In mid-October, AMPLIFY Clearwater, the local chamber of commerce group, welcomed the first class of businesses to its new tourism incubator. AMPLIFY’s first-ever incubator program leans into a strength of the local and state economy but also expands on the traditional notion of the tourism industry.
“When you think about tourism, restaurants and hotels probably come to mind,” AMPLIFY Clearwater President and CEO Amanda Payne says. “But many businesses that face customers are integral to the tourist economy, and we have a diverse group. We have a winery, medical center, hair salon – all these businesses create a well-rounded business environment in our tourist economy.”
Building tools for professional success
Payne says the incubator program works on two levels.
“One part of this is about building camaraderie and learning from one another,” she says. “And the other part is taking a look at your business model and answering questions, such as ‘How do we fill gaps?’ and ‘How do we improve?’”
The first class attracted 23 applicants, with 10 qualifying. Qualifying criteria included being an established business with at least one customer. But AMPLIFY looks beyond statistical merits alone. They want entrepreneurs who are willing to learn and ready to grow.
Classes last 10 weeks and cover a broad range of subjects to help entrepreneurs learn the nuts and bolts of running and growing a business by honing their business skills, developing business plans and making connections.
“One part of this program is looking at ROI [return on investment] and tackling their business needs,” Payne says. “They need to examine themselves carefully, determining if they’re growing or need to hire more people. Our job is to continually improve opportunities not just for businesses but also for residents.”
The brass tacks of business
Hair, make-up and beauty services might not seem like a natural fit for a tourism incubator. But Lori Lenhart, owner of Allori Blow Dry Bar in Belleair Bluffs, launched her business after visiting a blow dry bar on vacation. When Lenhart learned about the incubator program, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I saw what AMPLIFY Clearwater does for the community and wanted to get involved, too,” she says. “I was beyond ecstatic to be a part of this opportunity to help grow my business.”
Lori Lenhart, owner of Allori Blow Dry Bar in Belleair Bluffs.
Lenhart says one of the most important things the incubator does is expand her network.
“Being a part of AMPLIFY will only help our network grow more,” she says. “This incubator program is designed to help us grow and to manage our business.”
Lenhart also likes how the course covers the brass tacks of running a business, such as the importance of having an accountant to assist with day-to-day matters like managing payroll, handling taxes and other bookkeeping affairs.
“As a new business owner, I am definitely learning along the way, but they are educating us and helping to guide us in making good decisions and what to expect in a business early on so hopefully we don't make as many mistakes,” she says.
Marisol Napoleon co-owns Essentials Massage and Facials of Clearwater, a health and wellness business that originally opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 2020. Just five weeks later, the COVID pandemic temporarily shut down the business. She successfully reopened by early summer of that year and hasn’t stopped since. Still, the lessons she’s learning during the inaugural run of AMPLIFY’s tourism incubator have been profound for her.
“The first week was most impactful because we had to write out our goals,” Napoleon says.“
There were tons of questions about our company and goals, which was nice because it was kind of an ‘aha’ moment for me. It made me go back to my original business plan and realize that what we were shooting for was a good idea, but we never imagined there would be a pandemic. It taught me how to pivot and accommodate.”
Napoleon says that looking back is helping her look ahead.
“My vision board has changed,” she adds, “Our goal is to come out of (the incubator) knowing more about Clearwater, a seasonal tourist city that operates differently. I want to be able to expand and learn more about the business and grow.”
Paddle Pub Clearwater Beach owner Misty Wells is also among the incubator’s first group of entrepreneurs.
“It is very exciting being part of the first group of its kind in Clearwater,” she says. “They have put together a group of leaders in their field and already, in just two weeks, I have learned a ton. Mostly, I have learned so many things that I did not do prior to opening, but the good news is it's not too late.”
“There is much more structure that should be laid out before opening a business – it’s not as easy as just doing it,” she adds.
Wells knew this all too starkly, facing the inherent hardships of operating a business in an uncertain economy.
“Before I got accepted in the program, I was toying with the idea of throwing in the towel,” she says. “It's hard owning a small business, and with inflation right now it's much harder.”
Wells says being part of the tourism incubator has given her a sense of hope.
“I know now that we can make it and, with the tools they are providing, we will come out much stronger,” she says. “I am very grateful for this program.”
AMPLIFY has confidence in the future
Only weeks into the new program, Payne is already encouraged by the growth she sees in the first group of enrollees.
“It was great to watch the organic partnerships and connections that were created among our first group of cohorts,” she says. “This initiative has really grown from great public-private synergy, including the support of Clearwater City Council, former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, and many others – this has pulled together a lot of agencies that really want to be a part of this.”
mong the good things ahead for the program is a partnership with St. Petersburg College that will enable AMPLIFY’s tourism incubator classes to count as college credit.
“This benefits the whole community,” Payne says.
For more information, go to AMPLIFY Clearwater tourism incubator.
For information on the businesses in this story, go to Allori Blow Dry Bar, Essentials Massage and Facials of Clearwater, Paddle Pub Clearwater Beach
The varied group of small businesses in the tourism incubator’s inaugural class also includes Aspirations Winery, Betty Shop, CR World, Clearwater Inshore Fishing, Girls Sailing, One Medical Centers and Tourism Transit System.