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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 17, 2014 7 years ago

Economic forecast

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Tampa Bay
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

Judith Lisi
President/CEO, David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa | Entertainment

Company: Lisi says the 27-year-old Straz Center is expected to have a strong year. But as always, success depends on the strength of the shows. As the largest performing arts complex south of Washington, D.C., attracting big shows isn't a challenge, Lisi says. “I book two to three years ahead, so I'm out of room.”

Though she was concerned the recession would be challenging, “people still came,” Lisi says. The theater's other main source of income, donations, fared OK as well. “People might have given less, but they kept donations flowing.”

Last year was the first big uptick since the recession in both ticketing and contributions. Lisi said ticket sales increased about 38% last year compared with recession years. Annual giving has increased 30%. This year, she expects it to be even better.

Industry: The biggest challenge facing the industry is the rising cost of performing arts, according to Lisi. Transporting a cast of 50 people, technicians and hard sets is “terribly expensive,” she says.

Although the local arts industry seems to be faring well, Lisi believes it could greatly benefit from a coordinated marketing push to cultural tourists by the Florida tourism boards. Cultural tourists “stay longer and spend more money,” she says. After putting together a brochure for the Opera Festival, Lisi realized how many different arts and culture facilities and organizations exist in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Sarasota. “We have so much here, we're just not telling the story,” she says.

Region: Lisi says Tampa is poised for growth and she needs to keep up with the growth in downtown Tampa. Lisi knows the Straz Center's parking and arrival plaza need to be enhanced, but she's also working to find an architect and developer for a master plan that will ensure the facility can keep up with increased traffic. “Growing is good, but you need to keep up with the growth,” she says.

Lisi is also excited about the expansion of the Hillsborough riverfront. With the Straz Center occupying a key section of the Tampa Riverwalk, Lisi admits, “We want to be able to address the river better.” She hopes to work with regular performing artists to make the performing arts center a gathering place for locals, what she likes to call “the living room of the community.”

Pam Avery
General Manager, Holiday Inn Tampa Westshore, Tampa | Hospitality

Company: Avery is looking forward to the last quarter of 2014 and first quarter of 2015 to see the business impact of the $7 million renovation on the Holiday Inn Tampa Westshore. Renovations included everything from the front entrance to a ballroom, to meeting spaces to a new bar, restaurant and coffee shop.

It's tough to gauge growth from this year, for the hotel has been in constant transition. It has changed names three times in the last 12 months, and has been under construction for the last four, finally wrapping up this week. The hotel is an anomaly in a strong hospitality market, Avery admits, which is why she expects a significant increase in 2015. “We're in double-digit increases for next year, but it's not necessarily all market-driven,” she adds. “We look great.”

Industry: “The market is on fire; the market has had an amazing year,” Avery says. Compared with 2013 in Hillsborough County, revenue per available room is up 12.5% year to date and there's been a 6% increase in both occupancy and rates. According to Avery, only three areas in Florida — the Keys, Melbourne and Fort Myers — are ahead in terms of growth.

The industry's main challenge is “getting good help,” Avery says. Now that unemployment is lower, there's not as many qualified job applicants. Rising overhead costs also remain an issue for hotels, just like any other company. Avery says the costs of health care, retirement and insurance are continuing to squeeze profits. “You have to be smart,” she says.

The industry also faces more eyes on customer service than ever before with third-party sites giving visitors easy access to report any flaw, Avery says.

Region: People are increasingly optimistic about the Tampa Bay area, Avery says, in her last week as chairwoman of Visit Tampa Bay. With Jeff Vinik retooling Channelside, there's more interest in making downtown an exciting place to be, Avery adds. “That helps tourism.”

“Tampa should be really proud of themselves,” according to Avery. Westshore is strong, and people are increasingly traveling in for work meetings. “Who wouldn't want to live and work here?”

David Burton
Managing Partner, Pizza Fusion/Holy Hog BBQ/The Getaway, Tampa | Restaurants

Company: Burton, an independent investor in multiple restaurant concepts, says business is going strong.

Burton's barbecue concept, Holy Hog BBQ, has five locations (including two in Amalie Arena) and two in development. With quick-concept, lower-priced dining on the rise, “Holy Hog has really been on a tear,” Burton says. And as franchise owner of the No. 1 producing franchise in the Pizza Fusion chain, Burton's restaurant benefits from the high amount of dine-in traffic from the Tampa downtown business community.

His Florida Keys-inspired bar, The Getaway, which opened in January between St. Pete and Tampa, is exceeding his forecasts. “We've elevated the game a little bit,” Burton says.

