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Despite the scratchy metaphor, we get the point when Richard Gray says, “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.”

Gray is the newly appointed managing director for the LGBT Market for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB.)

Gray explains how he got into the hospitality industry and how he ended up in Fort Lauderdale.

“I used to work for a UK investment bank that transferred me to New York City in the early 80s.  By 1991, I was burnt out. Fort Lauderdale was already my favorite place to visit. I was travelling constantly for work, but I never stayed in gay establishments because they were always below par, and I began to be convinced that there was an opportunity and a need for a superior gay hotel. That is when I opened the Royal Palms Hotel. My product was the upscale sort of place gay travelers wanted. I began to get involved in the local tourism support efforts and I helped move the IGLTA [International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association] to Fort Lauderdale. In 1995, I approached the CVB with a business plan for marketing Fort Lauderdale as a gay destination. We started out in 1996 with a $35K gay marketing initiative. It grew and succeeded, and very quickly, by 2000, there were 30 gay resorts in Fort Lauderdale. 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.”

Gray is aware of the fact that being a tourism guru is a thankless job: when tourism tanks in a bad economy, the guru gets the blame. When business booms, locals view his job as superfluous. How will he ride out the ups and downs of gay tourism?

“Well the market is competitive and we have to sharpen our marketing tools and be creative, so that is why we are doing what we do. We have a new TV commercial to be launched predominantly in the northeast. We are aiming at our strongest markets including Toronto, New York City, Philadelphia and London. Check out the hot guys with the yellow surfboard in our “Hello Sunny” videos. You can find them on YouTube. We think they will get some attention.”

Gray has clear and ready answers when asked for specifics about his marketing goals for the next year.

He says, “We have a new campaign, and there are three tactics in our gay initiative: a) beyond print, b) guerilla marketing and c) integrating GLBT into mainstream. The CVB online has a ‘Mild to Wild’ site worth looking at. We still have some print ads but they come with ‘scan tags’ that bring the ads to life. For the gorilla marketing campaign, we have the ‘beach mobile’ that we bring to different cities. It’s basically a beach on wheels with hot gorgeous guys in skimpy bathing suits, and yes, those guys complain when we park them in freezing weather! Another campaign was  ‘Defrost your swimsuit’ which we did in London, New York City and Toronto where we displayed a Speedo frozen in a block of ice. Visitors got ways to upload funny speedo photos and send them to friends. This was successful and got a lot of mainstream press. I do think the most important thing is to incorporate the GLBT market into our mainstream campaign.”

There is not much that even a savvy salesman like Gray can do about the fact that same-sex marriage is not legal in Florida, and that other states like New York where huge amounts of gay revenue pour into the local economy because of marriage equality, are eating our lunch. He does have the numbers and they speak for themselves.

He says, “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.”

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