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Courting gay travelers

Mass. tourism agencies directing more efforts to draw lucrative market

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / November 6, 2009

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When William Buswell crunched the numbers from his recent fall foliage tours, he was surprised by what he found: The gay-themed trips, which can include visits to drag shows, were 86 percent full, while the other leaf-peeping trips organized by his Vermont-based New England Vacation Tours Inc. were 70 percent full. Last fall, before the recession set in, the occupancy rate for both kinds of tours was the same.

“The gay and lesbian market is a very profitable market to go after,’’ said Buswell, who lately has noticed more marketing directed at gay travelers.

Local tourism agencies are among the groups trying to appeal to these travelers, who represent a small fraction of the overall market but have a median household income of $86,400 and spent $70 billion on travel last year, according to the San Francisco-based market research firm Community Marketing Inc.

Massachusetts is in a prime position to benefit from this group’s spending power. Boston is the 11th most visited US destination among American gay and lesbian travelers, and Provincetown is viewed as one of the top five gay-friendly cities, according to Community Marketing, which held its 10th International Conference on Gay & Lesbian Tourism in Boston earlier this week. And the fact that Massachusetts was the first US state to legalize same-sex marriage will go a long way in attracting gay and lesbian travelers, said Community Marketing president Thomas Roth.

“I think it will generate loyalty for a long, long time,’’ he said.

Massachusetts is also the only state besides Florida whose tourism office has started marketing to gay and lesbian travelers. The Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism featured same-sex couples in a tourism campaign last year, and in January the office launched a $50,000 marketing effort aimed at these travelers. The effort includes a rainbow-flag-colored link to a gay-oriented site on the www.massvacation.com home page (the state’s official tagline, “It’s all here,’’ has been extended to “It’s all here for everyone’’ for the campaign). The agency also placed ads in gay and lesbian publications, started an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) Facebook page that has 4,500 friends, and is developing an iPhone application.

“It doesn’t take a math major to figure out the first state in the union to have gay marriage has an opportunity here,’’ said Betsy Wall, the executive director of the state tourism office.

Individual cities have led the way in reaching out to gay and lesbian visitors. Philadelphia, for example, in 2004 launched a $1 million marketing campaign featuring Colonial men holding hands with the tagline, “Philadelphia - get your history straight and your night-life gay.’’ A study done for the city’s tourism office the next year revealed that every $1 spent on the effort generated $153 in visitor spending and that gay overnight visitors spent twice as much as general overnight visitors.

The Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau worked with the state tourism office to bring the gay and lesbian tourism conference to Boston and to bid on the 2014 Gay Games, a take on Olympic games. (Boston was a finalist but ultimately lost out to Cleveland.) The bureau’s efforts so far have been modest, said spokesman Larry Meehan, but more are in the works, including making a bid to host the international InterPride event in 2012.

“For Boston’s tourism marketing position, [the gay and lesbian market] is absolutely critical,’’ Meehan said.

The Massachusetts tourism office has devoted a fraction of its $11.6 million annual budget to the effort, but the understated campaign has already made an impact. In a 2008 study, 22 percent of respondents in New York said they considered Massachusetts a gay-friendly destination; this year, the number jumped to 31 percent.

Serge Gojkovich of the Boston-based Gay Consultants Inc. is guiding the state’s effort, and, along with state tourism chief operating officer Kenneth Brissette, has been holding sessions with regional tourism councils about how to attract gay and lesbian tourists. After one of these sessions in Northampton, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau decided to run ads on websites geared toward lesbians and was encouraged by the response.

“We really see a lot of potential in the LGBT market,’’ said Michele Goldberg, director of marketing for the Springfield agency. “The average household income is quite high.’’

Most organizations don’t track numbers of gay and lesbian travelers, but judging from the increase in same-sex weddings in Provincetown this year, up 18 percent through October, the market is growing. The rise could be attributed in part to the state’s repeal of a 1913 law last year that was used to bar out-of-state gay couples from marrying in the Commonwealth, but it also could say something about gay and lesbian tourists.

All the encouraging statistics about gays and lesbians’ travel habits will no doubt persuade tourism agencies in other states to start reaching out, as will the fact Massachusetts is leading the way, said Boston University advertising professor Chris Cakebread. He can just imagine what other tourism officials are saying: “Old conservative New Englanders have figured this out, maybe we should think about it as well.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.

If You Go

Top spots
Most visited US leisure travel destinations among gay and lesbian Americans.
1 New York
2 San Francisco
3 Las Vegas
4 Chicago
5 Los Angeles / West Hollywood
6 Washington, D.C.
7 Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
8 San Diego
9 Orlando, Fla.
10 Seattle
11 Boston
12 Philadelphia
13 Palm Springs, Calif.
14 Atlanta
15 Miami
Based on travel in the past 12 months and at least one night in a hotel.
SOURCE: Community Marketing, 14th annual LGBT Tourism Study 2009