Chasing the Pride Dollar: Newest Gay-Friendly Destinations

Provincetown, Massachusetts, a destination that is continually reinventing itself. (Photo: m01229/Flickr)

These days, it seems just about everybody is after that rainbow dollar.

And the recent federal ruling by the Supreme Court to allow same-sex marriage in all 50 states will only further the expansion of cities, both large and small, marketing toward the gay community, which represents an estimated $70 billion travel market, or around six to eight percent of the entire travel market.

“Within every jurisdiction, it sends a signal to the world that says gay people are on the same footing as everyone else,” says Ed Salvato, editor-in-chief of ManAboutWorld, a gay travel magazine.

It all started in 1973, when a gay travel agent named Hanns Ebensten, the “grandfather of gay travel,” led a group of gay men down the Colorado River. It was the first gay travel experience of its kind and sparked a movement that’s exponentially grown over the last 40 years into a multi-billion industry.

Ebensten’s pioneering trip is looked back on as a trailblazing moment, but it would be years before his bold efforts gained traction, and decades until mass societal acceptance. Throughout the seventies and eighties, the gay community took solace in the creation of gay charters, gay cruises, and gay guesthouses that became safe havens of tolerance, but few destinations stepped up to follow Ebensten’s lead.  

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Key West, Florida, one of the original gay travel destinations. (Photo: Thinkstock)

“At that point, no destinations were doing outreach,” said Salvato. “The first destinations are the ones you might’ve guessed. Places like Key West and Provincetown recognized there were already gay tourists there. They really started the trend for destination outreach. Others joined in and it started growing little by little.”

David Paisley, the senior research director for Communication Marketing, Inc. based in San Francisco, said while some destinations have been reaching out for more than 20 years — referring to major cities like New York, Las Vegas, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, and San Francisco — the big trend is that more medium-sized cities are getting into the market.

The Love Park in Philadelphia. (Photo: Kathryn Yengel/Flickr)

Paisley said he started to see the big push from these mid-sized cities about five years ago: “A lot of destinations sat back and waited. The wanted to see if reaching out would have any political backlash.”

The first city to jump was Philadelphia.

“Philadelphia was something of a game-changer,” said Salvato. “Unlike most destinations [that] just put up a single ad around Pride, Philly was sustained in its outreach. They had a smart tourism marketing and research plan and their research indicated gay travelers were a worthwhile community to go after. When they received some political blowback from the legislature, they had the research to support their decisions.”

Salvato said the city determined and calculated that for every dollar it spent to promote, it got back $153.

For mid-sized cities like Richmond, Virginia and Columbus, Ohio, Philly’s LGBT marketing outreach is seen as a pioneering movement. Beth Ervin, director of communications at Experience Columbus, said once Philadelphia paved the way, cities like hers quickly followed suit.

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Columbus, Ohio — a new gay travel spot? (Photo: Thinkstock)

“The way we determine our marketing strategies is: we look around and see what we’ve got that’s authentic and substantial. Columbus, as a city, comes out as smart and open; open to new ideas, open for business, open to everyone,” says Ervin. “People will probably be very surprised to know that. It’s just an attitude we have here. We’re very welcoming. We’re a live-and-let-live city.”

Salvato says that more destinations will start thinking about their marketing efforts. “In a sense everyone is going to have to start thinking about. Mississippi is now going to have to think about it. It sends a message to the world that says, your relationship will be respected anywhere you go in the United States.”

And what about those smaller cities who don’t have the big budgets? Salvato suggests leveraging social media and other platforms to reach the gay audience.

“Social media is cheaper than mass marketing and cane be more focused, more channeled, and you’re not wasting it on people who don’t need to see it. Marriott used social media to great effect with its #LoveTravels campaign and made a huge splash that was really low dollars, it wasn’t big money like a TV campaign, but it was just as effective.”

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St. Louis, another city reaching out to LGBT travelers. (Photo: Thinkstock)

The current movement throughout America has shown outreach from cities like Louisville, Kentucky, St. Louis, Missouri, and St. Petersburg, Florida, cities whose geographical and political climate had previously kept it from associating with gay travelers.

“With the emerging visibility of same-sex couples across the Americas and other parts of the world, it is no surprise that smaller destinations and communities are eager to embrace the rewards of LGBT welcoming hospitality,” said Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications and an expert on LGBT research.

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Richmond, Virginia, which has done a great job reaching out to gay travelers. (Photo: Thinkstock)

In the case of Richmond, Witeck pointed out the bang-up job it has done marketing to gay travelers and its expansion into diversity made even more exceptional given its troubled, racist past: the city stood as the last capital of the Confederacy.

“Richmond is helping drive new impressions and to change the old dominion into the new dominion by embarking on an innovative advertising and viral campaign to attract LGBT visitors,” said Witeck. “Their campaign is found at www.outrva.com. Fortunately, with the naming of the governor’s statewide LGBT tourism task force, we will now work holistically throughout the state to improve its messages, policies and welcome.”

As impressive as the outreach has been from these smaller cities who have recently come around welcoming the gay community, Paisley said the outreach still pales in comparison with the original gay meccas — Palm Springs, Key West, and Provincetown — whose outreach continues to trump just about every other city, despite their small stature.

The main square of Santo Domingo, fast becoming an international gay destination. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Domestic markets aren’t the only ones dipping their toes in the gay market. Witeck said to look toward Latin American leaders such as Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta to see international outreach toward the community.

“What makes Santo Domingo unique at this moment in time,” says Witeck, “is the engagement with local LGBT leaders and organizers to foster economic opportunity for LGBT youth — an aspiration shared by forward-thinking hospitality leaders like Marriott’s managers in the Dominican Republic.

“Puerto Vallarta is definitely on the beaten track in Mexico,” says Witeck, who points out that it has a strong tourist infrastructure “and investment in welcoming LGBT visitors, particularly from the U.S.”

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Parasailing in Puerto Vallarta, a gay-friendly resort in Mexico. (Photo: David Stanley/Flickr)

The last 10 or 15 years have seen cities like Montreal lead the way in the international sector, while London became the first overseas to use integrated ads of two-men or women on an excursion together, in an attempt be more inclusive to the gay community. 

The bigger international surprise comes in the form of Tel Aviv, and Israel as a whole, both of which have flourished in the international gay space, regularly driving tourism through media trips, mostly during gay pride events, and doing sweeping campaigns to promote gay tourism in a region surrounded by Muslim and Arabic nations still closed off to the idea.

Big Ben in London. (Photo: Kurtis Garbutt/Flickr)

“While gay travelers have always roamed the planet, they now do so with greater respect, heightened confidence and higher expectations,” said Witeck. “We will witness more and more sophistication and knowledge on the part of marketers who get it right — and from some unusual spots around the nation and the world.”

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