‘Unfriendly political environment’: Broward convention cancellations blame Florida as reason for exodus

Broward County has lost more than a half-dozen conventions as their organizers cite the divisive political climate as their reason to stay out of Florida.

The list was compiled by Visit Lauderdale, formerly known as the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Broward’s tourism arm said the lost conventions could have brought hotel stays to Fort Lauderdale and its surrounding cities, which also meant money spent on restaurants and attractions.

“We lost this program due to political climate,” according to a Visit Lauderdale spreadsheet listing the decision of the Supreme Council of America Inc., Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite Masons to cancel their convention — and 855 rooms — in August 2024.

“We were so close on this one,” reads the notes on the entry for the 2024 National Family and Community Engagement and Community Schools Conference, which needed more than 2,000 rooms and has bailed. “But, group decided to pull out of Florida due to concerns about what the Governor is doing in the education/schools and that he will likely run in 2024. They do not want to lose attendees due to this.”

Under the explanation for a nationally funded Mississippi-based organization that deals with health care workers, the reason simply reads: “Governor DeSantis.”

An organizer for the event, who did not have authority to speak, said Thursday the group was planning to come to Fort Lauderdale for a staff retreat this summer and have opted for Denver instead.

The reason: The polarization of gay rights and “assault on diversity and equity and inclusion.”

Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale, Broward County’s tourism promotion arm, said she’s “saddened” by the loss of tourism, but said, “It’s not directed at South Florida. We’re not doing anything different than we’ve been doing for the last 30 years.”

She also said the effects won’t be felt for years because the conventions generally book far in advance.

“From an economic standpoint, this is very harmful. We saw in 2020 what happens when visitors stay away — people lose their jobs.  By not coming here, the residents of our county, whose values align with these organizations, get hurt. Minority, women and LGBTQ+ businesses rely on visitors for their existence. Staying away hurts those very people.”

The Chicago-based American Specialty Toy Retailing Association had planned a 3,000-person conference in Fort Lauderdale in 2026. A spokeswoman said Thursday they are “probably” headed to Milwaukee instead.

The organization has “a lot of people that don’t like those politics at all,” said spokeswoman Beth Miller.

In a note to the tourism office, she cited the “unfriendly political environment in Florida.”

“This would otherwise be such a fabulous destination for the group. I sure hope things become less polarizing soon,” she wrote the county.

Said Ritter: “I’m saddened because my hometown is welcoming and inclusive and everybody knows that. This isn’t directed at us, which is heartening because they know our values are of supporting diversity and inclusion. It’s a bigger message and there’s little we can do about that.”

A get-away weekend run by the Atlanta-based aParent Miracles Foundation for this November is headed to Texas instead.

The group changed its mind after the NAACP issued a travel advisory for Florida “in direct response to Governor Ron DeSantis’ attempts to erase Black history, and to restrict diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in Florida schools,” the organizer wrote Ritter’s office.

The loss of conventions has been particularly felt in Orlando, where groups canceling their events have cited laws that banned most abortions after six weeks, allowed Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit, cracked down on illegal immigration, and targeted transgender and LGBTQ+ issues.

The National Society of Black Engineers’ 50th conference, which would have brought up to 15,000 visitors to the Orange County Convention Center in 2024, will now be held in a different city. Organizers with the National Society of Black Engineers told the Orlando Sentinel they were troubled by DeSantis’ efforts to target diversity, equity and inclusion programs in schools and how that would affect student members of the group.

And the Con of Thrones, which typically draws 3,000 to 4,000 fans of the “Game of Thrones” books and television shows, also announced it was pulling the plug on a gathering planned for Aug. 25-27 at the Hyatt Regency Orlando.

A spokesperson for DeSantis on Thursday called the announcements by the groups “nothing more than a media-driven stunt.”

“As Governor DeSantis announced in May, Florida is experiencing record tourism, with the Q1 2023 having the largest volume of visitors during a single quarter in recorded history,” Press Secretary Jeremy T. Redfern said in an email to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “Under the leadership of Governor DeSantis, Florida’s economy is booming, with Florida being the fastest growing state and having the largest net domestic in-migration.”

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com. Follow on Twitter @LisaHuriash

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