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Cities to LGBTA Crowd - Come as You Are

Gay and lesbian tourists are now the niche customers of the moment and have more disposable income than the average traveler.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Caryn Eve Murray
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The words on the Philadelphia tourism site appear in bold, clear capital letters, and as they stretch across a background of even larger letters that spell out the city’s name, they deliver a message that’s decidedly upbeat:

“Get your history straight and your nightlife gay.”

On this part of the official visitors’ web site for Greater Philadelphia, the pages are rich with gay-friendly resources: events, inns, hotels and attractions, all accompanied by a subtheme, “We Your People,” that plays off the pivotal role in history enjoyed by our nation’s first post-Revolutionary capital.

Philadelphia, it seems, is in good company these days with many modern founding fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters in the gay and lesbian community. The city’s gay-oriented Internet microsite, located within visitphilly.com, is part of a burgeoning outreach by hotels, tour companies, airlines and visitors bureaus to a demographic known for its attention to detail, enthusiasm for travel, and a generous disposable income that seems less vulnerable to the recession than most.

“The gay and lesbian market has been sort of a niche for the last decade, like the [green] and the pet-friendly niche,” said David Paisley, senior program manager for Community Marketing Inc., the leading consulting and research firm connecting corporate America to gay and lesbian travelers.

But with an estimated annual economic impact in the U.S. of $64.5 billion, Paisley said, gay and lesbian visitors are now the niche customers of the moment: They’re being courted by such top brands as Kimpton, Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott, among others. And domestic destinations such as Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia are growing stronger in their marketing and their outreach – more than ever before.

Paisley’s San Francisco-based company has been studying travel trends in the gay and lesbian community for more than 20 years, and has seen targeted marketing, and customer service, come of age during that time.

“What has happened over the last decade is that major hotel brands began actively reaching out to the gay community and have separate gay and lesbian outreach programs,” he said. Still, in recent years, its travelers have begun to take the measure not just of hotel and host city offerings, but of an establishment’s responsible business practices.

“Now, flying the rainbow flag, saying ‘come here’ is not enough” he said. “The gay and lesbian community does look at basic operations and personnel aspects of the hotel: Are they nondiscriminatory, do they offer domestic partnership benefits, is there sensitivity training for staff, and outreach to the gay and lesbian community?” Many travelers look for TAG-approved accommodations (Travel Alternatives Group, part of Community Marketing Inc.), which have been judged to meet certain criteria and standards. Other travelers seek out the hotel’s employer ratings published by the Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual civil rights.

All that, plus the practical benefits of the property – free Internet, a good location and other perks – combine to make a stay attractive, said Paisley

Hotels that have done this kind of homework, and more, tend to be top choices for gay and lesbian travelers, said John Tanzella, president and chief executive officer of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association. It also doesn’t hurt that they put their corporate heart into their business, through charitable giving and involvement.

“More and more hotels are doing outreach,” Tanzella said, “giving their concierge or front desk an education on gay activities in the city, or restaurants, so they don’t sound ignorant or unwelcoming. They need to know about gay-owned diners or gay clubs in the area. Hotels are also donating packages for gay events or getting their name out there in the community for charity events.”

The IGLTA counts Hyatt, Hilton, Harrah’s and Marriott among its Platinum Level Partners, the highest level of involvement. Starwood’s aloft and W Hotels are recently joined IGLTA, too, Tanzella said. “The market is now being recognized by the mainstream; it is out there, and it is big,” he said. “Our community was very underground 20 years ago and now it’s accepted in more countries and many cities in America.”

Hyatt turned its focus most seriously on the gay and lesbian market “probably right after September 11,” said Scott Seed, director of leisure marketing. “We were already getting members of the gay and lesbian community at our North American resorts, but what more could we get? The market in the U.S. is around $64 billion and we wanted to make sure we were getting our fair share…. This segment has shown it still travels during downturns. It is almost recession-proof.”

As a result, marketing campaigns have always been tailored specifically for the gay and lesbian market, and are not an afterthought offshoot based on mass market campaigns. “We have gay- and lesbian-specific photography fully meant to portray this segment in an authentic and honest way,” he said. “Our first photo shoot was in Maui in 2005 and we have two gentlemen embracing in a waterfall. We wanted to really show the passion between two people and not shy away from that. It demonstrates that you are going to feel as welcome here as anywhere else.”

Likewise, said Seed, Hyatt has consistently scored 100 with the Human Rights Commission and has now expanded its involvement in the gay and lesbian community as a sponsor of the media awards of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and in partnership with various convention and visitors bureaus when they seek to attract gay and lesbian visitors to events. “We feel it is important to demonstrate we are not just going after travel dollars but we really care about the community,” he said.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City went all out – in every sense of the word – with “Weekend Out in AC,” in September 2009, the first citywide celebration of its kind for that city, with various attractions and establishments involved.

“We certainly got a good launching last September,” said Harrah’s spokesman Christopher Jonic, who said the weekend was created in partnership with Out Magazine. It won’t, said Jonic, be the last. In fact, one symbol of that enduring commitment to Atlantic City came in late January in a blaze of glory and glitter: The “Miss’d America Pageant,” a beauty queen-drag queen contest returning to the city after a five-year absence, with Harrah’s listed among the pageant’s presenters. For the thousand or more attendees at the pageant and various receptions, Jonic said, it was a huge success and a harbinger of things to come.

“Atlantic City was once a great destination for gay and lesbian travelers,” he said. “That went away for a while and it is now a focus of the city to try and reach out again.

“We are still scratching the surface here of what we can do.”
Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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