Florida’s many natural gifts, including sunshine and beaches, are all intact at the moment, but the same might not be said of its social fabric. In fact, some fear Florida’s current political administration is wielding a giant eraser and threatening to wipe out years of gains made by minority groups, including women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
This has led to multiple civil rights groups issuing travel advisories against the state—including the NAACP, the LGBTQ+-rights group Equality Florida and the League of United Latin American Citizens—urging Americans not to travel to Florida. However, tourism officials in Florida want to convey an important message: Everyone is welcome here.
Unlike attractions or restaurants—with more immediate evidence of visitor loss—the financial repercussions of lost meeting and convention business are felt well into the future, with such groups selecting their destinations and facilities years in advance.
Greater Fort Lauderdale, for one, saw 17 meeting cancellations by the end of August 2023, representing an economic impact of at least $98 million, according to Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale.
“That’s hotel rooms, average daily spend, restaurants, retail and attractions,” Ritter says. “People are paying attention to issues of diversity and inclusivity, as we can see from our 17 lost conferences…even though it’s something out of our control.”
Orlando, one of the planet’s most popular destinations, also documented some cancellations that were a direct result of recent policy announcements from the governor.
“To date, we’ve have had three cancellations for citywide groups with an estimated economic impact of $111m, and we continue to receive inquiries and concerned calls from groups and travelers,” says Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando. “We have been connecting with each client individually to discuss their concerns and educating them on both our welcoming and inclusive destination and the specific legislation.”
Despite that troubling news and acknowledging that long-term forecasting isn’t possible right now, meeting and convention business in Orlando has been brisk, Matej says.
“It is too early to predict the overall impact. I can tell you that through August 2023, Orange County Convention Center citywide attendance exceeded prior year by 22 percent with 90 events, and exceeded pre-pandemic 2019 performance by 21 percent year to date.... And, from September through December, advance hotel booking pace for the group segment is ahead of the same time last year by 1 percent,” she says. “Also, through August, the Visit Orlando sales team has booked 28 percent more events year over year which equates to an increase of 33 percent more attendees with a 28 percent economic impact increase versus the same time last year.”
Other destinations, while acknowledging some loss of potential group business, also stop short of projecting too far ahead.
“We have seen an impact in the sourcing of the business. Some companies have told us that for the moment, ‘we’re going to skip Florida,’” says Milton Segarra, the new president and CEO for Discover the Palm Beaches. “We have heard about some cancellations at local hotels, but we don’t have information from all the hotels.”
On the other hand, some bureaus have reported no bumps on the revenue road at all, among them Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.
“Overall, this fiscal year, we are on pace to experience our most successful tourism year in our county’s history, which is a testament to the success of meetings, groups, sporting events, and general leisure visitors,” notes Brian Lowack, the new president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
However, Lowack’s further comments reveal sentiments expressed throughout the state: “Part of that success is due to the incredible diversity and inclusiveness of our community,” he says, adding, “Beyond St. Petersburg annually hosting the largest pride parade in the Southeast, our destination has been featured in publications and among many influencers for our inclusive and diverse atmosphere.”
Indeed, there are pride days and pride weekends all over the state, from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach to Tampa, Orlando and Fernandina Beach. In some cases it’s more than a week, as in Key West and Jacksonville, whose River City Pride event took place Sept. 28-Oct. 8 this year and included a parade through the most prominent historic LGBTQIA+ community in the city.
On the southern end of the state, Miami Beach Pride is a multi-day celebration of arts and culture including an incredible 2-day festival and parade. Regarding recent legislation and its impact on tourism, the Greater Miami CVB released a public statement, reading in part: “We are aware of recent travel advisories and recognize tourism’s unique ability to drive progress. Let’s seize this opportunity to educate travelers and clients about Greater Miami’s unique and diverse experiences and, more importantly, the hard-working people that make up our hospitality ecosystem.” The statement goes on to say, “Every visitor makes an investment in our community when they travel here for a vacation, business meeting, convention or major event.
