Ft. Lauderdale bolsters leadership role with opening of LGBTQ Visitors Center

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A rainbow banner makes it way through Wilton Manors during the 2017 Pride parade.
A rainbow banner makes it way through Wilton Manors during the 2017 Pride parade.
Holly V. Kapherr
Holly V. Kapherr

Greater Fort Lauderdale has been making LGBTQ visitors feel welcome for more than two decades now. In 1996, the CVB launched one of the first marketing campaigns in the country aimed at the gay and lesbian market. The budget? $35,000. It followed that with a landing page on its website aimed specifically at the market. "At the time, we didn't use the word 'gay' because we didn't feel ready. We used 'rainbow'," recalled Richard Gray, vice president for LGBTQ+ marketing for the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB. "As the campaign evolved and we got more and more positive feedback, the baby steps became strides."

Last year, their marketing budget for the LGBTQ market was $1 million, and 1.5 million LGBTQ+ travelers visit the area annually, bringing $1.5 billion to the area per year. That's big strides, for sure.

It should be no surprise then that the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB has opened what it says is the first LGBTQ Visitor Center, in partnership with the Greater Fort Lauderdale LGBT Chamber of Commerce. The center, which opened last month, is located in the heart of Wilton Manors, a city located north of Fort Lauderdale that is home to the largest gay population and concentration of LGBTQ-owned businesses in the area. In fact, Wilton Manors ranks second in the U.S. for concentration of gay residents, according to the most recent (2010) U.S. census.

"The idea has been in the works for several years, but we were waiting for the right time and the right location to become available," said Keith Blackburn, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

The center will carry brochures only from restaurants and attractions that have completed a vetting process for anti-discrimination, diversity and inclusion training. "We require that all of our members have a policy of equality and inclusion for their customers and employees," said Blackburn.

Blackburn said that while the visitors center is geared toward LGBTQ travelers, anyone who walks through the doors can expect assistance from the staff. Visitors who decide they'd like to make the area their home can also be forwarded to real estate services.

In addition, the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB featured LGBTQ individuals in its most recent mainstream marketing campaign, "Hello, Sunny." Its next marketing effort, "Greater Together," prominently features LGBTQ individuals. "We want to show the world that, even in this political climate, Broward County is an extraordinary oasis in a generally conservative state," said Gray. "Diversity and inclusion is what makes this area so great to live and to visit."

Greater Fort Lauderdale is putting special emphasis on the transgendered tourists who visit the area, assuring them that they can feel safe in the destination; the region was recently recognized by the United Nations as a global leader in transgender awareness. "Safety is as important as feeling free to be who they are," Gray said. The CVB even has a landing page dedicated to the transgender community -- sunny.com/tlgb. "We put the 'T' first," Gray said.

Looking ahead, Greater Fort Lauderdale is planning a transcontinental Pride festival in 2020, Pride of the Americas. The festival is currently in the planning stages, as the CVB looks to book major talent to headline the event.

Last year, the destination's annual Pride festival was moved to Fort Lauderdale Beach, and 40,000 people attended. This year, the festival saw 65,000. Gray said, "Next year, the festival will be called Carnaval, and it's going to be the first-ever parade along A1A. We expect about 100,000 people." Expectations are that Pride of the Americas will bring about 350,000 domestic and international visitors to the area.

The event will partner with LGBTQ organizations in South America, Central America and the Caribbean to bring international flair and educational components to the proceedings. "It will be held over several days. We want to continue to be leaders in education as well as entertainment and tourism," says Gray. The CVB will officially launch Pride of the Americas 2020 at World Pride, held in New York City.

So far, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood has signed on to be a major event venue for Pride of the Americas, as its multibillion-dollar renovation and expansion is on track to be completed in time for the festival. Other announcements are forthcoming regarding the event.

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