It all started with a rainbow and a dream, says Richard Gray of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. Eighteen years ago, Gray launched what he dubbed “The Rainbow Initiative” to attract gay and lesbian tourists to his city.
Even with stakeholder support, the bureau was so cautious they decided against calling it a “gay initiative.” He started with $35,000, and says, “Within five years, we found gold at the end of that rainbow.”
Today all that gold amounts to $1.5 billion in tourist dollars for Fort Lauderdale, with 1.3 million annual LGBT visitors. “And we believe those figures are on the low side."
But that wasn’t enough for Gray, who is managing director of the LGBT market at the CVB. He embarked on another quest last year, as he put it, “to emphasize the importance of the T in LGBT. The forgotten T, I am saddened to say.”
When Gray approached Alexis Dee, the programming director of the Southern Comfort transgender conference, and suggested moving the event from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, Dee scoffed. “You have a better chance of getting me pregnant,” Dee told Gray last year, But after 24 years in Atlanta, the prestigious annual symposium for transgender people is indeed moving next year, to the city the bureau calls "Where Happy Meets Go Lucky."
The SCC’s bold move baffled some. Norm Kent wrote on Bilerico that Florida is “a state still fighting same-sex marriage; its charge led by the state's attorney general, Pam Bondi. Even Fort Lauderdale's own mayor, Jack Seiler, opposes us.” (Of course, Georgia is no bastion of equality, either.) Kent also pointed out how, as an event that draws people from all over the U.S., the SCC has a reputation for creating a safe environment for social interactions and exploration of gender.
Gray says he didn’t make his pitch to the SCC last year and to his boss, Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, without doing his homework. First he reached out to local businesses, government, and police to gauge support.
Then he commissioned what he called the largest, first-ever survey of transgender travelers in North America. “We know a lot about gay travelers and lesbian travelers, but little if anything has been known about the transgender traveler… until now,” Gray says.
The goal was to identify the motivations, needs and priorities of the transgender tourist market. Community Marketing & Insights of San Francisco conducted a comprehensive online survey of 700 self-identified members of the transgender community across the United States. Trans folk from every state except Wyoming and Montana responded.
And the survey, which Gray called “extraordinary,” showed trans travelers were looking for just such a diverse, welcoming, and safe destination, where laws protect LGBT residents and visitors from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression in employment, housing & lodging.
So this week, Gray launched “The Transgender Travel Initiative” to specifically welcome trans tourists.
Why did it take so long for Fort Lauderdale to recognize this segment of the travel population? “I was so wrapped up in the L and the G, I admittedly didn’t even think about the T. But I wanted to expand my tourism platform established 18 years ago, and the way to do that was to focus on the forgotten T.”
His million dollar campaign to attract LGBT visitors expanded within the last year to include mainstream television commercials and new part of their website devoted to gay and lesbian travelers. A year later, Fort Lauderdale now also boasts a landing page for trans travelers. Gray is also proud to point out no other convention visitors bureau in the world has a department like his devoted solely to attracting LGBT tourism.
But will SCC attendees be able to afford four days in Fort Lauderdale? “The hotel rate is exactly the same as SCC Atlanta,” Gray said. “The airfare is competitive, and we think people may even spend less here than they did in Atlanta.”
To Gray, “personally, it just feels right to be developing this initiative, and more importantly it is the right time for Greater Fort Lauderdale. We will continue to be LGBT leaders and we intend to make a difference in the transgender marketplace.
We have to raise the bar for trans inclusion.”