But more importantly, they invest in our people.”
Meanwhile, St. Petersburg’s neighbor, Visit Tampa Bay, has produced and released a new video showcasing the welcoming vibe they hope everyone—“no matter who they are, or where they come from”—will feel when they visit the area. Following the new video’s August 2023 release, Santiago Corrada, president & CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, said, “It’s an honor to be a part of a destination that welcomes all people and has industry leaders that support our ethos of welcoming people from all backgrounds.”
As Fort Lauderdale’s Ritter puts it, “We’re a community of two million from 170 nations. We’re more diverse than Manhattan. We’re leaning into how welcoming and accepting this community is, no matter who you are, where you come from or who you love. We just want people to have an amazing experience here.”
Here’s a sampling of sentiments expressed by tourism officials throughout Florida regarding diversity and inclusion in the Sunshine State.
• Monroe County TDC officials, representing the Florida Keys and Key West: The official motto for the Florida Keys & Key West is “One Human Family,” promoting unity for all. Monroe County commissioners adopted the “One Human Family” slogan for the entire 125-mile-long Florida Keys island chain in early 2001 after Key West officials embraced it in 2000. Today, visitors can find rainbow crosswalks on Key West’s famed 14-block Duval Street, a hub for the island city’s LGBTQ+ entertainment district. This summer Key West celebrated the 20th anniversary of the unfurling of the world’s longest rainbow flag, at 1.25 miles long, along Duval Street.
• Greater Miami CVB: Diversity is in our DNA. It is part of our cultural fabric. It helps define our destination’s global brand and is a key differentiator for us. We thrive on our destination’s authenticity of people, neighborhoods and experiences and this is what helps make our community an ideal place to live, work, play and visit. Please accept our invitation to visit and learn more about what we and our partners are doing to keep our community a vibrant destination that welcomes everyone.
• Milton Segarra, president & CEO, Discover the Palm Beaches: One of our five strategic pillars is inclusivity and diversity. For us, it is how we communicate with our visitors regardless of their sexual orientation, ethnicity and gender. How we hire and train is key. Tourism is so important here, it is rooted in our DNA. Our service providers truly live the idea that we are a welcoming destination. It’s really important for us to make sure that every visitor trusts the destination.
• Stacy Ritter, president & CEO, Visit Lauderdale: Florida is a very large state, and people from the outside may think we all feel the same way. But Florida is many states in one. We do care, we care deeply that you feel welcome and that you feel safe, and that regardless of who you are, you feel embraced. Loving your neighbor should not be a political statement.
• Casandra Matej, president & CEO, Visit Orlando: Our role at Visit Orlando is to tell the story of what we know to be true in Central Florida: Orlando is diverse, welcoming and inclusive. And we need to continue telling that story of our community and destination. To help do so, we have a multicultural campaign, “Orlando for All,” to reach diverse audiences and strengthen our partnerships with local organizations, including several LGBTQ+ organizations.
• Brian Lowack, president & CEO, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater: We encourage members of all backgrounds and ethnicities to experience our destination first-hand and speak to others who have spent time in our slice of paradise—who can attest
to feeling welcome and safe during their time in Pinellas County.
• Karen Morris, director of sales, Walton County Tourism Dept.: We embrace all visitors—regardless of who they are or where they come from—and invite them to create their own South Walton experience, exploring our 16 unique beach neighborhoods, diverse culinary scene, outdoor adventure, eclectic shops, art galleries and luxury accommodations that make this the ideal beach destination, and why our visitors return year after year.
fla-keys.com/meeting-planners; miamiandbeaches.com/miami-meetings; thepalmbeaches.com/meetings; visitlauderdale.com/meetings-and-groups; orlandomeeting.com; visitstpeteclearwater.com/meetings; visitsouthwalton.com/meetings