The rain was beginning to drip from an overcast sky, and local crooner Robert Albury was hitting the high notes in the Temptations "My Girl" as a cold front moved in Thursday over the Sunset Pier at the Ocean Key House.
But the inclement weather didn't stop scores of area women from congregating on the resort's second-floor terrace to socialize, network and otherwise make merry with free spa treatments, top shelf liquor cocktails, and succulent hors d'oeuvres.
The monthly female-only get-togethers are called Girls Night Out, and are the brainchild of Key Wester Mary Lou Hoover, known to many as the 2007 queen of Fantasy Fest.
What began as a small gathering at Hoover's home -- where 10 women were invited and 16 came -- has morphed 7 1/2 years later into a kind of friendly networking phenomenon, one that attracts hundreds of what its founder calls "the most powerful women in Key West ... the business owners," as well as politicos such as City Commissioner Teri Johnston and her county counterpart, Heather Carruthers, both of whom also happen to own businesses.
"These women have a lot of buying power," Hoover said. "Certainly, we have been known to shift elections."
The Girls Night Out guests come to spread the word about coming events or business openings, to see friends, or just to avail themselves of the many treats, such as spa treatments, that Hoover has arranged for them.
"I founded Girls Night Out after I heard from several women I knew who all had said something to me like, 'I find it hard to make friends here on the island,' or 'I haven't found a way to network like I did up north,'" Hoover said. "Since I had traveled much of my life, often to small towns where I didn't know anyone, I was familiar with what the ladies were expressing. I learned to make my way by being outgoing and being willing to put myself out there. I decided to take what I knew and make it part of a group where women could come together and meet, get to know one another, and hopefully make some new friends."
Following that successful first evening at her house, business called Hoover out of town for four months. Upon her return, the ladies who had showed up the first time all said they were interested in another get-together. So Hoover, whose work background is in prison construction, started planning another event.
"This time, I decided to try a local restaurant, Square One, which at that time was owned by Michael Stewart," Hoover said. "I told him there would be about 20 to 25 women coming, to which he replied that he couldn't see that many women coming out on a Tuesday for a ladies' get-together. But come out they did -- 32 in total, and Michael had to call in reinforcements to help handle their orders.
"I've been planning monthly events ever since."
From its humble beginnings, Girls Night Out has grown to include thousands of gals who attend the monthly events, subscribe to Hoover's weekly email blasts, or both. Chapters have sprung up in Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, and in other parts of Florida. Some of these offshoots were founded by former Key Westers who took the idea with them when they moved away.
Hoover's weekly emails promote women's businesses, organizations, fundraisers, events, art and music events, and will soon offer advertising opportunities to the community.
The organization has also branched out into philanthropy with the proceeds from raffle tickets being used to raise funds for such worthy local nonprofits as Womankind, Samuel's House, Healthy Start, Christina's Courage, the Florida Keys SPCA, Sister Season, AIDS Help, Wesley House, the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, and the now-defunct Helpline.
In addition, Girls Night Out has sponsored teams competing at the Kelly McGillis Invitational Flag Football Tournament for the past six years. This year, for the first time, the organization was an official event of the Key West Food and Wine Festival.
Thursday's event at the Ocean Key House did indeed attract a broad cross-section of local women, with varying reasons for attending.
"These events are a lot of fun," said Joyce Benavides, who is perhaps best known locally for her work organizing the Silverliners' Christmastime trips to the North Pole for school children. "We get all the girls together and socialize, but we also network."
Benavides' friend, Cassandra Toppino, who serves as the president of the Sons and Daughters of Italy, concurred.
"It's a great way to let other women know about your business, or even if you have an apartment for rent, or some new event," Toppino said. "It's just wonderful."
All that female buying power hasn't gone unnoticed by Key West's business bigwigs of both genders.
"We've had these things at bars, theaters, restaurants and another spa," Hoover said. "It's great for the businesses that host them, as it gets these women to turn your place into a habit. Tonight, the Hyatt has people here checking us out, as they've invited us to meet there down the road."
All the networking aside, there is more to life than money, and more than one way to measure success, a concept not lost on either the philanthropic-minded Hoover and her guests.
Sherry Read, known for her advocacy on behalf of the county's mentally ill, showed up Thursday purely for social reasons.
"This is my first time coming to one of these," Read said. "I just thought it was time for me to get out and meet some new people. I'd heard these get-togethers were a lot of fun, and they really are. I thought I'd give it a try."
All of which is music to Hoover's ears.
"These women are very supportive of each other," Hoover said. "It's not always easy to get women to support each other, but we've done it."