One of the great reasons Fort Lauderdale is arguably the best LGBTQ destinations out there is because of the work of one man, Richard Gray. You will not meet anyone more humble and more loving of his job that Richard. As the Senior Vice President of Diversity Equity, and Inclusion at the Greater For Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau (GFLCVB), Richard has touched many lives, made many decisions to better our community, and has been behind the scenes in making your vacations and lives in southern Florida so much better.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Richard Gray and talk freely about LGBTQ Travel, what we learned from COVID in regards to travel and life, what it was like living and working in a state like Florida with its unique take on COVID, and the alphabet soup that we use to label ourselves.
Hello again Richard. This is the first time we’ve chatted since Pride here in Fort Lauderdale 2021. What was it like being named as a marshal of Pride Fort Lauderdale?
What a great way to give thanks to those who make our community better.
It was great feeling that, how would I describe it, highly flattering. Humbling in many ways, and definitely a highlight. It was great to see the people that were fellow honorees and reiterating who we are. It continues to show that we are a destination that is so inclusive and welcome, it also reiterates that we made the correct decision when we pushed pride to the beach. I definitely want to thank pride again for the honor.
And the success of pride and the community, it shows who we are. I am biased in the destination [of Fort Lauderdale], the truth of the day, the facts speak for themselves. If you compare us with other destinations, we’ve been on this platform in 1995 and launched it in 1996.
Flashback – The Beginning of it All
Both Instinct and Richard are celebrating great anniversaries as it is Instinct Magazine’s 25th year and Richard Gray’s 25th at GFLCVB.
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 commenced in 1996 with a $35,000 gay marketing initiative and with its great success, has had an annual budget of $1 million since 2014. The numbers are impressive as in 2011, Greater Fort Lauderdale welcomed 11.1 million visitors who spent $9 billion dollars. The LGBT 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 LGBT economic impact for this region is huge. 2015 numbers showed 1.5 million LGBT travelers visited spending roughly $1.5 billion roughly $1,000 a person spent while in Broward County.
Knowing the success you’ve had and what LGBT Tourism means for a destination, why haven’t more municipalities followed your lead?
So may destinations, LGBTQ travel is a political hot potato, but for us, we embraced it. If you look at the make up of its residents and the thriving LGBTQ community, the area has always driven LGBTQ travelers to visit with the plethora of nightlife, beautiful beach and weather, it’s all satisfying. When I look at marketing, when I say to people we went from a safe place to a brave place for LGBTQ travelers and non-binary and disabled … the leadership needs the courage to do that, we have the courage to do this as we know it is the right thing to do. And Broward is the most inclusive county in the state [of Florida] and the most diverse (a minority majority county – more people of color than white citizens). We push the envelope to help the state move forward. We are not going to change our marketing strategies, we are going to continue to push the envelope, from campaign to campaign, I’m not sure where that push will be, it’s what I’m thinking in my mind. We are flattered to be emulated [by other municipalities] in what we do as we have made a change in Broward, Florida, and the world. The work that comes out of Broward makes us a global thought leader.
Living here in Fort Lauderdale and knowing the travel industry, yes, I can see that your campaigns are steps ahead of others.
It makes me especially proud that we lead the way, not frightened to speak out.
Inclusion and unity make us all stronger as human beings, we can only accomplish so much on our own, but together we can create a movement that can do tangible change and make the world better.
Being visible and speaking out, we cannot afford to be different, especially in this political climate we are in. We need to encourage people to speak out, we need to speak out with our allies, and allies can speak out for us. The next few years and the next election could be highly disturbing for equality and inclusion, we need to fight.
Flashback – Bubble Boy
What did the GFLCVB’s first campaigns look like? We were on very new turf. We didn’t use the word “gay;” we used “rainbow” instead. We launched Bubble Boy in 1996, which centered on the image of Greg Louganis underwater. We made the first rainbow launch page on the bureau’s website, and then created the first rainbow vacation planner. [Later] we gradually used the word gay. – bizjournals.com
And being here in Florida, well, let’s talk about Florida and COVID. I’m not sure if that is a tough subject or not as COVID and travel have not mixed well since March 2020.
With the pandemic, we were completely wrong with the pandemic, shutting down. We did not do any international campaigns, but shifted all output to local, more Florida, Georgia, maybe Texas, and had our Safe + Clean Pledge program.
Our partners were adhering to the CDC guidelines. Staying in those hotels, you could be assured that they were respectful of the CDC guidelines. At the start of the pandemic, we were at 5% occupancy, then the governor made changes and made us open up, and hotels went from 5% to 100% capacity on the weekends and 80% during the week.
And travel to the area was extraordinary, the bed tax hit record numbers and record rates.
Personally, I had mixed feelings about opening up too early. All travel and tourism needs to be safe, people were coming here and catching COVID and bringing it home, and we cannot go against the governor, and so we changed our focus on where we were marketing. Californians and Arizonans were coming here. We thrived, unexpected and extraordinarily, as COVID actually turned out to be very economically good for the destination.
I’m going to London soon and the paperwork is monumental – quarantine, another test, 24 hour tests. International travel is going to be on the limited side. People will do it and travel, but most may go back to domestic.
This bastion of us being opened and inclusive and embracing diversity, we’ve always bounced back, we [Greater Fort Lauderdale] were probably one of the best in the state of Florida – and 2022 will be a record year.
