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Tourism chief shares keys to Fort Lauderdale's gay success

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@miamiherald.com

Broward tourism chief Nicki E. Grossman recalled the unusual day not long ago when both the Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth 2 were docked at Port Everglades.

''There are never enough queens in Fort Lauderdale,'' Grossman told 200 applauding attendees at the eighth International Conference on Gay & Lesbian Tourism, being held through Wednesday at the St. Regis Resort on Fort Lauderdale Beach.

Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitor's Bureau, told the group of travel professionals how her town became the No. 1 resort destination this year for gay visitors, according to readers of OutTraveler.com

''This is a big-time market,'' said Grossman, noting that the Fort Lauderdale CVB was among the first to actively recruit gay tourists to South Florida.

In 1996, the year after Grossman arrived at the CVB, there were five gay-owned guest houses in Fort Lauderdale and the CVB spent $35,000 marketing itself to gay clientele. This year, there are more than 30 gay guesthouses and the CVB will spend more than $400,000 courting gay travelers, she said.

Grossman also spoke of last summer's near crisis in the gay tourism industry, when Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle accused gay men of having sex in beach restrooms.

''For the record, gay travelers always were and always will be welcome in Fort Lauderdale,'' Grossman said, adding that she personally sent ''notes of apology'' to everyone who wrote the CVB complaining about Naugle's comments.

''We could have easily fallen apart,'' Grossman said. ``We were injured. We were mortified. But our industry partners wouldn't have let us do that.''

Industry and community partnership is a running theme of the four-day conference, sponsored by Community Marketing, a San Francisco-based research firm that focuses on the gay market.

A panel of Miami-Dade gay-community organizers told attendees about how a new level of cooperation has made it possible for the county to host four major annual gay events attended by men and women from all over the world: White Party, the AIDS fundraiser; Winter Party, which raises money for South Florida nonprofits and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; the Miami/Fort Lauderdale Gay & Lesbian Film Festival; and Aqua Girl festival, which raises money for scholarships and women's health issues.

''We have an amazing [Greater Miami] Convention & Visitor's Bureau,'' said Aqua Girl founder Alison Burgos. ``They have been at the forefront in support of these events.''

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