The National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) has chosen Broward County as the host destination for its 2021 “International Business and Leadership Conference.”
Organizers say the annual conference is “the world’s largest LGBT business event.”
The 2021 incarnation is set to take place Aug. 8-14 at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood.
“[Greater Fort Lauderdale] not only offers a thriving LGBT scene, but it also offers … stunning beaches and a variety of world-class museums, culinary experiences and unique attractions,” Justin Nelson, cofounder and president of NGLCC recently said in a statement.
The conference was held in Fort Lauderdale in 2015 – the last time it was in the area. The Washington, D.C.-based NGLCC held its 2019 conference in Tampa in August. Las Vegas was chosen as the host city for 2020.
Organizers said one of the reasons for the return to Broward is because the greater Fort Lauderdale area is considered the “LGBT capital of Florida,” with the highest concentration of same-sex couple households in the country and hundreds of gay-owned and operated businesses.
The area also welcomes 1.5 million LGBT travelers each year, in part because many stakeholders have been proactively welcoming the LGBT market for decades.
Organizers expect more than 1,400 attendees, with a program that features networking, workshops, seminars, performances, panels and entertainment.
Two of the conference’s local partners, who were instrumental in its return to Broward, are Keith Blackburn, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale LGBT Chamber of Commerce (GFLGLCC), and Richard Gray, SVP of Diversity & Inclusion at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Decade at the helm
Blackburn has been running the GFLGLCC for almost 10 years now.
His group is affiliated with the NGLCC, but operates as its own nonprofit, independent organization that also shares the mission – to promote business and economic opportunities in LGBT and LGBT-friendly communities.
Blackburn’s Chamber represents one of the largest LGBT business groups in Broward. He also operates an LGBT-plus visitor center at 2300 NE 7th Ave. in Wilton Manors, adjacent to the Alibi shopping center just behind SunServe.
The plaque hanging on his office wall there features a quote by businessman and author Robert T. Kiyosaki. The quote kind of says it all about Blackburn’s energy: “Your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow.”
It’s that kind of drive that he and his director of development Tom Gatz-Nibbio try to manifest for their members and partners.
The group hosts a variety of networking mixer events (the third Tuesday of each month) at locations across the area, including a recent one at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Discovery and Science that brought out scores of members.
Blackburn is, indeed, an organizer. He’s turned it into a successful career.
“The mixers are a growing, signature event. It brings people together to relax,” Blackburn said.
Most attendees are members, but about 25 percent are allies and new people who are interested in joining the group.
The GFLGLCC currently has 350 members and 25 partners as it eyes almost a decade in operation.
Blackburn was born and raised in Washington, D.C., but he got tired of the cold weather and moved to Miami Beach to do real estate.
He gravitated to Broward over time and eventually operated a guesthouse – Mary’s Resort. After joining a group that promoted gay-owned guesthouses, he began to see a need for an exclusively LGBT Chamber.
“Before I founded the Chamber I reached out to [the NGLCC] to get the criteria and become an affiliate. It allows for an independent, separate board. We pay an affiliation fee and get their support, participate in conferences, events and training – and the national conference,” Blackburn said.
Since launching, he’s overseen growth in membership, a rebrand, and the opening of the visitor’s center in 2018.
Blackburn said he’s already looking at expanding the center’s hours and wants to eventually be open seven days a week instead of the current five.
Naturally, the Chamber is always looking for new members and partners. Blackburn doesn’t get any grant funding, so he said it’s essential.
It runs a host of unique initiatives, such as its Business Connect program (you can watch a video about it on the website) and the Purple Palm Hospitality and Training Certification.
There is the quarterly breakfast event that has been sponsored by Northwestern Mutual for the past two years. Blackburn hosts a monthly executive lunch, when he personally invites 10 members to the Tower Club in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
There is also a quarterly luncheon that features unique programming.
“There will be some different training programs, legal perspective training, how to treat LGBT people in the workplace,” he said.
At a recent event, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis spoke about the #MeToo movement.
Blackburn is also working toward adding a women’s council to the mix. To be a part of that group you don’t have to be lesbian, you can identify as transgender or straight, too.
Member organizations must be at least 51 percent gay-owned and managed — the same sort of guidelines you’d see at the South Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, for example.
Blackburn said typically when a business is doing well, they don’t seek him out. But he said that’s a mistake, and it’s better to be proactive no matter your current situation.
“When business is good, they sometimes aren’t as motivated to join a chamber, they feel they don’t need it,” he said. “And if business is really bad, they can’t afford it. The middle ground is: business is good, but could be better.”
Each member has their own page on the GFLGLCC website. Members can post an event or a job opening there. A visitor might be looking for a Realtor, an insurance agent or a place to workout.
“It’s all about expanding your business,” Blackburn said.
Membership packages start at $295 for 12 months.
The GFLGLCC has five board members now, including Blackburn and one woman. He said it’s a board that reflects the current demographic.
“[The chamber] has evolved and has become a passion. It’s a lot of work. The benefits are unique and I remind members to use them,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gray, who is a veteran in LGBTQ marketing, business promotion and tourism, has worked with Blackburn for many years.
Gray noted that the Broward area is ranked as a top 10 destination in the U.S. for LGBT visitors. He said it’s still the only destination in the world that markets to transgender people and that it’s an “oasis of inclusion” in a predominately conservative state.
He said Blackburn is a trailblazer that gets it.
“He shares the same passion for the community and tourism and educating people on what a wonderfully diverse and inclusive destination we are,” Gray said.
Gray’s department at the CVB is Blackburn’s main sponsor.
“Keith is smart, he’s visionary, and I think that shows in his commitment at the Chamber. It’s grown and grown. His mixers are well attended and the visitor’s center is doing extremely well,” he said.
Blackburn serves on the marketing and advisory council at the CVB.
“He’s my closest partner – the closest person that I work with on the tourism level promoting Fort Lauderdale,” Gray said.
“Blackburn knows the business and tourism angles very well. At the end of the day, it’s about supporting small businesses and encouraging tourism. It’s about better educating and bringing businesses together for a bigger slice of the pie – we don’t always have to be so ultra competitive.”
More is at GFLGLCC.org.