Flashback – Emmy Award-Winning Campaigns
The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (GFL CVB), the Starmark team and Diamond View Studios earned a 2018 Emmy® Award for their collaboration on the “Greater Together” campaign video. The video was recognized in the Commercials category at the 42nd Annual Suncoast Regional Emmy® Awards by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “The Greater Together video was an expression of our spirit of inclusion, and to have the Academy recognize our efforts is truly an honor,” said Stacy Ritter, Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO. “Our partnership with Starmark and Diamond View Studios enabled us to creatively communicate our open heart and open-door policy to our visitors and residents from around the globe.” – starmark.com
You have a great environment, community, location to promote, that helps, but what else do you attribute to your success?
One of our successes or one of the reasons we are so successful, we have thought strategies through, and embraced baby steps. Baby steps lead to powerful confident strides. “Celebrate You”, one of our favorite campaigns, includes locals plus, trans, disabled, – we’re not looking to hit all the buttons. My work comes from my heart, I try, I believe that most people don’t see that but as a destination our marketing is very powerful, gets out locally, nationally, internationally.
And our marketing, I feel, it is impactful, someone could be sitting in an office and could see our transgender campaign, it has impact, and how do you gage that impact, but you now, we do that, and I think we made changes, more change than we realize, it’s hard to gage it.
The campaigns have been great as the numbers show. What can we expect for 2022?
We are actually in the middle of a rebrand as we are saying goodbye to hello sunny and will be moving to visit Lauderdale. We realized that rebranding was needed, Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau was too long and GFLCVB also did not really say who we are.
(For more videos and more about Everyone under the Sun head over to visit Lauderdale’s YouTube channel)
We’ve been working on a new project over the last few months- accessible tourism. Traveling with children, people that are sensitive to light and noise, places that may not be safe spaces for kids, and so on. The accessible tourism thought process is like in many ways like the transgender platform, it’s not just being transgender, there are so many layers there, it’s highly complex. We will have an accessible landing page, and address visible and invisible disabilities, hearing and vision impaired. We are looking forward to using our platform to speak out and to better educate people.
And what have you learned about yourself during this pandemic?
I realized that you need to make the most of life. I lost friends, my sister passed away, I noticed that you have to live life. It is not all about work, I’ve learned the most… to look after myself, maybe not work so hard. I work hard anyway, I can back off a little bit. It is a cliché, it is just precious, we are here for just a short time. I had friends on ventilators for 38, 39 days, some survived, some didn’t. There’s also a new gratitude, I’m conscious every morning, getting ready in the morning, my mantra of being grateful, how lucky I am. The power of life is… what it taught me the most is you can never take life for granted.
I’ve also returned to running, as I gained weight. I pushed myself on the running, running on Sunday and weeknights. Historically that is where I do all my thinking, where I am running along the beach, rhythmic, meditative. I did a three-month course at Yale, The Science of Well-Being, I thoroughly enjoyed it, taught me about myself and how I lived my life.
Looking back at the pandemic, it’s now about being grateful, tell people how much you appreciate them, too.
And Richard had more to say about how the nation has changed recently…
There needs to be an increase in gratitude and thanking people, we got to be nice. There is so much hatred in this country. I moved to the US in the early 1980s. How we are now, how divided we are now, I am alarmed by that. There is so much hatred and bigotry. Certain groups are targeted heavily, the Asian community, most specifically the transgender community, people are being killed.
Unfortunately, Trump legitimized it and let people come out. I am concerned about the United States as it is in a very precarious position, but that doesn’t stop me, does not change my work, but as a country, we are not the bastion we are used to being.
We talked about many other things as I was reminded how easy the conversations always flow with Richard. We did loop back to travel and what Richard thought that the travel industry could have done during this downturn and pause while COVID forced many of us to stay home and not grab our passports and go. He elaborated:
I thought COVID was a great opportunity for the travel industry was to reinvent itself, to when travel was fabulous and glamorous, an opportunity to move away from charges, extra charges, cancelation fees, 1 or 2 bag fees, seat assignments. During COVID, there was the fear of losing travelers, why not try to save them and bring them back and reinvent travel, return to a time when travel was truly fantastic. But travelers are burdened with so many extras, paying for going on a plane and staying in a hotel, but then hotels are charging $50 resort fee, which should be part of the price, then $50 for parking per night. There are just so many additional fees that bog down the travel process.
We discussed more topics and about the challenges our community faces still. And as a proud member of our LGBTQ+ Community, Richard opened up about that gathering of letters we and others use represent us, to explain who we are.
I think we need to look at that retched alphabet soup. We are all saying L, G, B, T, Q , I or plus or more letters. We are all human beings. Who we love and who we identify, it complicates the issue, we need our allies more than ever and many are left thinking, ”What does this soup stand for?” Should there be a global consistency – I don’t know. We need to move away from labels, be human beings, and it is all about respect, be visible and invisible, how we educate people. We need allies and sometimes I think the confusion runs them away. We need allies to be clear who we and supporting us as I’ve never seen so many awful people in this country. We are complicating it, more than ever we need the support of our allies, it is challenging to explain all the letters and differences in our community, when all anyone really needs to know is that we are fellow human beings.
I did ask Richard what should we be calling ourselves and he said he did not have that answer, but reiterated something has to change.
We are expecting big things in 2022 and 2023 in Fort Lauderdale. The city and the area weathered the pandemic well so far and will most likely still do well in the future. Instinct will of course keep you posted as events are solidified, but as you know, the past few years have been altered by COVID, but Fort Lauderdale will be looking to offer once again Pride Fort Lauderdale and give the world The Pride of the Americas.