30 SEP 2015: This week Fort Lauderdale’s tourism industry will roll out the rainbow carpet even further by welcoming the trans market. The city will be hosting the 25th annual Southern Comfort conference September 29 to October 3; an event that congregates 1000 plus trans delegates. Securing this event for a three-year run is one of a series of steps towards driving further visits among trans consumers.  

“It’s far too often the forgotten T,” says Richard Gray of the fourth letter in the LGBT acronym. The Managing Director - LGBTQ Market at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau was running along the beach one morning last year, as he often does, when he questioned his oversight of the trans market. “Even as a gay man myself, I knew little about transgender people and travel,” he says.

Shortly thereafter, Gray huddled with local tourism industry members to begin developing a strategy. Next, the group commissioned the first-ever survey of transgender travellers in North America with the goal of identifying the travel motivations, needs and priorities of the market

“We wanted to get a pulse on the market and their travel habits,” Gray says. The results both surprised and confirmed. Gray was stunned that Fort Lauderdale ranked in the top ten preferred travel destinations by trans respondents despite little effort on its part. The top travel concerns were safety related including the availability of gender neutral restrooms and interaction with airport security experiences.

The survey provided insight as to how Gray’s team could communicate appropriately with transgender travellers and deliver a sensitive and authentic welcoming experience, including providing training to the local community. The resulting campaign – “Where Happy Meets Go-Lucky” – has since launched.

“It just felt like good and easy fun and speaks to a free destination where you can be yourself; you can feel comfortable,” says Gray of the campaign tagline. “We are trying to say that visitors are free to be themselves, to be accepted, welcome and safe.” A landing page addresses the market as TLGB, mixing up the acronym order as a sign of respect for this market. 

“We are thrilled to bring our conference to such a welcoming, progressive and beautiful destination for our 25th year,” says Alexis Dee, president of the Southern Comfort Conference board of directors. “The reception that we have received so far has been spectacular. We have been amazed at the interest in the conference.”

For Fort Lauderdale’s convention delegates, the city’s dining scene is sizzling and an ideal unwind from a day of keynotes, breakouts and plenaries.

Don’t be fooled by the peaceful beach environment along the city’s main drag; Beach Boulevard has become a battleground. Kitchens are finally dishing up mouth-watering cuisine using locally-sourced ingredients fighting for patrons. The “something for everyone” continental standard is no more as these farm- and sea-to-table eateries are changing the beach’s once-lagging dining scene.

S3 (Sun Surf Sand) in the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort features cozy ocean-side seating where patrons can sample a range of dishes through bite-size and shareable servings. Conversation at the table may lapse however as patrons fixate on the stunning Atlantic Ocean views or buzzing open kitchen. Executive Chef Peter Boulukos says popular dishes that bring both locals and visitors back include his take on mac & cheese featuring smoked gouda and prosciutto as well as the grilled octopus served with gigande beans and salsa verde.

“I think it’s a combination of our beachfront location, upscale-casual vibe, and unique sharable dining concept that really makes S3 such a popular destination,” says Boulukos. “S3 Executive Chef Chris Miracolo and I worked hard together to collaborate and create the menu and sharable plates that define S3. I think that the wide variety of unique flavor combinations and cuisine we offer is a big part of what keeps patrons coming back for more.” The massive restaurant which seats 300 guests (dining room and expansive patio combined) has become fast competition to Steak 954 next door.

The restaurant, named after the region’s area code, is now under the capable kitchen leadership of executive chef Nicolay Adinaguev. Though a steakhouse, the menu also embraces the sea. Adinaguev’s introduction to seafood dates back to his childhood in Lima, Peru where he and his mother shucked and devoured sea urchins fresh from the sea.

As a starter, the seafood platter offers an outstanding value for money and delicious tour of treats from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans including oysters, shrimp and ceviche. The turf entrees are equally satisfying with both dry-aged cuts and three American wagyu cuts sourced from New York. Chic décor, attentive service and a hypnotizing giant aquarium of jellyfish complete the seaside experience.

The Turnberry Isle Miami Resort’s new CORSAIR in nearby Aventura is a worthwhile journey from the beach. Chef Scott Conant brings guests basic rustic fare that similar to Adele’s voice to the music scene, is all about the simple combination of flavours. Exaggerated presentation and décor is absent in the sleek tiling and earth tones of the dining room. Conant’s food takes centre stage against the simple yet comfortable backdrop.

“The restaurant - through its name, menu, details and design - highlights the age of discovery and a revival of the honest values of cooking,” says Conant. “Our location alongside Turnberry Isle Miami’s lush rolling greens brings to life the restaurant’s fundamental connection with the land as well as our mission to create a sense of luxury through simplicity.”

CORSAIR’s subscription to freshness and local sourcing is obvious in pleasing dishes like the polenta entrée served on a wood board with a sausage and porcini mushroom ragu as well as the short rib “lasagna” with taleggio fonduta topped with truffle shavings.

Despite the culinary surge on Beach Boulevard and at CORSAIR, to be fair to Fort Lauderdale, the city has some dining heritage. Casa D’Angelo serves both traditional and contemporary Italian dishes to satisfy a range of palates. Popular standbys like pasta fagioli, lasagne and gnocchi are offset by a succulent veal chop and oak-grilled jumbo shrimp. And daily specials are often varied and extensive.

“I created Casa D’Angelo with recipes handed down to me from generations of passionate Italian cooks like Mama Elia,” says owner and chef, Angelo Elia. “Over the years, I have added my own touches and even created a few new recipes, all with the goal of giving guests a truly authentic yet modern taste of my homeland.”

This is Florida of course and the state’s propensity for camp and over-the-top tourist draws is even apparent in local dining. Mai Kai, equal parts kitsch and charming, is a Polynesian 50s throwback. The tiki lounge evokes the feeling of dining on Gilligan’s Island. A range of dishes, including some prepared in the restaurant’s Chinese oven, will appeal to most appetites but the main dish is the 50+ tropical cocktails, garden and entertainment. Atop a small stage, a troupe of dancers in revealing costumes give diners a rapid tour of Polynesian culture.

At the other end of the dining spectrum, Let’s Have Tea in nearby Davie serves up traditional English afternoon tea in a small strip-mall dining room that reminds you of grandma’s house. A range of afternoon staples including finger sandwiches, scones and pastries are available as well as frequent themed teas celebrating Harry Potter and Downtown Abbey. “They’re a hoot,” says restaurant manager Sandra Gallo of the themed teas. “And people, from friends to couples to families, really enjoy them and get into the spirit.” Hats, boas and fascinators are available to patrons to embrace the tearoom’s fun atmosphere.

Fort Lauderdale
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