The pleasure of attending a great party is exceeded by only the satisfaction of throwing a great party, and that is what Gary Bitner, president of Bitner Goodman, an advertising/public relations/marketing firm headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, is doing as a key member of the host committee for "The Beach Ball", the second annual south Florida fundraiser for GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) on December 4th at a fabulous private home in Fort Lauderdale.
Remembering this event as one of the most dazzling parties of 2009, I sat down with Gary to learn more about his secrets as a superb party-giver and to learn more about the man behind the 30 year success of Bitner Goodman.
"The reality of supporting organizations like GLAAD is that you have to have fun parties. I am a big believer that a fun party starts with a fun invitation. I thought the beach ball theme might work and I was surprised to find no suitable clip-art of beach balls, so we got a bunch of real ones, blew them up and threw them in my pool to get the photo on the invite. We tucked a beach ball into each invite and carefully calculated the postage so they all didn't bounce back." (I politely ignored this pun.)
Gary's involvement in GLAAD has grown. In addition to his three years as a board member, he is one of two Floridians on their national board, and is elected to their executive committee. "GLAAD is the communications arm of the 'movement', promoting the positives and fighting defamation. GLAAD is the only one that does what it does, and this dovetails with the work I do in advertising and public relations. My business partner, Michael Goodman, who is also gay and out, is fully supportive of our work with GLAAD."
When Gary started his company in 1980, LGBT issues were less visible. "You have to marvel about the progress made by our LGBT community. We are now in the media mainstream in word and image. GLAAD focuses on the top 25 USA markets, including Tampa, Orlando and south Florida where the significant influence of Latin America is particularly strong. For the issue of gay adoption rights in Florida, GLAAD did a lot of work providing media training to improve our ability to speak with friends, neighbors and the media about why the ban should be lifted. This helped build public support among Floridians."
Anyone considering a career in Gary's field should take note of the components of his professional life that constitute his success as an entrepreneur. His father was an airline pilot who moved the family to Fort Lauderdale when Gary was 5 years old. He attended Stranahan Public High School and graduated from the University of Florida in 1975, having majored in journalism and public relations. He took a position in Miami and handled clients including Miami Seaquarium. He then worked as a reporter at The Fort Lauderdale News which became part of what is now The Sun Sentinel.
Gary moved to Washington DC, taking a corporate PR position with Marriott. "I hated the weather, so I bailed and returned home in 1980. I had done PR, corporate and newspaper. There was no particular agency I wanted to work for, so at the age of 26, I started my own company with no clients. At that age, when you do that sort of thing, you don't even realize the risks you are taking. It's nothing. When you get older, you can't imagine doing that. The first assignment for my company was to handle the opening of the Galleria mall in 1980. Now we have 20 employees with an office here in Fort Lauderdale and another in Orlando. Our clients include the Seminole Tribe, Winn-Dixie Stores, Tri-Rail and many major retailers and malls.
"In 1980, yes, I soft-peddled the gay identity of the company but I don't think we ever lost a chunk of business because a potential client determined that the company was gay-owned. Today, our 20 employees are mostly straight. In our ongoing expansion, I have hired the best people in our field. With us, it's all about the quality of the work and the quality of our people, not their sexual identity."
In February, Gary will have been doing business in south Florida for 31 years. Would he do it all again? "Sure. My family and my roots are here. I love this work. I'm 57 years old and I never plan to retire. The key is to establish trust and solid relationships. Then you have to be willing to work long hours. This would be a good time to thank my life partner, Jim LaBrie, for putting up with my difficult schedule."
Gary and Jim have been a couple for two and one half years. They met online. My press for details was met with a laugh. "No, thank you, but I will say that we were both instantly amazed that we had never met, given how much we have in common."
Gary noted that we all love to get a peek into the fabulous houses of our neighbors and that the location of the GLAAD event, the residence of John Evans and Steve Wozencraft, is one of the most beautiful homes in Fort Lauderdale. "Great place, great people, great cause. Last year, we raised $60 thousand for GLAAD that relies 100% on private giving. This year, there will be a silent auction. You could win lunch with Wilson Cruz. Maybe a chair donated by Whoopi Goldberg. And Cyndi Lauper has donated something."
GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios phoned in his excitement about the party. "I'm looking forward to it! Events like this offer visibility for LGBT people in cities across America. GLAAD's work can only happen thanks to the generosity and support of our community and allies."
For tickets, visit www.glaad.org/events or call Alina at 954 703-7933
(A version of this article appears in the current issue of South Florida Gay News.)