Angela Gard showed up for the meetings with an armful of T-shirts decorated with sparkly renditions of the Republican elephant.
She walked out with a suitcase stuffed with business cards.
Gard, CEO of Couture That Rox, a crystal embellishment apparel company, was one of more than 300 local business owners who attended a small business forum at Lowry Park Zoo on Wednesday, each looking for opportunities to get involved with the Republican National Convention.
The event was put on by the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee, the nonprofit group raising money and promoting the bay area for the convention in August. The forum was the second of its kind to be hosted by the committee and was part of the small-business networking program it created to help local businesses connect with buyers at the convention.
Throughout the morning, business owners had 15-minute meetings with representatives from companies looking to purchase services and products in up to 50 different categories, ranging from florists to event planners to electrical engineers.
There are plenty of opportunities for small businesses to get involved, but the owners don't always know how to connect with the appropriate people, said Hector Barreto, chairman of the Latino Coalition and an organizer for the Small Business Network.
His organization, for instance, will be hosting events for delegates at the convention, so it will be hiring event planners and consultants. Those partners will likely hire florists and caterers, Barreto said. The contracts will trickle down the chain of organizers in many different ways.
"Instead of having these small businesses out there looking for a needle in a haystack, we're bringing the buyers to them," he said.
Gard ended the round of meetings with promises from GOP Shoppe, a Republican Party apparel retailer, and the City of Tampa, as well as some other vendors who were present. Her merchandise will be for sale on the GOP Shoppe website next week and on sale at the convention itself, she said. Even while she was waiting around between meetings, Gard started talking with another small-business owner that was interested in buying some customized apparel.
"It's really, really been a great event," Gard said. "Absolutely a success."
The convention, which will be held at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Aug. 27 to 30, is expected to bring about $175 million in direct spending to the area. Fifty thousand visitors will occupy 15,000 local hotel rooms each night of the convention, and they are expected to book 75 Tampa Bay venues for parties.
Host committee chief operating officer Matt Becker estimated about 400 businesses have registered for Small Business Network so far, but they have until the end of this month to do so. The committee will also publish a directory of the participating businesses in April.
The host committee can't guarantee work with the convention, he said, but it is doing its best to provide a platform for the small businesses to get out there and promote themselves.
"We just know that they're coming," he said. "We can't force them to use this directory, but certainly we'll encourage it and at the same time market it and advertise it."
Even if the businesses don't get work at the convention, organizers hope the directory and connections that were made through its program will prove useful for area small businesses in the future.
Cristine Paull, managing director of operations for SP Plus Gameday, an Orlando-based company that will be providing bus services to 5,000 convention-goers, said the host committee did a good job matching her company to the small businesses her company could use. And if her company can't use them for the convention, she'll be keeping their business cards in case they need their help on the next event they put on in Tampa.
"I feel like any events like this are great because there are so many opportunities for matching," Paull said.
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