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Florida politics are too hot for some business visitors

Suzy Feldman, of Delray Beach, Fla., holds a sign in protest of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the We the People anti-hate march, organized by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), Sunday, July 2, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky
/
AP
Suzy Feldman, of Delray Beach, Fla., holds a sign in protest of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the We the People anti-hate march, organized by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), Sunday, July 2, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

It was supposed to bring hundreds of people to Fort Lauderdale over Labor Day weekend, totaling thousands of hotel nights. Instead, a festival celebrating rivalries among Historically Black Colleges and Universities hosted by radio personality Tom Joyner canceled.

It is one of a handful of events, conferences and conventions that had been considering coming to South Florida but have opted to stay away. Organizers blame a combination of state policies, the political climate in Florida and travel advisories issued by civil rights groups.

Broward County’s tourism marketing agency said the lost business tops $20 million and counting, spread over the next three years.

“This is, I think, one of those unintended consequences. At least I hope it was unintended, but the consequences are nonetheless negative,” said Visit Lauderdale CEO Stacy Ritter.

TJRivals planned on hosting a weekend event in Fort Lauderdale but canceled earlier this summer, citing several state policies and travel advisories issued by various groups. The festival is hosted by radio personality Tom Joyner.
Tom Hudson
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screenshot and illustration
TJRivals planned on hosting a weekend event in Fort Lauderdale but canceled earlier this summer, citing several state policies and travel advisories issued by various groups. The festival is hosted by radio personality Tom Joyner.

At least three groups have warned about traveling to Florida. Equality Florida issued its travel advisory in April. The NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens put out theirs less than a month later. Each one cited policies pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis including rejecting an AP African American studies course, new E-Verify immigration requirements, and restricting medical care for transgender people.

The latest group to steer clear of gathering in Florida is Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest African American intercollegiate fraternity. Its 2025 convention had been scheduled to be held in Orlando. Instead, the group announced this week it was relocating the event outside of Florida "due to Gov. Ron DeSantis' harmful, racist, and insensitive policies against the Black community."

Last week, the Florida Department of Education approved African American history standards that generated controversy. One middle school benchmark reads, "instruction includes how slaves developed skills, which, in some instances, could be applied for their personnel benefit."

READ MORE: Thousands march in Fort Lauderdale against 'hateful' laws, Gov. DeSantis

“Tourism has always transcended politics,” Ritter said. “We don't talk politics and travel. We just want people to have great experiences and bring home wonderful memories. So this is a new conversation for us and it's an uncomfortable one.”

It’s a conversation Ritter is alone in among the quasi-public tourism organizations serving South Florida’s largest counties. Other county tourism agencies did not want to comment on the record.

Ritter has been very public in how state politics and policies have been creeping into travel decisions by convention groups. Her office maintains a spreadsheet of lost business when a prospective client decides against coming to Florida because of new laws.

"Tourism has always transcended politics ... So this is a new conversation for us and it's an uncomfortable one.”
Visit Lauderdale CEO Stacy Ritter

An education group decided against bringing its 2024 conference to Broward “due to concerns about what the governor is doing in education/schools.” That business was worth $1.8 million. A trade group of independent toy makers and stores won’t bring its 2026 convention to the new hotel being built at the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center because of the “unfriendly political environment in Florida as it relates to many" of its members. That gathering was valued at $13.5 million.

Stacy Ritter is the CEO of Visit Lauderdale.
courtesy: Visit Lauderdale
Stacy Ritter is the CEO of Visit Lauderdale.

While the lost business is a drop in the bucket of the multi-billion dollar travel industry in South Florida, it is the latest example of how politics touches tourism.

“If you're considering a convention and you have a thousand attendees and you hear some noise among a group and the attendees just say, 'Hey, let's not touch Florida for now,'” said Peter Ricci, Director of the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program at FAU.

Deidre Everdij, owns COTC Events in Cooper City, estimates she has lost about $750,000 of business thanks to five clients opting out of bringing their corporate events to the region.

“Any time that there are things that are in the media and being talked about, especially with the election, with our contenders being Florida-based, with the eyes of the country being on Florida — it's something that we have to pay attention to,” she said.

The Quiet Riot

The tourism industry has been targeted before. In the summer of 1990, Nelson Mandela was touring the United States after spending 27 years in jail in South Africa. Miami was on his itinerary. He was going to get a key to the city.

Pro Mandela supporters, right, clash with anti Castro Cuban exiles outside the Miami Beach Convention Center Thursday, June 28, 1990, while Nelson Mandela, Deputy President of the African National Congress was addressing the AFSCME International Convention.
Kathy Willens
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AP
Pro Mandela supporters, right, clash with anti Castro Cuban exiles outside the Miami Beach Convention Center Thursday, June 28, 1990, while Nelson Mandela, Deputy President of the African National Congress was addressing the AFSCME International Convention.

But a week before, Mandela was on ABC’s Nightline and he mentioned three people who supported the anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa. Fidel Castro was on his list.

That was enough for the Miami elected officials to cancel the key ceremony. And that led to what was called The Quiet Riot — a national boycott of Miami by black businesses and groups. It lasted 1,000 days. The boycott ended with a number of concessions, including the first Black-owned luxury hotel in the region.

Today, there is no call for a similar boycott, but politics is touching tourism at a time the regional hotel industry is seeing its business flatten from the sharp jump experienced in the past two years.

Hotel demand in Broward County is up just 1% this year through early July compared to a year ago, though hotels are making more money for each room available. The industry says more places open for travel post-COVID-19 and Florida fatigue by tourists have sapped some strength from the market.

“We're not seeing the demand or the trend that we had hoped we would be seeing. And we believe that it is in part due to things that are happening at the state level,” said Ritter.

A screenshot of a spreadsheet from Visit Lauderdale listing lost business citing Florida's political climate.
screenshot
A screenshot of a spreadsheet from Visit Lauderdale listing lost business citing Florida's political climate.

She has pledged to continue accounting for the business leaving Florida because of politics. But what she nor anyone cannot account for is if convention planners choose to ignore Florida altogether.

“We've heard from a number of [event planners] that Florida is not getting a request for proposals from these people. So we don't even know what we don't have the opportunity to bid on that we might have won because Florida's off the table.

Neither is there data on groups who may be selecting Florida as a conference destination because of its policies. The conservative group, Turning Point, held its first Turning Point Action Conference this past weekend at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. About 6,000 people attended a Saturday night speech by former Pres. Donald Trump, according to The New York Times. The group held its conference last year in Tampa.

Ricci is looking for groups explicitly coming to Florida because of the political climate but he hasn’t come across them.

“I want to hear what we're picking up. That's where I'm just truly confounded,” he said. “I'm just lost because nobody comes to me and says, ‘Hey, we just booked this group because they really support Florida's politics.’”

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.
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