Rick Hamilton, executive director.

The convention center cohosted the 2012 Republican National Convention, for which it installed state-of-the-art technological upgrades. The 600,000-square-foot venue recently installed a software program that streamlines all efforts, from sales and event planning to operations and accounting. Working from a centralized database, Ungerboeck Software allows convention center staff to track the many moving parts involved in booking, planning and executing events in real time.

“This new software will drive accuracy and efficiency to an even greater level, and, more importantly, deliver a higher level of service to customers and clients,” says Eric Blanc, director of sales and marketing for the convention center.

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The Tampa Riverwalk now offers a 1.8-mile continuous walkable and bikeable waterfront trail. Fronting the Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel, The Tampa Riverwalk connects popular venues, restaurants, bars and local businesses. From the convention center, visitors can access popular sites such as The Florida Aquarium, Tampa Museum of Art, Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Glazer Children’s Museum, Amalie Arena and Curtis Hixon Park.

University of Tampa, established in 1941, is dotted with eclectic buildings. It features elements of Victorian, Early American, Middle European and whimsical architectural styles. This is perhaps best symbolized by the silver domes of Plant Hall. This building, once a resort hotel for the rich and famous, now houses the Henry B. Plant Museum, named for the 19-century railroad baron who first put this area on the map.

Some of the city’s most popular events are staged downtown, including the Gasparilla Festival in January. This is a week of Mardi Gras-style celebrations and has the third-largest parade in the United States. It’s named for the pirate Jose Gaspar, who once prowled these waters with his crew of cutthroats, relieving many a Spanish or English galleon of their hard-won riches. During Gasparilla, it seems as if every one of those 4.5 million residents dons pirate garb!

Tampa has always been known as a “foodie” town, because of its ethnic groups and the bountiful gulf waters. A favorite downtown dining spot is Malio’s Prime steakhouse, in the cylindrical Rivergate Tower. For a Native American-inspired culinary experience, follow The Riverwalk north to Ulele.

Ybor City’s Culture

tampa bayCentro Ybor

As you enter Ybor City, you know you’re in for something different. Long before Cuba was the Cigar Capital of the World, Ybor City held that distinction. From these streets with restored red-brick buildings once came millions of high-quality cigars—each rolled by hand. At one time, 13,000 people worked the cigar trade in this little immigrant quarter, with doorways redolent with the aroma.

Today, the art of cigar making is still carried on by a few small companies. And now those companies have been joined by young entrepreneurs who are spicing up Ybor City with craft-beer breweries.

Ybor City is where Tampa goes to party, in colorful old restaurants and dance halls, old social clubs, music clubs, a move theater that serves cocktails and the popular Tampa Improv.

The city celebrates other aspects of its culture as well. Tampa Baseball Museum at the Al Lopez House is named for a beloved Tampa Bay resident, the son of Cuban immigrants, who became a Major League ballplayer (Tampa’s first) and manager. Nearby is Ybor City Museum State Park, which offers an in-depth look at this immigrant community.

tampa bayColumbia Restaurant

No visit to Ybor City is complete, of course, without Cuban food. La Tropicana Cafe serves legendary breakfasts (cheesy Cuban toast) and lunch (Cuban sandwiches). The neighborhood is home to the most famous Cuban/Spanish restaurant in the United States: Columbia Restaurant has been serving exceptional Cuban-Spanish food for more than a century, in an ambience reminiscent of a fine hacienda. And don’t leave Ybor city without trying the deviled crabs at Carmine’s and the Free Dive Gulf Coast IPA at Coppertail Brewing Co.

On weekend nights, Ybor parties almost until the sun comes up. The Ritz Ybor hosts national concert tours, while its Czar nightclub probably holds the biggest dance parties in town. And there’s a never-ending people parade.

Ybor City has a serious side, as well. It was the site of several fiery speeches advocating independence from Spain by Cuban patriot Jose Marti, who is still revered here.

This neighborhood hosts meetings, too. The Cuban Club, one of several 19th-century immigrant social clubs still open here, has a 450-seat theater and a newly opened outdoor space for 4,500.

Waterfront Channel District

tampa bayTECO Line historic streetcar

The Channel District offers unique Tampa experiences, with many of them either on or next to the water. The TECO Line historic streetcar system will take you to some of the top attractions, among them The Florida Aquarium, ranked among the United States’ best by the Travel Channel, where you can lose yourself among 20,000 marine plants and animals. The streetcar also will take you to Tampa Bay History Center, where the region’s 12,000-year human heritage springs to life and where you can eat at the Columbia Cafe, an offshoot of the aforementioned Columbia Restaurant. The museum also offers 17,000 sq. ft. of event space, accommodating 500 guests, and the opportunity for team building on history scavenger hunts.

