More cities aware of gay-friendly travel value

It has taken only one year for Philadelphia to document positive results from a $1 million campaign to make itself known as a gay-friendly city. “Get Your History Straight, and Your Nightlife Gay” is one slogan; “Let Freedom Ring” is another.

For each marketing dollar, there has been $153 in consumer spending.

Now Wisconsin’s biggest cities are pondering their own plans to court this small but affluent portion of the population: lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered adults.

Elsewhere, it has become a more volatile issue because, as one small-town tourism rep put it, “”it’s a potential political hotbed – the message is just too touchy” because same-sex relationships “are not a universally accepted lifestyle.”

“We don’t look at it as an issue – it is a measurable opportunity,” says Deb Archer, president/CEO of the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, describing this market as “fantastic – highly educated, one that enjoys traveling – the kind of traveler we love to have” in Madison.

Her staff, by the end of April, will draft a plan to specifically target two niche markets: ecotourism and LGBT travelers. The latter may include direct mail marketing, with a focus on this summer’s Gay Games in Chicago, an Olympic-like sports competition held every four years. About 12,000 athletes are expected; Archer wants them to visit Madison before or after the event.

She will consult U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and PlanetOut, a global media/entertainment company for the LGBT audience. An LGBT component at www.visitmadison.com will be developed – something Milwaukee already has at www.visitmilwaukee.org.

“Two years ago, we pulled together people from the community to advise us as we began the design for a gay and lesbian travel guide,” says Mary Denis, marketing vice president at the Greater Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau. She calls it “a simple lure brochure” which welcomes the LGBT community. It is not a listing of gay-friendly nightspots, for example, or gay-owned businesses; the Madison and Milwaukee LGBT communities publish these on their own.

“We want to look at what other cities and states are doing, set a list of priorities and develop a niche marketing plan,” Denis says, regarding the future.

The LGBT subset is “a high-spend segment of the travel market, one with a high propensity to travel,” says Jim Holperin, state Department of Tourism secretary. An LGBT marketing workshop is a part of this month’s Governor’s Conference of Tourism, one of the country’s largest gatherings of statewide tourism industry reps.

“We’ve identified this as a niche market that presents an opportunity for our industry,” says Holperin. “This is to provide information,” not to make decisions for destinations/attractions.

The workshop speaker is Cindy Abel, founder of Bizvox Marketing Communications, Atlanta, whose specialty is advertising for the LGBT market. That is a fast-growing segment of Atlanta’s population.

Overall, LGBT families are less likely to have children, when compared to the average person, so they have more discretionary income and more leisure time. They are twice as likely to hold management jobs and have a household income of more than $250,000.

“They’re finally recognizing that we’re a power of some sort,” says Nikki Baumblatt of OutReach Inc., an information/outreach/advocacy/support service for Madison’s LGBT community since 1973. “We have more money to spend and show a level of loyalty that virtually no other group does.”

There is no singular reaction to niche marketing. It all depends upon how it’s done, whether it feels like tokenism or unwanted stereotyping – and whether words turn out to be accurate as well as sincere. An attraction or destination that avoids niche marketing because “we’re friendly to everyone” may mean it, or may use the response as a way to avoid controversy.

“Outsiders see us as a single community – but we are all sorts of groups,” Baumblatt says, so reaction/action will depend upon age and life experience. As for any ad effort, “word of mouth is so strong – it will kill you” as a business if words and actions don’t match.

She says the LGBT crowd, for example, has long considered Jamaica and Tahiti as unfriendly destinations. Milwaukee, although the state’s biggest city, “is really a bunch of small towns” with varying degrees of tolerance to the gay lifestyle.

Statewide, Holperin says “a unified message is very important to us. We try to not break our state message down into too many facets.” Although the possibility of courting the LGBT traveler remains under study, “what we would promise, and what we’d deliver as a travel product, is just not distinctive enough yet – perhaps it never will be.”

Politics and the potential for hate crimes are not a part of the lack of action, he adds.

In southwest Wisconsin’s Mineral Point, which is rich with artists and historic structures, the discussion is about pigeonholing. “Everyone knows we are a tolerant community,” says Joy Gieseke, executive director of the chamber of commerce. “It’s been that way for decades.”

Why target gays and lesbians, instead of redheads or people other than Caucasian, she asks, rhetorically. The fact that Pendarvis, one of nine state-operated historic sites, exists because of the preservation work of two gay men in the 1930s, is not a marketing point either.

“It just doesn’t matter to us,” Gieseke says. “We are who we are, you be who you are, and we’ll get along just fine.”

Gay Days at the world’s best-known amusement parks – Disneyland to Six Flags – are annual events (www.gaydays.com). Rosie O’Donnell in 2004 sponsored her first gay cruise with family values. The annual Dinah Shore Weekend (www.thedinah.com), in Palm Springs March 29-April 2, may be the largest lesbian gathering in the world.

The movie “Brokeback Mountain” has attracted more tourism dollars to the Canadian Rockies and Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains. Tucson’s Coyote Moon in 2004 opened as a high-end, “socially safe” resort for same-sex couples (www.coyotemoon.com). Attendance at the annual International Conference on Gay and Lesbian Tourism is growing.

And in Philadelphia, the bold LGBT ad campaign has had only a slight backlash, says Donna Schorr of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing corp.

“Although 98 percent of responses were positive, you answer everybody,” she says. It has been important to “never be insulting” as the dialogue about print and www.gophila.com LGBT contents proceeds.

“This wasn’t a political statement or a moral decision,” she adds. “It was a very good business decision.”