Fort Lauderdale has transformed itself from the Spring Break hot spot it was 20 years ago to a high-end resort town.
“It’s a rebirth,” said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, largely fueled by an influx of affluent residents and travelers flocking to the area. Broward County has seen a record-breaking 14.3 million tourists this year, and expects to see 15 million in 2016.
Fort Lauderdale offers the same beachfront views as Miami for less, creating an incentive for developers to bring their business to the area. “It’s the same Atlantic Ocean, just more affordable,” Grossman said. The higher room rates in Miami, which is about half an hour away, are largely due to its branding as an exclusive high-end destination, where Fort Lauderdale traditionally sold its brand as “casually chic.”
Shifting toward an upscale market
Moving away from its reputation as a college party town didn’t happen overnight; just 20 years ago that image deterred corporations and luxury brands from calling Fort Lauderdale home. But, Grossman said, “the tourism product matured and elevated, after a multi-industry and countywide effort.”
Over the past decade Fort Lauderdale and Broward County have become more appealing to travelers, corporate headquarters began relocating, and the growing conference and incentive-travel business spurred additional growth.
More than $1 billion is currently being invested in new hotels and condos, including unique boutique properties along a beachfront that’s less chaotic than Palm Beach or Miami. Upscale hotels like the W and Ritz Carlton already are open, and in the pipeline are a Four Seasons, a 96-room luxury Gale Boutique Hotel, and a Conrad resort. Hotel occupancy in the area is at an all-time high, around 78%, according to PKF Consulting USA.
Keeping up with demand, the county is expanding its infrastructure and transportation systems. Part of that plan includes a $2 billion expansion of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, adding more runways, gate space, and lobby space. The seaport and convention center will be expanded as well.
A privately funded rapid rail system running from Miami to Orlando, making stops at Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, is slated to be completed by next year. That convenient and fast connection among Florida’s most popular cities will be a big draw to foreign tourists, Grossman said, and likely will pull some of the massive numbers of Orlando visitors south to Fort Lauderdale.
Appealing to niche markets
Part of Fort Lauderdale’s success can be credited to its broad appeal to several different markets. For families, Fort Lauderdale is the trip they take “after they see Mickey Mouse, to see the real Florida.” The annual average family income of travelers this year was $112,000, up from about $90,000 in previous years, Grossman said. With multigenerational travel becoming increasingly popular, this market is only expected to grow in the coming years.
Another niche market being explored is the LGBT community. Last year alone, the city saw more than 1.3 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender visitors. Grossman said the city will begin an “aggressive marketing campaign,” though she declined to share details other than to say, “We want to expand with that market as it grows toward family travel.”