Greater Fort Lauderdale puts the T first!

Besi Besemar June 29, 2018

Richard Gray
Richard Gray

When Richard Gray, talks about LGBT+ tourism, people in the industry tend to sit up and listen.

HIS appointment as Vice President of the LGBT+ division of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) in 2012 was an industry first and six years on Fort Lauderdale has firmly established itself as the trail blazing holiday destination for LGBT+ tourists from all over the world, boosting the local economy every year to the tune of $1.5 billion.

Richard, an investment New York banker in the early 80s, found himself burned out and wanted something different in his life to stimulate him. He constantly travelled for work, but chose never to stay at gay establishments because they were just not up to scratch. He identified an opening in the market for a superior gay hotel and in 1991 launched the multi award-winning Royal Palms Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, a clothing optional resort that achieved legendary status with LGBT+ travellers and personalities for the next 20 years.

On arrival in Fort Lauderdale, he proceeded to involve himself in the local tourism drive, and among his many achievements helped IGLTA (International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association) relocate to Fort Lauderdale. In 1995 he approached the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB with a business plan to market Greater Fort Lauderdale as a destination for LGBT+ travellers. In 1996 they started with a $35,000 marketing budget and by 2000 Fort Lauderdale boasted twenty gay resorts offering a wide range of options to the huge numbers of LGBT+ tourists that flocked to the city. Today the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB LGBT+ division has a marketing budget of a million dollars.

In 2014 Richard made a conscious decision to champion the Transgender Communities and Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB commissioned its own survey called Welcoming the Transgender Traveller. Among the headline findings the survey identified physical violence and verbal harassment as the top concerns for transgender travellers, especially regarding the safe and comfortable use of public facilities. It highlighted that 62% of trans people on holiday travel alone, but unlike the LGB market, transgender travellers tend to be budget travellers.

In 2015 Richard persuaded the organisers of the Southern Comfort Transgender Conference which had taken place annually since 1991 to relocate from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale then in 2017 the city became the world’s first holiday destination to use transgender models in a global marketing and advertising campaign, “to showcase the destination’s image as an authentic, diverse and inclusive.”

This year the Southern Comfort Conference will take place in the luxurious surroundings of the Riverside Hotel on Las Olas from September 6-8 with registration packages starting from just $50.

To register for the conference, click here:

When Richard was first appointed Vice President of the Great Fort Lauderdale CVB LGBT+ Division in 2012 he told the media: “The sands of Fort Lauderdale run through my veins and I’ve always wanted to be a part of the community since I first moved here more than 20 years ago. Greater Fort Lauderdale has become the top GLBT destination in Florida. My role is not to rest on our laurels and success, but to grow this affluent market even more.” Six years I asked Richard how he thinks he’s doing.

Why and how did you decide to target the trans communities? “The Transgender Community presents a unique and complex challenge to the society that we all live in. It is much harder for Trans people to come out and be accepted by their family, friends and employers due to lack of knowledge and understanding in what it means to be a Transgender person. Education is key in being able to understand Trans people followed by acceptance and respect.

“I’m an avid runner and one day was running along the beach. I said to myself Richard, you say LGBT, but what is the T? The Forgotten T. I knew that T stood for Transgender, but truthfully I did not understand what Transgender really meant or how complicated it was.

“To launch a marketing campaign targeted at Transgender people we needed to better understand Transgender people as well as know their travel habits, so we launched the first ever Transgender Travel Survey with Community Marketing & Insights in San Francisco. We had almost 800 Transgender respondents from 50 States across the USA.

What we learned from the survey enabled us to launch ‘Where Happy Meets Go Lucky’, making Fort Lauderdale the first ever destination in the world to launch a campaign targeted solely at Transgender travellers. Then in 2017, on New Years Eve in Times Square in New York City we made history and became the worlds first destination to launch a mainstream marketing campaign that featured Transgender, lesbian, gay and yes, straight people.

On September 6-8, 2018, the Southern Comfort Transgender Conference will be held once again at the Riverside Hotel located in the heart of Las Olas Boulevard. This is a very important conference for us to host and I am so proud to be their host city.”

How do you want to see developments going forward? “Diversity is a meandering journey and love knows no boundaries. It is absolutely critical for all of us to use our own personal platforms to maintain the rhythm and drumbeat for advocacy, global rights, equality and inclusion. Inclusion is making the mix work and it is a continual work in progress.

“The hospitality industry is the first to feel the impacts of unrest and uncertainty in the world. The traveling public looks for value and safety when making their travel decisions. Our industry is facing this challenge more than ever in the United States under our current administration in Washington.

“In Greater Fort Lauderdale, we are making sure we let the traveling public across the world understand that WE have an open-heart and open-door policy to ALL people across the world, regardless of the colour of their skin, what religion they believe in, who they choose to love or how they choose to identify.

“We want them to enjoy our beaches, shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants and stay in our hotels. We want to make sure that our message gets through despite much of the negative clutter that they see on their nightly news every day.

“On September 27, World Tourism Day, we released a beautifully crafted inclusive diverse video and supporting marketing campaign #GreaterTogether that pushes back on negative perceptions that unfortunately seem to grow with every news cycle and shows who WE are as a destination. We are all one. We are all Welcome. We are all Greater Together.

What does diversity mean to you? “Diversity is in our DNA. This is one of my daily mantras: Visibility creates awareness. Awareness leads to acceptance. And widespread acceptance ends discrimination. You can’t change hearts, minds and attitudes if you are invisible. Visibility advances acceptance…..and I never intend to be invisible. Rest assured Greater Fort Lauderdale will always push the envelope.”

“I look at it like this. Diversity is being invited to the dance. Inclusion is being asked to dance. I see Greater Fort Lauderdale, as a destination where everyone feels they are being asked to dance.”

For more information, click here: