Tech meets hospitality at Tampa Bay Hackathon

More than 100 developers, coders and programmers participated in the 2017 Tampa Bay Hackathon event, Hack Hospitality, at The Station House in St. Petersburg. 

The local tech community worked tirelessly during the weekend-long event to design and build innovative, solutions-driven technology to provide local hospitality businesses with real world solutions.

"We merged the local hospitality community and the entrepreneurial tech scene because there is a huge need within the hospitality community for innovative thinking,'' says Trey Steinhoff, lead Organizer of Tampa Bay Hackathon & board member/founder of Startup Tampa Bay.

The Hackathon was designed to help local startups and established companies connect with Tampa Bay’s tech talent to find innovative solutions to their major business problems.

“We've forced developers to try to solve real problems that local businesses are having so that they can help the local business, help the local community at large, and create connections between the talented tech community in Tampa Bay and local businesses,” says Steinhoff. “That is what’s going to drive Tampa Bay forward as a whole as opposed to just moving hospitality or just moving entrepreneurship or just moving tech forward. We can sandwich it together and help everybody move forward faster.

The Hackathon held in late August 2017 is just one more piece of evidence adding to national recognition of the Tampa Bay Area as a rapidly growing center for innovation, entrepreneurship and tech talent. 

Four different Tampa Bay Area-based hospitality companies were able to present some of the most pressing business challenges they are currently facing.

Sourcetoad presented the challenge of utilizing one of their client’s cruise line data and industry knowledge to build a data-oriented solution, while SaltBlock needed to build a data-oriented and engaging customer experience that allows users to have a stronger understanding of the catering process.

Fitlife Foods challenged the Hackathon participants to efficiently use their customer data to better understand Fitlife customer buying groups, so the growing company can make strategic decisions that will further its growth and build its customer base. 

Ciccio Restaurant Group was seeking a solution that simplifies the catering process for its local restaurants to create a clear line of communication between customers, catering representatives and cook staff.

Tampa Bay as a growing tech hub

As the Tampa Bay area grows and business leaders search for talent necessary to help their companies evolve, more and more are opting to relocate to and/ or launch in or near Tampa, St. Petersburg or Clearwater.

West Central Florida is often compared to Silicon Valley and other larger metropolitan areas as an emerging tech hub with the potential to eventually rival its better know counterparts. From multibillion dollar investments by Jeff Vinik, Strategic Property Partners and Cascade Investment LCC to the growing number of tech startups, the local entrepreneurial ecosystem is driving change in the local economy.

The Tampa Bay Area has an incredible future ahead, says Steinhoff.

“I think we would be lying if we said that we are on par with Silicon Valley. We didn't come from that place, but we are getting there. The truth is the local tech community is growing at this rapid rate because all this talent is coming here,” says Steinhoff. “We're on the cusp of moving past that stigma that Tampa Bay is not a place for tech because the truth is there is so much going on. There's so many incubators, coworking spaces, startup companies, and all kinds of software happening and this Hackathon is evidence. It's like a little microcosm of it all.”

Tampa Bay Hackathon is a glimpse into how Tampa Bay’s talent is shaping the future of the area by helping local businesses strengthen their companies through innovation, says Ryan Sutter, Director of IT at Fitlife Foods.

“This event is perfect for us,” says Sutter. “Being able to meet and see a bunch of people who have all kinds of different skillsets that we may be able to partner with for specific projects is a great opportunity for us.”

Mutually beneficial to tech talent and local businesses

Hackathons are a great opportunity for local developers, coders and programmers to be creatively challenged. Hackathons push tech-savvy people to advance their skills and utilize their talents to solve real world problems on a time crunch.

These tech-driven events really force us to expand our skills, says Austin Lubetkin, an artist and computer engineering student at Florida Polytechnic University.

“Hackathons are the ultimate creative exercise to come in and create something from nothing,” says Lubetkin, who has won 12 Hackathons in his tech career. “I'm always going to use Hackathons to diversify what I know, try new things and learn new things.”

