By John M. Hayden
The COVID-19 crisis has affected [most] everyone in deeply personal ways. Maybe you haven’t hugged your best friend in weeks. Maybe you haven’t had a paycheck in months. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one and weren’t even able to go to their room to say goodbye.
There is no end to the crisis in sight. Whatever passes for the “new normal” seems to change every week. In these times when we feel weak, it can end up making us stronger. The LGBTQ+ business community will help lead the way. In many ways, they’re more vulnerable than most businesses. People could stop eating out for a month and the golden arches will still light up. But most of our community is small businesses, with scant safety nets for disasters of this magnitude.
The Greater Fort Lauderdale LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce (GFLGLCC) is here to help. By banding together, our businesses can have a louder voice as we recover and thrive in the post-pandemic world. I got to speak with Keith Blackburn, the Chamber’s President and CEO, about their plan of action.
John Hayden: I’d like to first start with a little about the GFLGLCC’s goals and outlook for the rest of the year. So much has been devastated by the pandemic. How are you working with members and the community at large to work through this?
Keith Blackburn: It’s been a tough four months (and counting) for everyone. We started out with specific goals and a matching 2020 budget, starting on January 1, 2020. When the pandemic became a reality, we had to close our offices and visitor center. Our membership dues revenue has dramatically been reduced. Luckily, we had some reserves to keep us fully operational.
We shifted our efforts from in-person to remote events and training. In the past, we had monthly, third Tuesday mixers at a different member business location each month. In addition, we had quarterly luncheon and breakfast events. We also had our second annual weekend luncheon on a cruise ship and our second annual chamber cruise scheduled for this month. All of it was canceled. I do want to affirm that we will resume these events as soon as it’s safe to do so. The safety of our members and guests is our first priority. We will not host an in-person event until it is deemed to be safe and the community feels comfortable attending. We recently conducted a “Future Event Survey” and the majority of those who responded are not quite ready to attend in-person events.
We’ve had some informational and virtual educational events over the past several months. These were open to our members and everyone in the community. One was sponsored by our partners at TD Bank. We brought speakers in from TD Bank, Small Business Development Center, Florida Community Loan Fund, Prospera, and Paycor. Together we presented a Zoom™ powered event with economic relief for small businesses. Others have been presented with the NGLCC (National LGBT Chamber of Commerce) and the SBA (Small Business Administration).
On April 7, 2020, we started our weekly “Tuesdays at 2,” a member-only weekly Zoom™ meeting. Those have remained popular, and we have a good core group who show up each week. We use this time to pass information to our members, get updates from them, and to network.
JH: What are some of the best ways we can support our community now, in the crisis, and going forward when things are “normal?”
KB: More than ever, we urge everyone in the community to support our businesses, especially the small businesses which are most vulnerable during this crisis. As a chamber, we are here to promote member business and to support organizations we partner with, as well as the community we serve. We are also here to assist our members in getting business loans and grants, like the PPP and SBA Disaster Loans and more. As an affiliate chamber of the NGLCC we have gotten a tremendous amount of support through their network of governmental organizations and corporate partners.
Locally, we partner with Broward County to promote their initiatives, updated emergency orders, and, because tourism is so critical to our economy, our partnership with the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB (Convention & Visitors Bureau) is more important than ever. I serve on their Marketing Advisory Committee, which has been meeting remotely. Together, we are working to shift our marketing and promotions to the “drive market,” reaching people who could easily reach our destination within a few hours by car. The chamber has shifted the distribution points for our LGBT+ Travel Guide to those drive markets. As our businesses reopen, we have seen a slow-but-steady increase in business. We still have a long way to go, our bars and clubs haven’t reopened, and restaurants are operating at 50% occupancy. I am most concerned about their long-term survival.
JH: Tell me about your members, what kind of businesses are in the GFLGLCC?
KB: Our roughly 350 members represent both small businesses and large corporations, like Comcast. We have accountants, insurance agencies, realtors, accommodations, retail, entertainment, attorneys, personal care and services, business support, transportation, community non-profits, and a lot more. You can find just about any kind of business in our website business directory.
JH: Everything has changed. What is the plan for working with our community going forward?
KB: Everything has changed and we’re now faced with a new normal. I don’t believe that things will get close to the way it was until a viable vaccine or a treatment is available. Until then, we have to accept these new realities. Our job as a chamber is to listen to our members and to do our best to support their changing needs. We are ALL in this together. Everyone’s life has been turned upside down. Everyone needs to be kind to one another and to work together as a community.