Hello, world! It’s Tampa Bay! 

If anyone can convince tourists and conventions to come to Tampa, it’s Santiago Corrada.

As the formal press conference at Visit Tampa Bay’s offices was about to wind down this past Monday, Santiago Corrada had one last thing to say to the assembled members of the media.

“There aren’t always opportunities or invitation to bid on a Super Bowl or a political convention or a World Cup, but there are events like this that bring international attention and visitors to our destination, and Tampa will take its rightful place among those well-known and highly visited destinations around the world.”

The recently hired head of Visit Tampa Bay, Tampa/Hillsborough County’s convention and visitors’ bureau, was talking about the splashiest get yet in his nascent tenure: the Indian International Film Awards, which are expected to bring tens of thousands of visitors and perhaps over $10 million in economic activity to the area next June.

Things seem to be on the ascendancy for Visit Tampa Bay, which just underwent a name change (from Tampa Bay & Company), announced a new branding campaign (“Unlock Tampa Bay: Treasure Awaits”), and acquired perhaps its best new weapon, the energetic and enthusiastic Corrada as its new president and CEO.

A week earlier in the same offices, the 49-year-old leader talked about his goals moving forward.

“The biggest challenge for us is name recognition,” he begins.

But a review of data collected by Alan Newman Research in conjunction with Tampa marketing firm Spark suggests that there are other challenges as well.

The survey of 1,000 leisure travelers from across the country placed Tampa dead last in “authenticity” among nine American cities considered competitors for the same tourists — trailing even Orlando, the home of Never Never Land. When those same consumers were given a word association test, Tampa ranked near the bottom when it came to the terms “hip,” “art”, “history” and “cultural.”

Hearing those results saddens La Gaceta editor Patrick Manteiga, who believes the agency should use local county funding set aside for historical renovation to develop cultural tourism in Ybor City.

“When you say Key West, you think of certain things,” Manteiga says. “If it’s St. Augustine, you think of certain things. When you say Orlando, you think of some other things. What is Tampa thought of?”

The Tampa native says he felt vindicated late last month after New York Magazine posted a Web-only travel spread entitled “Skip the Beach in Tampa” that featured references to restaurants and locales not often marketed to a national and international market. “After decades of suburban sprawl,” opined New York, “this Gulf Coast city has brought new life to its neglected center by fixing up the riverfront, repurposing abandoned spaces, and embracing its Cuban-American history.”

In a branding document issued by Spark earlier this year, the marketing agency wrote that Tampa/Hillsborough County could differentiate itself from Pinellas County “through defining specific segments of tourism offered, including eco-tourism, heritage tourism and history tourism.”

Corrada says that in the pitches he makes, Ybor is always mentioned because “it’d be stupid not to.” At a recent trade show in Las Vegas, he says, he and his colleagues spoke extensively about the area’s cultural legacy.

While Hillsborough County tries to find the elixir to draw more tourists and conventiongoers, their counterparts in Pinellas are riding the crest of two consecutive banner years. A record 5.4 million visitors spent time recreating in the county in 2012, 4 percent more than the previous record set in 2011.

David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Pinellas’ convention and visitors’ bureau, gracefully says it’s the growth of Tampa Bay as an overall destination that counts, and that he and his counterparts across the Howard Frankland continue to work together on a number of projects.

“For us to think [that] some imaginary line separating Hillsborough from Pinellas means anything to visitors is a bit short-sighted,” he says, adding that visitors don’t care what side of the Bay they’re on. They just want a good experience. “So it makes sense in lots of arenas to promote the destination together.”

Both agencies do that in a number of ways, including jointly paying the salaries of their representatives in Chicago, New York and overseas bureaus.

“They’ve got the beaches, the great hotels, they’ve got the art and culture,” says Corrada of Pinellas, adding that the two counties complement each other like Miami and Miami Beach do in South Florida.

But obviously Tampa has some work to do, even after the much-hyped coming-out party that was the Republican National Convention, an event that Mayor Bob Buckhorn vowed would allow America and the world to see the Cigar City “dance like we’ve never danced before.”

Corrada says the residuals from the convention are still coming in. Siemens, the multinational engineering and electronics conglomerate, is booking an event next year that was inspired by an article in US Airways Magazine during the RNC.

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