Several of the Tampa Bay Hackathon participants were initially trained at The Iron Yard, which offered coding courses before it ceased operations at all campuses, including Tampa Bay’s campus. Liz Tiller, an Iron Yard student, says that Tampa Bay Hackathon offered her the opportunity to apply what she learned in The Iron Yard to create a real-world solution.

“The Iron Yard is like three months of a hackathon,” says Tiller, a full stack developer who was part of a team working on a solution for Sourcetoad. “Hackathons force me to learn new technologies, get out of my comfort zone and really learn not to make everything clean.”

While Tampa Bay Hackathon greatly benefited the local tech community, it also was a great opportunity for local businesses to connect with the talent that is helping Tampa Bay grow.

“No one is directly profiting, but at the same time, everybody is benefiting,” says Steinhoff.

At the Hackathon, many expressed how impressed they were with the solutions that participants were building. From robot bell boys who you can order service from to fully-developed web apps that manage all the catering for more than six restaurants, the innovative solutions were limitless at the 2017 Tampa Bay Hackathon.

“Everybody has come up with solutions that I didn't think they were going to come up with. They’re looking at data and asking questions in a different way that we haven't really asked ourselves,” says Sutter. “It makes you think about your business in a different way and maybe you should be analyzing something that you're not today.”

Strengthens sense of community in tech

Throughout the weekend-long event, the sense of collaboration, innovative energy and community was palpable. Everyone was brainstorming and problem-solving together, while having fun -- even though the time was ticking away at the weekend-long hacking marathon.

Events like Tampa Bay Hackathon build a sense of community among developers, coders and programmers because they have an opportunity to connect with one another and in person, says Integration Developer Michael Nash.

“It’s important for tech developers to come together and do these kinds of events and work collaboratively. We're all in the same profession and it's important to be able to exchange ideas and know other people in companies in the Tampa Bay Area,” says Nash.

The people who are here building solutions for local companies are the future of the Tampa Bay Area, says Steinhoff.

“Hackathon insights collaboration and we're doing it for people who are likely going to shape the future of Tampa Bay,” says Steinhoff. “They're going to create cool products, help businesses and grow businesses that already exist.”

List of Hackathon winners

Overall Hackathon winner:
  • Names: Mandy Jacobsen, Rob Venables, Keri Spencer, Alex Spencer, Taylor Cox
  • Challenge Company: Sourcetoad
  • Idea: The overall winner uses machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to scan through cruise guests' online presence to determine what onshore excursions would best suit the guests automatically.

Ciccio Restaurant Group winner:
  • Names: Becca W., Nicole R., Sky K.
  • Challenge Company: Ciccio Restaurant Group
  • Idea: The CRG challenge winners built a visually stunning consumer mobile app that allows the user to seamless order catering from any CRG concept and location with order building, internal & external tracking, and sales processing.

Fitlife Foods winner:
  • Names: Jun, Robert, Mike, Jet
  • Challenge Company: Fitlife Foods
  • Idea: The Fitlife team built a data management system that tracks multiple points of purchase, kinds of products, and store locations to help Fitlife increase retention, sales, marketing efficiency, and CLV.

SaltBlock winner:
  • Names: Harrison Minchew, Brett Lee
  • Challenge Company: SaltBlock
  • Idea: The SaltBlock team custom built a way to streamline the event management and catering sales process with a live menu and event builder, price quoter, and interactive live chat service for the high touch world of fancy catering.

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Read more articles by Zebrina Edgerton-Maloy.

Zebrina Edgerton-Maloy is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Tampa. She earned her BA in Journalism from Washington and Lee University in May 2016. Zebrina is also a social media specialist and content writer for startup companies and small businesses. She helps build their brand through social media management and creates their brand story through content writing. She is constantly motivated by Tampa Bay's entrepreneurial spirit. Zebrina is dedicated to share entrepreneurs' stories of grit, passion and innovation. Learn more at her website and follow her on Instagram or Twitter @zebrinaemaloy.