2 groups cancel Orlando conventions as worries over political climate grow

Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
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ORLANDO, Fla. — AnitaB.org, an organization of female and nonbinary tech workers, is moving its annual convention out of Orlando and taking its business elsewhere, citing Florida’s political climate and actions taken by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature.

And another group of nurses is canceling a 2027 event because of similar concerns, according to the Orange County Convention Center.

The cancellations are the latest economic blow to the region, coming in the wake of Walt Disney Co.’s decision to drop plans for a nearly $1 billion corporate campus in Orlando with 2,000 high-paying jobs.

AnitaB.org told members it will no longer hold conferences in Florida after this year’s event at the Orange County Convention Center, despite a “warm welcome” it has received over the years in Orlando.

The California-based group cited laws that banned most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, cracked down on illegal immigration and lifted permit requirements for carrying a concealed gun in public, along with measures that organizers said were intended “to erase the identities and dignities of people from historically marginalized and excluded groups, including Black, Brown, LGBTQIA+, and Indigenous people.”

“(W)e will not return until this legislation is overturned, and the state becomes more welcoming to all,” the group wrote.

AnitaB.org’s annual Grace Hopper Celebration draws about 16,000 visitors and is billed as the world’s largest gathering of women in computing, according to organizers. It was held in Orlando in 2007, 2017, 2019 and 2022 in addition to this year’s gathering in September.

“We at AnitaB.org are very proud of our diversity because that diversity is our strength,” AnitaB.org CEO Brenda Darden Wilkerson said in a prepared statement. “We owe it to our community — to those women and nonbinary technologists — to be vigilant.”

Florida lawmakers and DeSantis also have restricted the use of pronouns in schools, banned medication and surgical treatments for transgender youth and limited classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, among other LGBTQ+-related bills. They’ve passed legislation targeting diversity, equity and inclusion programs in higher education and regulating the teaching of race-related topics in schools.

The location of AnitaB.org’s 2024 event will be announced later this year, said spokeswoman Zakeya Baker.

Another group, the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses, also cited political concerns when it canceled its 2027 surgical conference and expo, said Katarina Dos Santos, a spokeswoman for the convention center.

Linda Kanamine, a spokeswoman for the nursing group, would not confirm if that was the reason for moving out of Orlando, saying such contract change discussions are considered to be “confidential.”

The gathering draws about 7,000 nurses and exhibitors and will be held in Philadelphia in 2027, she said in an email.

“The decision to move to Philadelphia was the right one for AORN for 2027,” Kanamine said.

Dos Santos said she did not have an estimate of the economic loss to Orange County from the cancellations.

Recently, the NAACP and Equality Florida issued travel advisories in response to DeSantis’ political agenda. The NAACP’s notice cited “attempts to erase Black history and to restrict diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in Florida schools.”

“Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals,” the advisory stated.

Equality Florida, which advocates for the LGBTQ+ community, warned of “risks posed to the health, safety, and freedom” of visitors.

It’s too early to predict whether those advisories will have an effect on tourism, said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando.

Visit Orlando has been getting calls from groups and travelers with safety concerns, she said.

“Orlando has always been and will continue to be a diverse, welcoming and inclusive community,” Matej said. “As the top travel destination in the country and longstanding leader in the travel industry, our community has a history of welcoming all to our destination.”

DeSantis blasted the NAACP’s warning as a political “stunt” and a “total farce.” Boycott efforts have been ineffective with Florida drawing new residents and recording strong tourism numbers, he said.

More than 74 million visitors came to the Orlando area in 2022, up 25% from the previous year and just shy of prepandemic levels, tourism officials said in May.

Looking at the entire state, the first quarter of this year recorded the strongest tourism numbers in Florida history, according to Visit Florida’s estimates.

As he campaigns for president, DeSantis is fending off attacks that his culture war battles have created an anti-business climate. He took on The Walt Disney Co. over its stance on legislation critics called “don’t say gay,” which limited classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida schools.

Citing “changing business conditions” without mentioning DeSantis, Disney scrapped plans in May to build the corporate campus in Orlando’s Lake Nona neighborhood.

The entertainment giant hopes to invest $17 billion and add about 13,000 jobs in Florida over the next decade, Disney Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro wrote in a memo to employees.