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Brand New Tampa Bay

This charming waterfront city faces strong competition from its neighboring destinations — and is upping its game. Last year, Tampa hosted the Republican National Convention, and with a rebranded CVB and $177 million in new development dramatically reshaping downtown, the city has a whole new story to tell.

Behind Orlando, Atlanta, Miami, and Washington, D.C., Tampa is the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the Southeast. But unlike these larger destinations, Tampa has lagged in name recognition until recently, when the destination scored a huge win: the 2012 Republican National Convention. It was Tampa’s shining moment, and a chance for the city to show off its new wares — as I experienced during a recent two-and-a-half-day visit hosted by Visit Tampa Bay.

Since 2010, $177 million has been poured into revamping the city’s downtown and numerous waterfront neighborhoods. The result is four new museums, several new mixed-use developments, new hotels, a massive renovation of the 20,500-seat Tampa Bay Times Forum, and the near completion of the 2.4-mile-long Tampa Riverwalk.

On arrival at Tampa International Airport, I immediately knew where I was. The sunny, airy terminal recently added pared-down versions of the city’s most popular local restaurants, including Cigar City Brewing, the Columbia Restaurant Café, and First Flight Wine Bar, a spin-off of the decadent downtown staple Mise en Place. It’s a small example of how the city stays loyal to its locals and pays homage to its diverse and rich heritage.

Treasure Awaits

After grabbing my luggage at the airport, I met up with my hosts from Visit Tampa Bay, who took me to lunch at Boca Kitchen in Hyde Park, a cozy neighborhood joint that in the 1920s was a gas station and garage. Boca serves an upscale, comfort-food-inspired menu of mostly local fare, and its Hyde Park neighborhood is filled with turn-of-the-century bungalows and gleaming new mixed-use developments.

While we ate, I learned more about Visit Tampa Bay, which has undergone some big changes recently. Apart from debuting a new logo, name, and brand identity earlier this year, the bureau named a new president and CEO, Santiago Corrada, a Tampa resident who formerly served as chief of staff for the City of Tampa. The brand’s sleek, new, pirate-inspired logo and tagline, “Unlock Tampa Bay,” aim to set the West Florida destination apart from its neighbors and play up its offbeat, adventurous side.

Back downtown, we made our first stop, at the Tampa Convention Center. The 600,000-square-foot facility is remarkable in that it sits directly on the Tampa Bay waterfront, making it ideal for everything from VIP galas for the Republican National Convention (RNC) to spectator-heavy events like wakeboarding’s Red Bull Wake Open. Stacy McGlinnen, national sales manager for the center, gave us the grand tour, pointing out that meeting planners love the venue most for its generous amount of natural light and accessibility. It’s so easy to get around, in fact, that the National Veterans Wheelchair Games chose the center for its 2013 event. Spanning four floors, the center has 95 percent of its meeting space on the first level and its 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall on the third.

Beyond the terraces, glassed-walled meeting spaces, and outdoor patios that let guests soak in every inch of the bay, the center is unique in that its waterfront can accommodate everything from firework shows to water taxis and yacht charters, both popular activity options with groups. The Tampa Riverwalk — a pedestrian walk connecting many of downtown’s biggest attractions that will be completed in 2014 — passes by the center’s front door. And so does the city’s TECO Line Streetcar System, whose historic streetcars make 11 stops within downtown Tampa’s most popular neighborhoods, including the Channel District, home to the Port of Tampa and the eighth-largest cruise port in the United States, and historic Ybor City, famous for its nightlife and cigar manufacturers. Nearby historic Hyde Park and Soho (South Howard) are home to Tampa’s restaurant row.

To top it off, a skywalk connects the center to the 360-room Embassy Suites Tampa — Downtown Convention Center. And within walking distance are four more hotels, including the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, where I was staying.

