Tourism Tempest In A Teapot

Gender and lucre are battling in Fort Lauderdale, a half-hour north of Miami on Florida's East Coast. The gender issue pits Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle against gay area residents who represent high tourism potential. The lucre issue revolves around efforts by the city and Broward County to upgrade Fort Lauderdale's hotel stock and so shift its image from beach market to luxury destination. While various upscale hotel projects are under way or in the pipeline, some industry observers worry that the area won't support the rates they'll demand.

In late August, Broward County commissioners removed Naugle from their tourist development council following the mayor's remarks linking gay vacationers with the county's AIDS incidence. Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau chief Nicky Grossman and various business leaders bridled when Naugle asked why the Fort Lauderdale guide to gay travel includes a bathhouse that Naugle claims accommodates sexual trysts.

According to The Miami Herald, the greater Miami area, including Fort Lauderdale, is second only to New York in the number of gay sex- and drug-induced AIDS infections among men.

At the same time, the city is attempting to reposition itself through a recently opened St. Regis — Fort Lauderdale's first beachfront hotel to charge five-star rates — a possible repositioning of the Lago Mar resort as a Ritz-Carlton, and W and Trump hotels under construction.

According to the Herald, Broward County hotels raised room rates each month in 2007, but through July, room revenues were flat, probably due to an eight-percent drop in occupancy. These figures aren't alarming, suggests analyst Scott Berman, adding the long-term picture looks rosy.

“You're not going to go from a beach market, catering to predominantly price-sensitive consumers, to a jet-set market in a year,” says Berman, of PricewaterhouseCoopers. “It's going to take up to a decade, and part of that transition involves development of some product at the luxury price point.” In the ‘80s and more recently, Fort Lauderdale competed with “spring havens” Daytona Beach and South Padre Island. Not true anymore, says Berman, adding Fort Lauderdale is “becoming a world-class leisure and group destination.” Reporters are keying on the recent “significant drop in occupancy,” but those are county numbers, not the city's alone, he says.

In regard to the gay issue, Berman says the CVB has invested significant money in appealing to an “alternative lifestyle market” important to Fort Lauderdale and the other resort destinations along the state's East Coast.

“I don't think Naugle is a bad guy and I think the gay community has an issue they want to voice — and they should be heard,” says Ezra Katz, the Miami-based entrepreneur who developed the Renaissance Fort Lauderdale Hotel on 17th Street. “I think everybody's caught up in the rhetoric and communication problems rather than having true conflict.”

The issue shouldn't be swept under the rug but it also shouldn't be “catastrophic,” says Katz, chairman of The Aztec Group, a real estate investment firm. “There are too many smart people in Fort Lauderdale to allow this thing to get out of control.”

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