By Dale Madison

When you sit down with Keith Blackburn, the President and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (GFLGLCC), you know you are facing someone who is on a mission. That mission—one that Blackburn has defined for himself and for the Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors area—is to create the world’s go-to tourism destination. His own personal experience as a business and community leader in South Florida has helped shape his expertise and his brief as a leading promoter of gay international tourism to Greater Fort Lauderdale.

In 2005, Blackburn opened Mary’s Resort near downtown Fort Lauderdale, a guest house catering to a specific LGBT clientele. When he opened Mary’s, Hurricane Wilma had recently wreaked havoc in parts of Broward County, and Blackburn’s new resort was without power for six weeks.

One of the first key relationships Blackburn would forge would be with Roger Handevidt, at that time the owner of the Orton Terrace guest house and the energizing force behind the Rainbow Carpet Lodging and Hospitality Association (RCLHA), an organization that promoted gay tourism to South Florida, and which would become the Rainbow Alliance.

“Roger was one of those who promoted everyone in this community,” Blackburn offers in praise, adding, “He has been a great influence.”

After having his “boots on the ground” for a while, Blackburn says that he and other interested business owners and community leaders saw an opportunity to promote Greater Fort Lauderdale and its “gay village,” Wilton Manors, to the wider international gay and lesbian community. Partnering with other, like-minded movers and doers in the LGBT business community, they floated the idea of establishing a more permanent organizational structure to promote the area to tourists and to coordinate efforts with allied agencies and organizations.

“I saw that there was a great potential, and I also looked at other business professionals who operate in the area,” recalls Blackburn. “We teamed up, and really felt a need to build a ‘Gay Chamber of Commerce,’ and that is what we have built.” The organization that grew from that dream, GFLGLCC, was formed in 2011, as a 501 c (6) non-profit, with a mission to “promote business and economic opportunities for the LGBT and LGBT-friendly community, and to serve as “an advocate and resource for all member businesses that promote equality.”

Blackburn says that the task of GFLGLCC is too big for any one person or organization, and to this end, he and his board members, along with active partners in the local business market, have built close ties to other groups, including the Miami Beach Gay Pride, the Fort Lauderdale International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), in order to better get the message out about the beauty and fun of Greater Fort Lauderdale.

“We have affiliate chambers [of commerce] throughout the country,” says Blackburn, who notes just how much the gay tourism dollar means to the area’s economy. “Nearly 28 percent of travel in South Florida has been related to the LGBT community—that’s huge,” says Blackburn. “I just came back from Berlin with the IGLTA, and am getting ready to go to Orlando Gay Days in June,” an event he predicts will be “the biggest ever.”

Blackburn and his fellow chamber members have high hopes for the organization they have built and its plans for the future, including stronger ties to other like-minded organizations. For more information about the Greater Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, visit gogayfortlauderdale.com.