Checking In and Checking Out

From a stop just outside the Tampa Marriott Waterside, we hopped aboard the TECO Line Streetcar (an unlimited day pass costs $5) and took a 10-minute ride to Ybor City for dinner at the Columbia Restaurant. The fifth-generation-owned Spanish restaurant is a staple of the Tampa dining scene, renowned for its live flamenco dancing, encyclopedia-sized menu of Spanish dishes, and, at the historic Ybor City location where we ate, stunning Moorish architecture. Columbia’s 15 dining rooms are speckled with indoor fountains, keyhole-shaped doorways, skylights, and colorful tile flooring, making the restaurant one of the most unique and popular event venues in the city.

We kicked off the next morning with breakfast at Armani’s restaurant, the 14th-floor Italian jewel of the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. The clean and modern space features floor-to-ceiling views of the bay as well as a patio where a retractable roof will be added later this year.

Next, we headed back downtown to see the city’s innovative side. CAMLS — Center for Advanced Media Learning and Simulation (affiliated with the University of South Florida) opened in a 90,000-square-foot building in 2012, and offers cutting-edge health-care simulation training and educational facilities. The first facility of its kind in the world, the $38-million CAMLS caters to groups of all kinds — from dental students to medical device companies — that need state-of-the-art spaces and equipment for training, education, and demonstrations.

In an effort to stimulate the other side of the brain, we hit the Tampa Museum of Art, one of four museums that dot the downtown waterfront. In 2010, the museum moved into its current location adjacent to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, which was also recently revitalized. The building’s lobby atrium and covered terrace overlook the park and serve as a sort of front yard for the museum, and are ideal for receptions and launch parties. As we lunched at the museum’s Sono Cafe, I chatted with Jane Han Godfrey, Visit Tampa Bay’s senior services manager, who told me about how the waterfront and green spaces like Curtis Hixon are playing a major role in attracting both locals and visitors to downtown. Segway tours, paddleboarding excursions, yoga in the park, and water taxis are a regular sight now, and the accessibility of the Tampa Riverwalk makes jumping from the convention center to an attraction or hotel simple and safe for everyone.

After lunch, we took a look at two other popular attractions that offer options for groups. The Glazer Children’s Museum — a great add-on for family programs — has a private third floor with 5,000 square feet of meeting space and a terrace that overlooks downtown for after-hours events. Nearby, in the Channel District, the Florida Aquarium has a smorgasbord of aquatic-themed spaces for events. From seated dinners in front of a shark tank, where groups can be entertained by divers who speak through a special speaker system, to cigar lounges set up on the tiki deck and dolphin-spotting excursions on the aquarium’s private catamaran, the options are plentiful and always entertaining.

Our last stop of the day was the 6,000-square-foot Vault, a recently restored, blank canvas of a special-event space in the Downtown Arts District. With floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking out on downtown, The Vault features an actual vault — from when the space served as a bank, built in 1923.

My last evening in Tampa was spent enjoying a long, luxurious dinner at Mise en Place, a 180-seat restaurant known for its enormous menu and attentive service. A number of banquet and private dining spaces are available for groups within the restaurant itself, and a catering and event-planning division offers services for off-site events. Next door, the elegant, airy Oxford Exchange is another must-see. The jack-of-all-trades space houses a full-service restaurant, a private club, separate tea and coffee shops, and an eclectic gift store.

The next morning, before my last site visit of the trip, I grabbed coffee and a bacon-and-egg sandwich — served on two huge slabs of mouthwatering Cuban bread — at Moxies Café before touring the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the main site of last year’s RNC The venue hosts 150 events annually, everything from hockey games to concerts, and a $40-million renovation completed in 2012 added a number of new amenities and event spaces – including the 11,000-square-foot Bud Light Outdoor Party Deck, 69 new luxury suites, and the 9,000-square-foot Firestick Grill. The spaces all have a noticeably upscale ambience to them, making you feel like you’re in a classy hotel rather than a sports arena.

It’s just one more example of how Tampa is setting itself apart and setting the bar higher.

Jennifer N. Dienst

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.