Tourism officials in Tampa, Fla., know a big event when they see one. That's why they are so excited to be hosting RCMA's 30th Anniversary Conference and Exposition.

“It's a real unique and special opportunity to host RCMA,” says Paul Catoe, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It's a cherished piece of business for any destination. We're honored to host RCMA.”

“In the year 2001, we hosted the Super Bowl,” says Norwood Smith, vice president of sales for the Tampa Bay CVB. “In 2002, we're hosting the Super Bowl of religious conferences. It's an amazing showcase opportunity for Tampa. The community is incredibly excited and looking forward to January 29.”

When RCMA's 30th Anniversary Conference and Exposition hits Tampa in 2002, you'll see for yourself what this beautiful seaport city has to offer for religious meetings and events. Tampa long has been considered a location for extraordinary events. Ponce de Leon came to the Bay area in his search for the fountain of youth, and Hernando de Soto sailed into its bay seeking gold. By the 1800s, Henry Plant brought the railroad to town and then started a steamship line. Tampa took off as a destination when, in 1891, Plant opened the Tampa Bay Hotel, a $3 million facility that attracted visitors and dignitaries from around the world. The building, with its distinctive Moorish architecture, still stands, now part of the University of Tampa. One wing — the Henry B. Plant museum — is furnished as it was in the late 1800s.

The emergence of Tampa's downtown waterfront and its growing reputation as a convention destination began in 1990 with the opening of the Tampa Convention Center. Located on the waterfront, the center is the cornerstone of the city's downtown business district. The convention center has 600,000 square feet of meeting space and 2,000 square feet of waterfront views, and provides a 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 250-seat lounge, and a 36,000-square-foot ballroom. A recent expansion doubled the center's breakout rooms to 36. The 18 new meeting rooms range in size from 500 to 1,600 square feet and include an executive suite.

“The convention center is the jewel in the crown of our convention package,” Smith says.

Growing Tampa

Long known for its beautiful sunsets and sunny beaches, Tampa keeps building more reasons for groups to come and sample its charms. In fact, the diversity of hotel properties and price points are what make Tampa so attractive for religious meetings, Smith says.

The centerpiece is the 717-room Tampa Marriott Waterside hotel, a wonderful headquarters hotel that opened in March 2000. The Marriott is adjacent to the convention center and has 50,000 square feet of flexible meeting and banquet space.

Then there's the wonderful, 521-room Hyatt Regency Tampa, in the heart of the city. And the Doubletree Tampa Airport, one of the largest hotels in the Westshore Business District, has undergone a $13.6 million update of its 500 guest rooms and facilities.

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts also has completed a $9.5 million renovation to its two Tampa properties: Wyndham Harbor Island and Wyndham Westshore. And there's no shortage of sleeping rooms. With the opening of the new Marriott, the city has nearly 18,000 hotel rooms, including 1,800 committable rooms downtown and 4,000 rooms within four miles of the convention center.

And there's more. An 86-room Hampton Inn was completed in December 2000, and two new Residence Inns have been built: a 109-room Residence Inn downtown, and a 160-suite Residence Inn scheduled for a December 2001 opening at the Westshore Business District's Cornerstone Plaza. The Saddlebrook Resort also has completed $8 million in renovations.

Even Tampa International Airport is growing. Already acclaimed as an easy-to-use, convenient airport, a $400 million expansion is planned over the next five years.

On the Town

Of course, there's more to Tampa than premier meeting space and hotels. The city continues to develop its waterfront area. In 1996, the 21,000-seat, $160 million Ice Palace arena opened just two blocks from the convention center. One of the busiest arenas in the nation for special events, the state-of-the-art sports and entertainment facility can accommodate up to 21,500 people for center-stage events, or it can be divided into different configurations for general sessions. The venue, which is easily accessible via all four major Bay area highways, also offers fine dining in its two restaurants.

Channelside, a 230,000-square-foot entertainment complex, opened in fall 2000. It is conveniently located blocks from the convention center. Channelside includes a nine-screen Regal Cinema movie theater, an IMAX theater, a Pop City entertainment center, and a wide variety of retail shops and restaurants. Its open-air atmosphere, tropical landscaping, and waterfront and skyline terrace views create a welcome respite for the spirit.

