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On the Sunny Side

by Jenny

By Christie Galeano-Demott
Portraits by Eduardo Schneider

Sitting on the floor of her mother’s office as a child, Stacy Ritter relished the smell of the hulking hardbound law books as she paged through them. Her mom, a legal secretary, would take her to work on teacher workdays or when Ritter was sick and child care was unavailable. Those days spent tagging along with her mother were the catalysts that led Ritter to discover the law. Even though she couldn’t understand the complicated jargon and Latin phrases, the young Ritter felt those legal books guarded something meaningful. She transformed her youthful curiosity into a successful career as an attorney turned state representative turned county commissioner.

The 60-year-old has always been a fireball who fights for what she wants. At 36, Ritter was the political underdog who ran for the Florida House of Representatives against Karen Dickerhoof, a seasoned politician elected to the school board. In the hard-fought 1996 Democratic primaries, Dickerhoof had name recognition and financial backing, while Ritter had never been involved in party politics and thus was constantly reminded by party officials that it wasn’t her turn yet. But her drive led her to win those primaries by pounding the pavement for eight hours every day during her 10-week campaign.

“I thought, ‘Why do I have to wait in line?’” says Ritter, who eventually took the general elections. “Maybe my turn is now. So I made it my turn.”

Her petite frame and golden hair may make her seem unintimidating, but the moment she opens her mouth and her turquoise eyes begin to sparkle, Ritter’s audacious personality bursts out. She’s earnest—not afraid to drop an F-bomb (but only when absolutely necessary)—and even her wardrobe is a reflection of her eclectic personality. In a perfectly tailored fuchsia frock and flip-flops, she exudes an elegant confidence while still appearing completely relaxed—and yet she’s always at the ready with a pair of nude Jimmy Choo shoes tucked into her purse.

That unflappable demeanor has suited her well these past few months. Ritter had led the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau and shaped its tourism, sports and convention sales and marketing strategies for four years before the world came to a standstill earlier this year. The county had kicked 2020 off with a bang. According to Ritter, the region was on track to have a record-breaking fiscal year by generating an estimated $90 million through the tourist development tax, a 6% bed tax that visitors pay when they stay at hotels. Last year’s tax raised nearly $89 million. That money is distributed for various purposes, including beach renourishment and GFLCVB marketing initiatives. During the first two months of 2020, Fort Lauderdale Beach hotels boasted 24 days with 90% occupancy or higher. By April, occupancy tumbled to 23.3% with bed tax collections deteriorating nearly 91%.

With the pandemic making visitors leery of traveling, Ritter’s objectives have shifted. She’s no longer advertising Fort Lauderdale’s sunshine on Times Square billboards, something the organization had done for years, but is instead focusing on helping local businesses and residents. Keeping locals employed in the tourism industries by effectively marketing sun and sand had always been a priority for the GFLCVB, but now Ritter says she feels even more responsibility. Hitting close to home, Ritter’s older sister, a 45-year hospitality veteran, was one of the 45,100 leisure professionals who lost their jobs between March and April.

“My head tells me I can’t, but my heart tells me I have to,” Ritter says. “How do I get all those people back to work? How do I put it back together? I don’t think any of us at the GFLCVB really considered how important what we do is to the people who live here until now.”

While Ritter is hopeful things will get better, she’s not banking on hope alone. To help the community, the GFLCVB has launched campaigns like LauderDeals and Dine Out Lauderdale. LauderDeals, created to entice residents to venture out safely, spotlights hotel and attraction discounts while the annual Dine Out Lauderdale, which debuted a month earlier this year, features three-course prix fixe menus at a variety of eateries. For customers uneasy about eating out, some restaurants are offering these special menu options as to-go items for the first time.

Survey results show that people are eager to travel. But for now, Ritter says, it’s a drive market and the notion of the great American road trip is back. And with more than 21 million Florida residents, there are plenty of potential visitors to invite to Greater Fort Lauderdale.

Accordingly, the GFLCVB is still marketing to travelers, albeit with a much softer hand these days. It designed a Safe + Clean Pledge for businesses to assure visitors that Greater Fort Lauderdale is taking safety and sanitation seriously and to let them know that when they are ready, the area’s powdery-white beaches, sun-soaked hotels, enticing restaurants and lively attractions are ready to welcome them back. This industry standard shows visitors and residents alike that the hospitality industry is unified in its dedication to maintaining health and safety protocols (think wearing masks, providing hand sanitizer and practicing social distancing) wherever the pledge sign is posted.

Regardless of the current situation, Ritter believes the future of Fort Lauderdale is sunny. The convention center, which has been closed since February for a major transformation, is still on track to reopen next fall. And although some hotel projects have slowed, there are still about 2,300 hotel rooms in the pipeline over the next two years
in venues such as the convention center’s Omni and the beachfront Four Seasons.

“The travel industry will bounce back,” Ritter says. “It bounced back after 9/11 and the economic downturn in ’08 because people know that the horizons open up when they travel.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 Issue.

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