Burton says he didn't allow his businesses to be impacted by the economy, or to hurt his optimism. “Though we saw other businesses hurt, we pushed through,” he says. “We're not participants in the recession.”

Industry: With the emergence of the millennial generation, restaurants have to shift to what people want, Burton says. Customers want to eat in groups with more of a shared-plate style and a casual atmosphere. “People want polished-casual, more modern and more hipster-y,” he says.

Millennials are also willing to spend more money on food than any prior generation, which is good for the industry, Burton says. The restaurants that fail will be those that don't embrace the change and don't find a niche. “You can't be everything to everybody,” Burton says.

Region: Burton is part of a Vistage group in the area, and says the Tampa-area leaders he meets with are bullish on the economy right now.

Burton is also energized by increased interest in local jobs. Now in his mid-30s, Burton claims he is one of the few who was raised in Tampa and came back. “A lot of smart people left and didn't come back. Tampa was never on their radar,” he says. “But now there's a shift where our local talent is interested in coming back.”

Jody Haneke
Founder/CEO, Haneke Design, Tampa | Technology

Company: Haneke says he has to limit growth of his 12-year-old mobile application development company to 10% to 15% a year, so he can carefully control the firm's expansion. He expects to continue that growth throughout 2015, though he does admit that the company has a couple high-profile projects in the works that may fuel demand.

Because his company is completely services-based (what he likes to refer to as a digital construction company), growth is not only based on demand, but also what his team of 17 can accomplish. “We don't aggressively add people; we need high-quality individuals,” Haneke says.

Industry: One of the most promising, yet most challenging aspects of the industry is the continued expansion into new technologies, Haneke says. The next innovations will include wearable technology and moving beyond the phone to tag inanimate objects, he says. Technology companies that are closely following the next trends will have plenty of opportunities to develop technology that allows hardware and appliances to communicate with phones, TVs and computers.

The ongoing challenge will be keeping up with those trends, Haneke admits, “but being able to see the future is what's kept us going.” Haneke Designs started to morph into an app development company before the iPhone was released in 2007.

The other big challenge for the industry will be keeping up with the continued fragmentation of devices. Each time a new phone is released, developers have to rework apps to make sure they are compatible.

In the meantime, there's still another two years of “a ton of work to help companies mobilize Web content,” Haneke says.

Region: With half of his business coming from the Tampa-area, Haneke is excited about the emerging startup culture, which translates into more app development, he says.

Tampa is also working to make its name known in the technology world.

Haneke compares today to the dot com days, when companies started to realize they needed a website to be competitive. It's why his company wasn't hit too hard from the downturn. “The money is going to go where the gaps are,” Haneke says.

Lauren Weiner
President, Wittenberg Weiner Consulting, Tampa | Consulting

Company: Weiner says her 60-person government management consulting firm is feeling the squeeze from tightening government budgets. “We've had to drive prices down substantially,” she says.

But Weiner is proud that her company managed to remain flat, especially after seeing other firms go out of business or drop revenues by 50% over the last few months.

Weiner expects that things will turnaround next year, and even looks at the hardships of the current year as a good learning experience. For example, the company is starting to learn how to use its 8(a) certification as a small disadvantaged firm to its advantage. “I'd be happy if we grew, I'd not be surprised if we grew substantially, but I don't want to pin it down. It's not about a number,” she says.

Industry: It's been a tough year for the government contracting industry, according to Weiner. Everyone is feeling the effects of sequestration and new procurement trends like the move to “lowest price technically acceptable (LPTA)” evaluation in contracting bids. LPTA is attractive to contracting officers who want to make the process easier and drive costs down, but it becomes difficult when defining specialized services. “Responsible bidders can't drive their costs down,” Weiner says.

Weiner is also seeing increased competition on contracts that have never seen another bidder. “We're seeing blind bidders without a thought to if they can do the work,” she says. The increased competition has increased the protest risk on all contracts, Weiner adds.

The future of the industry will really depend on Congress. “Missions change and resources change,” Weiner says. “That has a huge impact on the industry and is kind of up in the air.”

Region: Though Weiner's firm is more dependent on Washington than the economy in Tampa, Wittenberg Weiner Consulting and the other government contracting firms “are all talking about the same things,” she says. “We're all pushing for Tampa to be one of the centers of government contracting.”

Weiner says the idea isn't too far fetched, and although the Tampa area isn't on the same level as major contracting hubs like northern Virginia, it's getting there. Weiner finds it refreshing to be in Tampa, where, despite competing, the companies have more of a collaborative nature.

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