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I was told I am supposed to call Tampa Bay, "Champa-Bay" since they hold the trophies for top spot in NFL, NHL, ALCS and USL this past year. I also learned they have a team called "The Rowdies" which really excites me, partially because it's fun to say and partially because I have been called rowdy before mostly by my grandparents.

I went to Tampa Bay a couple weeks ago for the MPI Thought Leadership Summit. The content and the people were enlightening and inspiring. I had not been to Tampa for many years and I was pleasantly surprised by the bustling energy of the city, the various entertainment districts and the innovative though incubators.

Here are my top take-aways from attending a conference in Tampa.

--The city is clean and there is water everywhere. Every hotel, venue and even the convention center has stunning water views. There are great walkways and paths that overlook the water. There are even fun water taxi's that can be taken from one part of town to the other that make hopping around the city super fun and easy.

--The Innovation & Collective Creativity is off the charts: We heard from Lakshmi Shenoy from Embarc Collective which is a start up incubator that helps businesses build scalable companies. Even their building is cool. She shared the deep desire and general activity surrounding start ups in Tampa. Real live businesses are starting and growing right from this hub. She offers tour of their space and it's even available for events.

We also heard from Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. He spoke about the multicultural, diversity, equity and inclusion programs that Tampa put into place way before "DE&I" was even on our minds. The city has been a pioneer in this space for a long time. It was a breath of fresh air and inspired me to want to bring meetings there just to be in their sphere.

--Fresh New Hotels: We stayed at the JW Marriott Tampa water street. This hotel just opened and already has a cult following. The space was large, easy to navigate and had delicious food and beverage outlets. The service was so good. My bags were lost on arrival day. The front office corresponded with the MPI event staff and just like magic, my bags appeared on my door step hours later. I didn't have to get out of my jammies to come down to the lobby. I didn't have to facilitate conversations between airlines and couriers and transfer companies. The hotel handled it-like a boss. This hotel is so pretty, even the bathrooms are picturesque.

Lobby Bathroom--look at that green!!

JW's big sister Tampa Marriott Water Street, right next door recently completed a big make-over.

The lobby was stunning, fresh and airy too.

Tampa Marriott Water Street Lobby

I was really impressed with the number of hotel rooms that were within walking distance to the downtown area. I believe the number was 6000 total rooms and all brands, even some independent hotels are represented.

--The Entertainment Districts: I know there are at least 6 entertainment districts within walking distance or a short cab/Uber/Lyft ride from downtown Tampa.

We galivanted in two of them. The first place we went was this impressive culinary complex called Armature Works. It's a public market with casual communal seating, and high end restaurants with private and standard restaurant seating. There's a rad rooftop that we didn't get to dine on because it was raining, but, the space is huge--22,000 square feet of something for everyone. Next up--we went to Ybor City for dinner.


The history, the magic and the design of this cute little walkable community was spectacular. We dined at Columbia Restaurant which opened in 1905. It started as a bistro/pub and 116 years later it has 15 dining rooms, each with it's unique style, Spanish entertainment with Flamenco shows and it's own branded bottles of wine. The family portraits surrounding the venue tell the story of culture, creativity and commitment. We enjoyed Paella, Spanish red wine and a dessert trio to which I am still daydreaming. This spot would be good for a one off dinner with pals OR for a large group event. Lord knows they have the space to do it. Whichever you decide to do, ask the hostess for a tour. Some of the original family members still work there and the stories they share along the way are worth the time away from your dining table.

I got the sense that all types of groups and travelers would like time in Tampa and there is something for everyone there. If you want to be healthy--jog the path on the water and grab a smoothie from the kiosk at the end.

If you want to indulge, take a water taxi to one of the many restaurants and definitely get a Cuban sandwich, which is something to which Tampa natives hang their pride. In fact, we saw a cute video about the battle of who created the Cuban--was it Tampa or Miami? See this video and decide for yourself.

--I got some time with the Lombardi Trophy! Being from Ohio and a hopeless Browns Fan, this might be the closest I'll ever be to the Lombardi trophy. We went on a tour of the Raymond James stadium and there it was, in all it's glory. I took a pic with it, tried to get some of it's magic and send it into the Cleveland Browns ether for good luck. Aside from visiting the trophy, we saw many venues inside the stadium perfect for Group meetings. There was Bar76, multiple suites and The Pirate Ship.

The stadium and team were so hospitable they put our logo onto what felt like every single digital sign they had. Everywhere we turned was a "welcome MPI". We felt welcomed. We felt happy we found a new spot for events. We felt proud to be among champions.

The most interesting tidbit I learned from the tour was the loud birds. We walked onto the field. The birds were so loud I thought I was going to get picked up by the shoulders and carried away. It was distracting and a little scary. Here's the rub: they aren't real birds. Apparently, "real birds" were making nests in the lights, so the stadium brought in a sound track of the exact birds the "real birds" were afraid of and they play that on a loop to keep those pesky birds away during the day. Here's a video from walking on the field and those damn birds.

Being in Tampa for half of a week inspired me to think of the many ways I can return to the city.

I can return for fun and go on a quest for the best cigar or Cuban sandwich.

I can return as a meeting planner and bring a convention or trade show here and soak up the rich history, culture and innovation that is beaming at the seams.

I can return to watch a hockey, baseball, football or soccer game and hope it's during another CHAMPA-Bay winning year.

Mandi Graziano is Vice President for Global Accounts at HPN Global where she is a conference consultant who finds venues for people all over the world for their large gatherings. She is also the author of the Amazon best selling book Sales Tales: The Hustle, Humor, and Lessons from a Life in Sales.


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