FORT LAUDERDALE — The mayors of Fort Lauderdale, Miramar and Broward County traveled to Dubai to network and mingle with uber-rich investors and high-level dignitaries in the city of gold.
The trip, a weeklong trade mission in late March aimed at luring investment and attention from one of the world’s most elite financial hubs, was not free.
That fact has kicked up a bit of a sandstorm back home, with critics speculating on just how much the trip cost.
We have the answer:
Fort Lauderdale spent $35,114.94 to send Mayor Dean Trantalis and three city officials on the trip. The journey would have cost $38,180.04 had Trantalis not written a personal check to the city for $3,066 on May 3 to cover part of his airfare.
Miramar spent $20,239.73 to send Mayor Wayne Messam, Commissioner Maxwell Chambers and four city officials to Dubai. Several officials brought family members along and personally paid their way. The mayor says he saved the city more than $2,000 by paying for 60% of his trip.
Broward County paid $12,051.62 to sent Mayor Michael Udine and one of its economic development specialists to help build relationships in the United Arab Emirates. Udine, whose trip was approved by his commission colleagues earlier this year, brought his wife along but did not bill the county for any of her costs.
Together, the county and two cities spent close to $70,000 — though Fort Lauderdale spent more than Miramar and the county put together.
The genesis of the trip was an official invite from Dubai last fall to Broward County to attend the country’s Annual Investment Meeting and promote the region. Broward County extended an invitation to all cities, but only Miramar and Fort Lauderdale jumped onboard.
Was it worth it?
Most definitely, say all three mayors, though they admit we may not see results right away.
“It takes time to build relationships,” Trantalis said. “They want to come here and see firsthand who we are before they invest any money in our community. I think the trip was definitely worth it because we made significant connections that we would not have made otherwise. And knowing their appetite for overseas investment I think it will bear fruit. But it’s too soon to say what that will be and in what areas.”
During the whirlwind trip, Trantalis met with delegates at the Annual Investment Meeting and also attended the World Government Summit and Investopia meetings.
“It was a very aggressive schedule trying to meet with as many people as possible and make connections,” Trantalis said. “One of the ministers we met with from the United Arab Emirates is coming here in the next couple weeks then moving on to Miami and D.C. and New York. But his first stop is Fort Lauderdale and that would not have happened if we did not make those connections.”
Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign trade, will visit Fort Lauderdale on June 23.
That bit of news did not impress Craig Fisher, a developer from Fort Lauderdale who still thinks it was a waste of taxpayer money to send the mayor and his entourage on a trade mission nearly 8,000 miles away.
“During Covid, we all functioned quite nicely with Zoom calls,” Fisher said. “Why can’t city officials and staff do a Zoom call to Dubai? Why did it have to be in person? I don’t know what value the people of Fort Lauderdale could get from them going all the way over there and spending all that money.”
Resident Robert Walsh, a frequent critic of the commission, guessed early on that the trip around the world likely cost as much as $30,000.
“We paid for the hotel, airfare and meals,” he said. “For what? Why go over there and spend our money on a travel junket? Emails would have been sufficient. To go over there at that expense, it was too excessive.”
Walsh also criticized the Fort Lauderdale officials for flying business class when they could have saved money by flying coach.
Trantalis dismissed the critics as malcontents “tucked away in their own small-minded world.”
The mayor says he and his staff went to Dubai to bring business back to the city, not to live high on the hog for a week.
“I don’t know why there’s any scrutiny, to be honest,” he said. “This was not a lavish undertaking. We cut corners on our expenses. We could have stayed at more expensive hotels. We did not rent out a suite at the St. Regis and entertain people. We met most people in the lobbies of the hotels. We all flew business class. It was 13 hours over there and 14 hours plus back.”
Trantalis and his team arrived in Dubai at 11:30 p.m. and had their first meeting at 7:30 a.m. the next day.
“We had meetings all day long,” he said. “When I go on a business trip, we have to make sure we get the most bang for the buck. I told [staff], don’t think of this as a vacation.”
Aside from what folks at home might think, the excursion was certainly no pleasure trip, said Scott Wyman, the mayor’s chief of staff and a former government reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Wyman, City Manager Chris Lagerbloom and Fort Lauderdale Economic Development Manager Daphnee Sainvil joined Trantalis on the trade mission.
“I’ve been with the mayor on several trips and he’s very much a workaholic when he travels,” Wyman said. “He has high expectations of having a lot of meetings and a lot of productivity from the trip. You’re on the go from morning to late evening every day. When I got back, I needed to go on a vacation.”
There was no wining and dining with the Dubai skyline in the background, though several meetings were held over lunch and dinner, Wyman said.
“But it’s far from a party vacation,” he said. “It’s working from morning to late evening, meeting with people and groups.”
Miramar officials considered it a no-brainer to say yes to the county’s invitation to travel to Dubai, Messam says.
“I would say the trip was very successful as far as establishing a new relationship with the Middle East, a part of the world that has access to 2 billion people within a six-hour flight of Dubai,” he said.
Messam had this message for critics: “Remember, we just got back. But we know the role we play in commerce and business and we are spreading that message so we can continue to grow and recruit companies seeking to move here. Miramar used to be a hidden gem, but no more. And we are spreading that message around this country and around the world. If you take a look at Miramar, we have a home for you. That is why Miramar went.”
On Friday, Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy argued the trip to Dubai will pay off in the end.
“I would say that all business starts with relationships — and relationships are best built face to face,” Levy said. “Outreach to international business is a large component of economic development and I think it is completely appropriate that the county together with Fort Lauderdale and Miramar traveled to Dubai to promote Broward County and our cities for investment.”
Dan Lindblade, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, echoed that sentiment.
“In general, outbound trade mission trips can be successful for a community or region,” he said. “The city was looking for potential investors on some of our capital improvement projects. The [Elon Musk] tunnels, water treatment facilities, big ticket items for public-private partnerships.”
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And to get the attention of investors from the other side of the world, you can’t do it on Zoom, Lindblade said.
“When you have elected leaders and kings, there’s a certain protocol in the international world that you need to relate to,” he said. “The international world looks at elected leaders from the United States and holds them in very high regard. They consider it an honor to have them visit their country. And they roll out the red carpet.”
Udine says Broward County sends its mayor on a trade mission every year.
“I think we make a lot of good contacts,” he said of the trek to Dubai. “Our port is working with the Dubai port to see if we can do a sister port agreement. It’s about building relationships. I think there could be some investment coming out of sovereign wealth funds in Dubai. They are the gateway to Asia. It was just a way to build bridges.”
Udine was not surprised to hear people back home were upset about the taxpayers picking up the tab for the overseas trip.
“I get it,” he said. “Critics always have problems with this type of thing. But we have to build relationships and this is how you do it. We’re trying to bring in business and businesses in Dubai want to come here. They have conferences in Las Vegas but I would much rather go somewhere different that will differentiate us. The world is becoming smaller.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan