Visit Lauderdale has launched a new campaign that shows its openness to not just the LGBTQ community, but also many diverse groups that make up the residents and the visitors to Lauderdale.
Florida has found itself at the center of debate in recent months as it pushes its “Don’t Say Gay” law and Stop Woke Act, which hinders the free discussion and teaching of LGBTQ and racial topics.
However, Fort Lauderdale, one of the state’s most progressive and diverse cities, is fighting back with a positive message and is committed to telling the world that they are welcome, open, friendly, and willing to love and accept all kinds of visitors.
I had the excellent opportunity to speak with Stacy Ritter, the President and CEO of Visit Lauderdale, and Richard Gray, Visit Lauderdale’s Senior Vice President, Inclusion & Accessibility, to chat about the new social media ad campaign the destination is launching to show the world that much of Florida is actually a diverse, friendly, and excellent place to visit.
You have a new ad campaign coming out on social media called ‘We Are…Fort Lauderdale’. What inspired this new campaign?
Stacy: We knew we needed to launch this campaign because we started hearing a lot of people say they were worried about a lack of diversity and inclusivity within Florida, especially pertaining to the state’s Stop Woke Act. It was a reminder to us that the world was watching and paying attention to what was happening down here. So, we knew we needed to tell the world that Fort Lauderdale was different from the news they were hearing coming out of Tallahassee. We’ve already lost business as a result of the Stop Woke Act and “Don’t Say Gay” law. We knew we needed to show the world that Fort Lauderdale is a great place to live and visit and is welcoming to everyone, including the LGBTQ community.
I notice that the ad campaign goes beyond just the LGBTQ community. It features a lot of people who are usually underrepresented in the travel industry, such as the Black community and disabled travelers. What inspired this new campaign to reach out to so many different groups?
Stacy: Well, we’re actually an incredibly diverse community. In our county, we have residents who come from 170 different countries and there are 147 different languages spoken in households. We are incredibly diverse and so we knew the ad needed to reflect that. Plus, I fully believe that any community that’s marginalized needs to be represented. People need to feel seen and we wanted this campaign to show that we are seeing them.
Richard: We’ve always been an open and safe destination. I came here in the 70s and fell in love with how open and welcoming Fort Lauderdale was. I wanted to make sure that other people could feel that same way because I truly feel Fort Lauderdale is special and unique in the sense that it’s such a wonderfully open place.
Fort Lauderdale has been seen as an LGBTQ hotspot for decades, so this campaign seems like it’s kind of building on top of the reputation the city already has of being open and welcoming. When and how did Fort Lauderdale become such a queer destination?
Richard: This all started in 1995. I had an idea to launch a gay-centered ad campaign, so I pitched it to our CEO at the time. It ended up running in 1996 and was called the “Immerse Yourself” campaign. It featured an image of a man underwater after he had just dove into a pool. It was kind of a nod to Greg Louganis, who was a gay Olympic swimmer who used to train at our pool here.
We were still afraid to use the word “gay” back then, so we used the safer word “rainbow” to show that we were referencing the community. We worried about upsetting the local businesses or potentially scaring away travelers and actually hurting tourism. Fortunately, we found gold at the end of the rainbow and the campaign was a massive success. Five years later we started using the word “gay” and then as the acronym began to evolve, we started using it in all its forms, from GLBT to LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBT+, and more.
But even before the campaign, Fort Lauderdale already had all to components of booming into a gay mecca. The city used to have the Marlin Beach Hotel dating back to the 70s, which was the largest gay resort in the country at the time. And there was also spring break, which used to bring an influx of people looking to have a good time. So, the embers were already here, we just harnessed them.
Moving forward, what do you hope comes from this campaign?
Stacy: Well, to be honest, I don’t think we “hope” for much in a traditional sense. This is a social media campaign, and those are always really hard to quantify as far as how many “heads in beds” it produced for our hotels. This is more about getting the message out that we are not what they’re hearing from Tallahassee. We are different and we are welcoming, and in my opinion, I think that’s true of most Floridians. Unfortunately, the voices of the welcoming tend to get drowned out.
What would you say to someone who is either saying “I’m going to boycott Florida because of their policies,” or “I’m genuinely uncomfortable visiting Florida right now”?
Stacy: Well, I’d start by saying that, while I don’t agree with it, I definitely understand it. I’d want them to know that we’re a welcoming and peaceful community. Fortunately, throughout the entirety of the pandemic, we haven’t seen the type of unrest that other communities have. I’d also say…and not to be corny here…but, we literally have residents from 170 countries living here! We’re literally the American dream. We are the melting pot. I think our community is so beautiful and amazing.
Richard: Yeah, I think that we’re even more welcoming and accepting than Miami! Plus, as a city, we always push the envelope. We always have strived to speak to all people and be inclusive, and by not visiting Fort Lauderdale, you end up hurting the economy of a destination that’s wanting to do things the right way. So I’d say don’t hurt all of Florida simply because some people are doing awful things. In order for our voice to remain loud and proud, we need to continue to get support from the tourism community.