When Richard Gray, managing director of Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, presented at the 17th Annual Community Marketing LGBT Tourism and Hospitality Conference in Las Vegas last month, the audience paid very close attention.

Gray is recognized as a pioneer in marketing to LGBT travelers and credited with attracting 1.5 million of them to Fort Lauderdale every year, boosting the local economy to the tune of $1.5 billion.

In a new global marketing and advertising campaign that began Jan. 9, Fort Lauderdale became the world’s first destination to use transgender models in mainstream destination advertising for its 2017 campaign “to showcase the destination’s image as an authentic, diverse and inclusive,” according to the CVB.

We asked Richard about the new campaign and a lot more in just 5 questions:

 Q: The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) was the first in the nation to have a separate LGBT department and today leads the nation in its pioneering marketing efforts to the LGBT community. Will we see a continuation of this trend in 2017?

A: Five years ago we became the only Convention & Visitors Bureau/Tourist Board in the world to have a designated department whose sole responsibility was to develop and grow LGBTQ tourism. Fast forward five years and I am amazed that we are still the only game in town. Good for us because we are continuing to grow market share and destination awareness and show how inclusive, cosmopolitan and fabulous Greater Fort Lauderdale is.

Q: Why are LGBT travelers important to tourism in Fort Lauderdale? What do they contribute?

All travelers are important to Greater Fort Lauderdale because tourism creates jobs. Tourism is the #1 industry here followed by the marine industry. LGBT travelers are especially important as they spend more money than mainstream travelers. Last year over 1.5 million LGBT travelers came here and spent over $1.5 billion. Yes, a billion, with a “B.” The fact of the matter is the gay community spends money. They love to stay in nice hotels, eat at great restaurants, shop and of course love to enjoy the nightlife scene. I am proud to say we have one of the best LGBT scenes in the United States. Wilton Manors, of course, is the epicenter of the LGBT scene but it is spreading out into Oakland Park and Hollywood with restaurants, boutiques and coffee houses. All good for this destination as we continue to evolve and even though we are primarily known as a beach destination for travelers we are beginning to have more of an urban vibe.

Q: In another first, Greater Fort Lauderdale hosted the largest transgender conference in 2015 and your outreach efforts to the transgender community have been unparalleled. Why is the T in LGBT so important to you?

I wanted to use my global tourism platform to talk about the forgotten “T” in LGBT. It was of the utmost importance to me that we spoke to the Trans community just as we spoke to the lesbian and gay traveler. More than two years ago we launched a historic U.S. National Transgender Travel study to better understand the needs of Trans travelers. One of the main learning curves was that this is a very stealth community. Following the study results, we launched our Trans campaign called “Where Happy Meets Go Lucky,” and created a dedicated Transgender travel landing page on our website, placing the “T” first to further illustrate our commitment to the market. As a diverse community that has always been very inclusive, we commissioned the study to better understand transgender travelers and to educate our hospitality community on how to be more sensitive to the needs of these travelers. We know that the authentic vibe that people feel when visiting an LGBT-friendly destination is what attracts allies and millennial travelers that support communities that offer these experiences.

Q: In 2016 you were honored with an Honest Travel Award by the travel trade news website eTurboNews (eTN) and identified you as one of the most influential people in the global meetings industry honoring you with their 2016 Trailblazer Award. Last month you were the recipient of the Q.Digital’s inaugural Innovator Award for 2016. How does it feel to be so recognized for your pioneering work and how do you plan to build on this success?

A: Awards are really the icing on the cake, especially when they are from your peers. I have dedicated more than 25 years to supporting and marketing the LGBT community in Greater Fort Lauderdale. My focus continues to be on keeping Greater Fort Lauderdale ahead of other destinations by pushing the envelope with our marketing tools as well as educating our community about LGBT travel. Greater Fort Lauderdale is a cosmopolitan, edgy, diverse, inclusive, authentic and accepting destination for all travelers. It is a part of our personality, and it is who we are as a destination.

Q: What are your thoughts on LGBT tourism on a national or even global scale? 

A: Global acceptance is continuing to grow and obviously safety is primary when we as LGBT people travel. While, it is important to always to be true to who you are and your values, sometimes when traveling it is best to always be thoughtful and respectful of the culture and customs of the Country you are visiting.