When Richard Gray pitched the idea to Chris Manley, President of Gay Days, of having an event in Fort Lauderdale, it wasn’t to have another Orlando or Las Vegas, but a new offering, one that brought vacationers and Gay Day fans to Sunny Southern Florida in the wintertime. Orlando brought in more than 180,000 participants in its 24th year. The numbers are not back as of yet as to how many attended this first Fort Lauderdale offering. In talking with Gay Days staff, Fort Lauderdale representatives, W staff, an attendees, the new event was a success.
I wanted to know a little more about why and how a Gay Days event was brought to Fort Lauderdale. Quickly, I found out the person to talk to was Richard Gray. I would learn not just about this event, but what else is coming to Southern Florida.
In 1995, Richard Gray proposed to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) a business plan for marketing Fort Lauderdale as a gay destination. It was accepted and starting in 1996 with a $35,000 gay marketing initiative, Gray went to work promoting the city and what it had to offer tourists. Within a half a decade the number of gay resorts in the area grew to 30. His work and the work of others in the CVB has been so successful and the returns so great that his position of LGBT Managing Director for the Fort Lauderdale CVB was made fulltime three years ago and now has an annual budget of $1 million. The budget is impressive, but what also needs to be mentioned is that Richard Gray is one of a kind. He stated that there are no other Convention and Visitors Bureaus in North America or Internationally that he knows of with an employee whose sole responsibility is the LGBT market.
In a 2012 interview, Gray stated,
“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.” – South Florida Gay News
He began increasing his efforts in several American and international cities like New York, Toronto, London, and Philadelphia with ad campaigns and new television commercials. He feels the creation of his position has helped boost the Fort Lauderdale economy. Bringing in an event like Gay Days is definitely not resting on any laurels.
“We are already the top gay destination in Florida. Look at other gay destinations around the country and you see much business shrinkage in tough economic times, but not here. For 2011, greater Fort Lauderdale welcomed 11.1 million visitors who spent $9 billion dollars. The gay and lesbian portion of that number was 1.1 million visitors who spent $1.2 billion. It is also significant to note that Broward County recovered much faster than the rest of Florida after 9/11, and a lot of that was attributed to the gay visitors who were the first to return to us. The GLBT economic impact for this region is huge.” – South Florida Gay News
Just two years later in 2013, the numbers were 1.3 million and $1.5 billion and who said it was a sluggish economy.
So why Gay Days here in Fort Lauderdale? Don’t we already have Wilton Manors, the White Party in Miami, Hurricane Showdown Softball Tournament? Gray answered that question by stating they are all pieces of the pie. He stated Fort Lauderdale is the gay hub of Southern Florida and there will always be something going on every time you turn around. Does there have to be competition or can there be sharing? What’s wrong with offering a variety of events for the variety of tourists and locals? Me personally? Out of all the events going on this weekend, I attended Gay Days. Unless I lose 100 lbs and 10 inches on my waist, I probably will never attend the White Party. Doesn’t seem my speed. Softball? Maybe next year I’ll go and watch if I know someone participating. This year, I selected the piece of the pie at the W. Yes, I think there is hope that Gay Days may take up 2 pieces of the pie in the future. Could it get up to the 180k tourists that Orlando receives? Who knows. Then there is the rumor that I have heard ever since I moved here in 2013 that the White Party may move to Fort Lauderdale as well.
Going back to Richard and the CVB, I asked what were the plans for the future? Solidifying Gay Days Fort Lauderdale in the cities calendar of wonderful events is right up there. Gray says his infrastructure is growing and the Fort Lauderdale LGBT offerings are growing with it. Currently he states the area has 8 signature annual LGBT events and he is aiming for 12, one a month. With the addition of this year’s Gay Days, Gray has also successfully worked to relocate the Southern Comfort Conference to Fort Lauderdale from Atlanta for 2015. The event is billed as the largest gathering of the transgender community in the world and this will be its 25th year.
“Where Happy Meets Go Lucky” was the catchy slogan for the TLBG marketing campaign. I remember standing in the Expo at Gay Days and seeing the web address sunny.org/tlgb and thinking, how wonderfully simple, moving the “T” to the front. I’ve noticed that in many different interviews I’ve read with Richard Gray there seems to be a rearranging of the letters from the traditional LGBT to GLBT and now TLGB. I found that to be refreshing as well as a simple statement that there is no correct order or preference. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it was noticeable. After all, who wants to be second or last in the list all the time. Gray elaborated that there had not been any previous studies on Transgender Tourism. Community Marketing and Insights led a recent study to aide in Gray’s work in reaching into this unknown area. Looks like it is paying off with the relocation of the Southern Comfort Conference and a better understanding of all the TLGB letters.
What’s another goal? Marriage equality for the State of Florida. Greater Fort Lauderdale Bureau was the first CVB in the U.S. to support the repeal of its state’s gay marriage ban. Gray would love to see this community be a wedding destination. He stated that just 6 weeks ago they filmed a wedding campaign, utilizing straight, gay, and lesbian couples. It was a blended add promoting all unions for yes, he is the LGBT Managing Director, but he sees the greater Fort Lauderdale area being a destination for all and not just LGBT.
Gray did mention branching out into other markets for advertising, like magazines that have a more straight following and other new ways to stay ahead of the curve. Looking for new travelers and tourists is not just his charge, but the state’s. There’s so much to offer in the area. He looks forward to working with others to promote the state as a whole. And with a website like www.sunny.org/ , how can one go wrong.
Thanks again Richard Gray, Chris Manley, the W, and Fort Lauderdale for hosting such a great event. See you next year!