The streetcar will take you to upscale shops and restaurants of Channelside Bay Plaza. For hockey fans, stop by Amalie Arena, home of the beloved Tampa Bay Lightning. World War II-era S.S. American Victory Mariners’ Memorial and Museum is another must-see.

Attendees can take an electric boat ride with eBoats Tampa, ride a pedal-powered water bike, and try their hand at exploring the city’s waterways on a paddleboard. By happy coincidence, all these watery conveyances launch from the Tampa Convention Center. Magic Carpet Glide Segway tours is another fun option.

Ferg’s Live is a popular hangout before and after events at Amalie Arena. Splitsville, at Channelside Bay Plaza, is a retro-chic bowling alley with upscale bar food and good team-building opportunities. And, for a waterborne view of Tampa’s varied neighborhoods, shove off on a dinner cruise with Yacht StarShip, the first AAA Three Diamond rated dining yacht in the United States.

Westshore & Airport Shopping

tampa bayThe Florida Aquarium

This lively zone is convenient to the airport, as well as several historic neighborhoods. And when we say “lively,” we mean lively. There are more than 30 hotels, many with excellent meeting spaces, and 8,500 guest rooms in Westshore. The area is also filled with restaurants to serve all those visitors. And there are two huge malls, Westshore Plaza and International Plaza and Bay Street, only a mile apart.

International Plaza and Bay Street offers luxury shopping and al fresco dining in an open-air village with 200 specialty shops. Eateries include Brio Tuscan Grille, The Pub and The Capital Grille.

Westshore Plaza has abundant dining options. Also, it’s easy to find food with a view at waterfront landmarks such as Whiskey Joe’s and Oystercatchers, the latter renowned for its fresh seafood and spectacular panoramas. Aqua in The Westin Tampa Bay serves steak and seafood amid modern decor and water-themed light installations.

Tampa’s burgeoning craft-beer scene now boasts several dozen micro breweries. A good way to experience some of them is via a party bus such as Brew Bus Tampa Bay. These buses will take attendees to popular breweries, including award-winning Cigar City Brewing Co.

If you’re a baseball fan, and you meet here in March, you can see the New York Yankees play their spring training games at nearby George M. Steinbrenner Field. Its outfield has the same dimensions as Yankee Stadium. The Major League Baseball team Tampa Bay Rays plays from May to October at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

Relax in Soho & Hyde Park

tampa bayEpicurean Hotel

When meeting attendees want to relax after a busy day, this area is where many often head. Bayshore Boulevard, on the waterfront, is one of Tampa’s great gathering places. It’s also the world’s longest unbroken sidewalk; just ask the dog walkers, joggers, bikers, skaters and visitors (and attendees from harsher climes!) who congregate there.

Locals dig into comfort food and craft brews at a beloved gastro-pub/gourmet market called Datz. Its quirky offshoot, Datz Dough, serves grab-and-go sweets. Another Datz venture, Roux, creates Cajun/creole specialties out of locally sourced ingredients.

The 137-room Epicurean Hotel is in this district. It’s a place of posh sophistication and known as a “foodie hotel,” with Elevage Restaurant, Chocolate Pi, Epicurean Theatre, Edge Social Drinkery and Bern’s Fine Wine & Spirits. Bern’s is owned by the family of Bern Laxer, the “Bern” behind nearby Bern’s Steak House, one of the most famous steak houses in America. This restaurant also boasts the largest wine selection in the world and a separate dessert room.

Hyde Park Village is an interesting collection of local bars and upscale shops and restaurants. Foodies gather at Wine Exchange Bistro & Wine Bar and at Irish 31, a pub/eatery. Other cool restaurants in this area include a classic diner called Daily Eats, and Boca Kitchen, a farm-to-table eatery housed in a 1920s-era gas station.

Like the other neighborhoods profiled here, this one has an interesting place at which to meet. Overlooking Tampa Bay, the Tampa Garden Club has a ballroom and conservatory.

History and Culture Meet

tampa bayTampa Convention Center

For meeting planners and attendees, there’s a lot to like about Tampa, including its colorful, historic, foodie and fun neighborhoods.

“Tampa Bay has a blend of history and culture that is unique to Florida,” Corrada says. “Our Cuban heritage goes back more than a century to revolutionary Jose Marti. Historic Ybor City has gone from the cigar capital of the world to the craft beer hub of Florida. Our Hyde Park and Seminole Heights neighborhoods have made Tampa Bay the home to a new style of creative cuisine reaching back to our Cracker past and forward to the future with food infused by technology. Quite simply, attendees will get a taste of real Florida when you bring your meeting to Tampa Bay.”

With an international airport and one of the few waterfront convention centers in the country, Tampa Bay continually shows it is well suited to host meetings and events of all sizes.

Steve Winston is an award-winning writer who has traveled extensively and writes for national and international magazines.

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Major Meeting Venues

Downtown/Convention District

Embassy Suites Tampa Downtown Convention Center

Two-room suites; connected by skybridge to Tampa Convention Center; convenient downtown location; historic streetcar stops at front door; 360 guest rooms; 9,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Epicurean Hotel

In the trendy Hyde Park historic district; AAA Four Diamond; two restaurants, a bakery and a wine shop; Epicurean Theatre holds events and meetings; 137 guest rooms; 5,200 sq. ft.

Hilton Tampa Downtown

Located in the heart of the downtown financial district; 521 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft.; within walking distance of the Tampa Convention Center, cultural centers and attractions.

Le Meridien

Formerly a federal courthouse, built in 1905; now a boutique hotel with a personal touch; luxurious hideaway in the city; 130 guest rooms; 4,000 sq. ft.

Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel

Located on the banks of the Hillsborough River, in the heart of downtown; direct access to The Tampa Riverwalk; 277 guest rooms; 12,000 sq. ft.

Tampa Convention Center

One of the few waterfront convention centers in United States; great natural light; 600,000 sq. ft.; a $15 million renovation, to be completed in 2018, is underway.

Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina

Tampa Bay’s largest convention hotel; 719 guest rooms; 50,000 sq. ft.; incredible location, steps from the Tampa Convention Center and Amalie Arena; most rooms have balconies.

Tampa Museum of Art

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Hold events among the masterpieces of the permanent collection; reception space for 800; five meeting rooms, with advanced technology.

Westin Harbour Island

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Waterfront property near Tampa Convention Center; Tampa Riverwalk is right outside; 299 guest rooms; 18,032 sq. ft.

East Hillsborough County

Sheraton Tampa East

Newly renovated; 266 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft.; fitness center; tennis courts; glass-walled Panfilo’s Bar & Grill serves classic American specialties.

The Resort & Club at Little Harbor on Tampa Bay

Tucked away on a private beach; short drive from downtown; 60 guest rooms; 2,210 sq. ft.; Sunset Grill is one of the area’s best waterside restaurants.

North Tampa Bay

Emerald Greens Condo Resort

Nestled within Carrollwood Country Club; 50 spacious suites decorated with golf-related accents; daily housekeeping; concierge service; 5,000 sq. ft., including a ballroom that can accommodate 300.

Saddlebrook Resort

Located in Wesley Chapel; one of Florida’s best resorts and meeting places; 540 guest suites; 95,000 sq. ft.; award-winning restaurants; two golf courses; tennis; spa.


Crowne Plaza Tampa-Westshore

Less than two miles from Tampa International Airport and five miles from downtown; 222 guest rooms; 9,100 sq. ft.; business center; health club.

DoubleTree by Hilton Tampa Airport–Westshore

Convenient to most attractions; 489 guest rooms; 16,000 sq. ft.; surrounded by restaurants and shops.

DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Tampa Bay

Full service, all-suite waterfront hotel; 203 guest rooms; 5,800 sq. ft. of flexible function space; hotel overlooks Tampa Bay; fitness center; pool.

Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay

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AAA Four Diamond hotel on 35 acres on the bay; 442 guest rooms; 22,000 sq. ft.; two swimming pools; tennis court; great views of the bay from 14th-floor Armani’s Restaurant.

Hilton Tampa Airport Westshore

Full-service hotel; Coconuts Restaurant and Bay Breeze Lounge; 238 guest rooms; 12,000 sq. ft.; two minutes from the airport; situated near several major malls and shopping areas as well as sports venues.

Holiday Inn Tampa Westshore

In heart of the busy Westshore business district; weeknight themed events; 261 guest rooms; 10,643 sq. ft.; close to the beaches and attractions.

InterContinental Tampa

In heart of the Westshore business and shopping district; three miles from the airport and five miles from downtown; 323 guest rooms; 17,000 sq. ft.

Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel

Located in the heart of business district; Mediterranean ambience; 287 guest rooms; 12,500 sq. ft.; Pelagia Trattoria serves excellent Italian specialties.

Rusty Pelican Restaurant

On the bay; known for fresh local seafood with a Caribbean flair; private meeting space for 250 attendees.

Sheraton Suites Tampa Airport Westshore

Recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation; 261 guest rooms; 12,000 sq. ft.; three miles from the airport; close to the Buccaneers stadium.

Tampa Airport Marriott

Conveniently located inside Tampa International Airport (TPA); newly renovated; 295 guest rooms; 22,000 sq. ft.

Tampa Marriott Westshore

Walk to malls, restaurants and a nature park; 308 guest rooms; 13,000 sq. ft.; free airport shuttle.

The Westin Tampa Bay

On Rocky Point Island; 244 guest rooms; 10,000 sq. ft.; AAA Four Diamond rating;easy access to downtown.