Fort Lauderdale's Expanding Vision for LGBTQ Travel

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday February 26, 2021
Originally published on February 24, 2021

Celebrate YOU
Celebrate YOU  (Source:Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitor Bureau)

Miami has Cuban coffee. Tampa has pirates. And Fort Lauderdale, along with sunshine, gorgeous beaches and a thriving LGBTQ community, has Richard Gray.

Anyone in the LGBTQ travel industry is familiar with Gray, Visit Lauderdale's Senior Vice President, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. He's been a longtime member (and former Vice-Chair) of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association, appeared as a speaker on the global stage and spearheaded several groundbreaking marketing campaigns for the destination that he now calls home.

But the Brit, who emigrated to the U.S. because he "fell in love with a man," has also weathered plenty of storms, including the AIDS crisis, which decimated his social circle and profoundly impacted his approach to tourism, particularly as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

Richard Gray, Visit Lauderdale's Senior Vice President, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Richard Gray, Visit Lauderdale's Senior Vice President, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion  (Source: Dennis Dean)

"I lost everybody," says Gray, with a stalwart inflection in his voice that comes from decades of advocacy work for the LGBTQ community. He worked on Wall Street and volunteered with GMHC alongside activist Larry Kramer and playwright Craig Lucas, who used his experience as research for the groundbreaking film "Longtime Companion."

By 1991, nearly everyone Gray knew and loved had died. He moved to Fort Lauderdale for the next chapter of his life — the rising sun over Lauderdale Beach proving a powerful metaphor.

For years, Fort Lauderdale hid in the shadows of bustling Miami Beach, frolicking Key West and other queer meccas like Provincetown, Fire Island and Palm Springs. But the queer community found respite in Broward County, particularly Wilton Manors, and vacationers bought second homes and eventually moved full-time and opened businesses to create a thriving, diverse LGBTQ community.

Gray followed that pattern, opening The Royal Palms, a luxury boutique hotel. The oasis, known for its top-of-the-line amenities and service, provided a best-in-class experience for gay travelers, but there had yet to be a concerted effort to market to the demographic.

Gray sold the Visitor Bureau on committing to an LGBTQ-specific marketing campaign but had to raise half of the budget to proceed. Collectively, Gray raised his portion for the $35,000 campaign, titled "Immerse Yourself." Twenty-five years later, he's still immersing himself in promoting and shaping what LGBTQ looks like for the 21st-century traveler.

Sunshine Ahead

Stonewall Pride Parade, Wilton Manors, 2019.
Stonewall Pride Parade, Wilton Manors, 2019.  (Source: Getty Images)

Gray is cautiously optimistic, suggesting that many respond with an "emotional yes" on surveys about future travel plans.

"We all want to travel, but let's be honest, getting on a plane, staying in a hotel — it's a different experience now. No room service or sheets changes; we're all wearing masks. We'll get through it, though," says Gray. "More vaccinations are coming, and the mindset will change."

Gray also acknowledges disparities facing the LGBTQ community amid the pandemic, with many queer people in the hospitality industry out of work. He hopes the collective challenges we've faced will evolve into a new perspective. "I'd like to think people will become nicer. I want everyone to feel safe."

When ready, travelers to Greater Fort Lauderdale will discover a destination continuing to evolve. While Wilton Manors is still the heart of the LGBTQ community, its lifeblood pulsates in neighborhoods and business throughout Broward County. Here's a look at recent openings and some of our favorite picks:

Guitar Hotel at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
Guitar Hotel at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.  (Source: Getty Images)

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino — Piercing the sky like a Lzzy Hale guitar solo, the stunning 638-room luxury Guitar Hotel is part of the complex's recent expansion, which includes a "Bora Bora" lagoon, 13.5-acre water park, 19 dining options and massive retail promenade to spend your winnings.

Flagler Village — If you're looking for Fort Lauderdale's next emerging neighborhood, be sure to check out Flagler Village. The warehouse district's renaissance includes FAT Village, a hub for artists, techies and designers.

Heritage — There's plenty of buzz around chef Rino Cerbone's upscale Italian eatery. Can't-miss dishes include sweet long peppers stuffed with wagyu beef and fontina cheese, housemade pastas, and blistered pizzas with innovative toppings like squash blossoms and cold-pulled burrata with sherry marinara.

(Source: Takato)

Takato — The newest restaurant to open at the Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach fuses Korean and Japanese influences for a refined interpretation of chef Taek Lee's culinary heritage. Don't miss the salmon tataki with truffle ponzu and shaved black truffle or the grilled Korean short rib with scallions and garlic chips.

Hotel Maren Fort Lauderdale Beach — Part of LGBTQ-friendly Hilton's Curio Collection, the oceanfront property is just steps away from the sun and sand and a beautiful walk to the shops and restaurants in Downtown Las Olas.

The World of Anna Sui
The World of Anna Sui  (Source: NSU Art Museum)

The World of Anna Sui — Head to the NSU Art Museum to check out a major retrospective of fashion designer Anna Sui, including more than 100 designs spanning her 20-year career.

Bodega Taqueria y Tequila — Take your pick from more than a dozen tacos (our favorite is the camarón al coco with coconut shrimp, mango pico, potato sticks and salsa rosada), order from a retrofitted Airstream, and pair them with what else, tequila?

Coming soon — Luxury descends on Fort Lauderdale in late 2021 with the opening of a 23-story Four Seasons hotel, including 130 guest rooms, 90 residences, and just what everybody needs for their vacation, a "beach butler"!

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.