Channelside is next to the newly renovated cruise terminal, where Carnival and Holland America cruise lines sail on four-, seven-, and 14-day itineraries to the western Caribbean and beyond.

Rounding out the east side of the waterfront is the $94 million Florida Aquarium. Opened in 1995, the aquarium doubles as a great location for spouses and family programs, and is a spectacular glass-and-steel venue for off-site functions. RCMA's Tuesday night Grand Reception will be held at the aquarium.

Some other major visitor attractions include the world-famous Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, a 335-acre Africa-themed family entertainment park, which will be the site of RCMA's Wednesday night program. The park features World Rhythms on Ice, a show that leads the audience on a tour around the world, ending with a visit to the United States and a gospel chorus of “God Bless America.” The park also features the just-finished Serengeti Plain, complete with dramatic topographical and landscaping enhancements, and close-up viewing of giraffes, zebras, gazelles, ostriches, bongos, and elands.

In addition, work is under way on a $1.29 million riverwalk that will line the entire waterfront, along with Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel in downtown Tampa. The riverwalk will allow pedestrians to stroll from the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center past the Tampa Museum of Art, the convention center, and the Ice Palace arena and down to the Garrison Seaport Center and the Florida Aquarium.

Tampa's historic streetcar trolley system will be running by spring 2002. Smith says RCMA attendees will get a sneak peek at these air-conditioned replicas of the electric streetcars that carried passengers around the city 110 years ago. The trolleys will travel on a 2.3-mile track that begins at the convention center and links the downtown waterfront and port to Ybor City.

A Religious Experience

In the past year, Tampa has hosted the AME Church Meeting, the Diocese of St. Petersburg Youth Ministries Meeting, the North American Christian Convention 2001 General Conference, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. More religious groups are coming to Tampa in coming years, including the National Association of Free Will Baptists and the International Lutheran Women's Missionary League.

That Beautiful Weather

Some of the best news about Tampa is its temperate, semitropical climate. With an average high temperature at the end of January of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, attendees at RCMA's 30th Anniversary Conference and Exposition will be able to leave their coats, scarves, and boots behind when they travel to Tampa.

“They'll be in Florida in January — they're just going to love it,” Smith says of the weather. “They're going to be in a beautiful setting.”

And the traveling should be seamless: Tampa International Airport has been ranked the number-one airport by the Airline Passengers Association for four consecutive years.

If you add it up, this RCMA conference is certain to be very special.

RCMA attendees are “going to be amazed at the options, at the components that Tampa has to offer,” Smith says.”

Tampa Visitor Facts

Here are some statistics from the Tampa Convention & Visitors Bureau's 2000 visitor analysis:

  • Overall, the number of visitors increased 14.2 percent in 2000, compared to 1999, and accounted for an estimated 15.39 million visitors to Tampa/Hillsborough County. The number of visitors to Tampa has increased nearly 50 percent since 1995. More than 90 percent of the visitors in 2000 said they are likely to return.

  • The second quarter (April through June) of the year 2000 was the busiest, with more than 4.32 million visitors, followed by the first quarter with 3.96 million visitors; the third quarter showed 3.70 million visitors, and the fourth quarter had 3.39 million visitors.

  • Overnight visitors staying in commercial lodging facilities (i.e., hotels, motels, condominiums, and campgrounds) increased by 10.1 percent to more than 4.8 million people. Commercial overnight visitors stayed an average of 3.23 nights, an increase of 7.6 percent over 1999.

  • Commercial lodging visitors accounted for 31 percent of total visitors; however, they accounted for 65 percent of total visitor expenditures.

  • Domestic inbound passengers at Tampa International Airport increased 6.5 percent to 7.7 million, and international inbound airline passengers decreased 8.4 percent to 247,085 passengers.

  • Domestic U.S. markets continue to make up the majority of Tampa's visitors, accounting for 49.3 percent of the market; New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois were the top three states for visitors to Tampa. In-state visitors make up 33.6 percent of the total market, and international markets make up 17.1 percent of the total market.

  • England, Canada, and Brazil were the top three international markets for visitors, with England accounting for 36.3 percent of the international market.