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Hotels, Eateries Wooing The Gay Visitor Market

Scott Childress, a 40-year-old computer engineer from Tucson, Ariz., fits the mold of a typical San Diego tourist , one of the many who pour billions into the local economy.

He’s been making the trip with his family each summer since he was a teenager. But now that he lives with his partner of several years, Joe Roos, he’s become part of a small niche group , the gay tourist , that is gaining more attention from the hospitality industry because of its affluence and frequent travel habits.

Anecdotally, hotels and restaurants know the gay tourism market is there; pinpointing it is another story.

“We can’t put that question on a customer satisfaction questionnaire,” said Andrew Freeman, the vice president of public relations for San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, LLC, which owns and operates the Hotel Solamar in Downtown San Diego.

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But according to the company’s Web site, “marketing to the gay and lesbian community is becoming a hot trend for savvy hoteliers who realize this demographic represents some 16 million people in the United States with $485 billion in buying power.”

The Kimpton’s research also shows that gay and lesbian travelers represented 10 percent of U.S. travelers last year and spent $54 billion.

According to Kimpton’s Web site, the gay population has high discretionary income , “usually a result of not having children.”

To boost occupancy during San Diego’s 2005 Gay Pride Festival in late July, the Solamar is offering a package that includes deluxe guest room accommodations from $349 to $399 per night, an in-room or poolside massage for two, a $50 restaurant voucher, free nightly in-room movie, and flowers upon arrival.

But “the Solamar is not promoting itself as a gay hotel,” said Jerry Parent, the hotel’s director of marketing.

“This is a hotel where we want everyone to be comfortable, including gays,” Parent said. “We want them to know that they can go to the front desk and check in and no one is going to give them the cross eye.”

As a San Francisco-based hotel company “going into its 25th year, we’ve always had a GLBT-friendly attitude,” Freeman said, referring to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. “But the active marketing approach we took began three years ago.”

Jeff Hugger, director of sales and catering for the Handlery Hotel & Resort in Mission Valley, said he initiated marketing to the gay community about 2 & #733; years ago.

“As a gay person myself, I was looking at that market to further drive sales,” Hugger said. “I would say it’s now about 5 percent of our market.”

The Handlery is one of three local hotels, including Staybridge Suites and the 500 West, at which organizers of the Gay Pride Festival are booking room blocks for event-goers.

“The gay and lesbian community is very loyal and will pass that word around to their friends,” Hugger said. “A few people will stay and then they’ll tell their friends, and friends will tell other friends. It’s a big word-of-mouth community.”

Freeman agrees.

“The loyalty factor is very strong,” he said, adding that the gay and lesbian community is particularly appreciative of the work that the Kimpton hotels have done to raise money for AIDS causes.

“We have a partnership with the National AIDS Foundation, and we have a two-month campaign in October and November to give a percentage of room revenue up to $25,000 to the foundation,” he said. “This factors into recognizing pride events and offering honeymoon packages in markets like Boston and Vancouver, where gay marriage was legalized, and romance packages in other cities.”

Yet the hotel takes nothing for granted in the way of service when it comes to targeting the gay population.

“If you’re going to appeal to this market, you need to make sure your staff has sensitivity training,” Freeman said. “But there’s definitely a business case for it.”

He declined to say what Kimpton spends on marketing and advertising to draw guests from the gay community.

“It’s a separate budget, and it also includes (corporate) giving,” he said. “But what I can tell you is that we had a 10 percent increase in year-over-year occupancy last year, and we attribute 2 percent of the overall 10 percent to the gay and lesbian travel market.”

Word-of-mouth advertising speaks volumes in the gay community, said Joyce Marieb, the executive director of the Greater San Diego Business Association.

“We all know one another and communicate and support one another’s businesses and causes,” Marieb said.

But the 750-member group is also lending its name in support of a soon-to-be published travel guide, the San Diego City Navigaytor, to help put San Diego on the map as gay friendly.

“Number one, it will bring tourists here who don’t know that San Diego can be gay friendly,” she said. “It’s a huge market and we want to let them know they’re welcome, and that will be good for business in general.”

Marieb refers to the 25-year-old organization as “the second largest gay and lesbian chamber of commerce in the country, next to Seattle.”

“And we contribute economically to the good of the whole region,” she added.

If all goes as planned, 10,000 copies of the full-color, 24-page first edition of the guide could be available for free distribution at the end of July to coincide with the Gay Pride Festival, said Bill Gehrman, the vice president of strategic services for the Philadelphia-based Altus Group, its publisher. But at the latest, it will be available in August, he added.

The Altus Group also publishes the Philadelphia City Navigaytor, which is in its second annual printing at 50 pages and 30,000 copies this year. “We see the first year as laying the groundwork for the larger program,” Gehrman said.

Local advertising for the guide is being sold through the company’s branch office in Sacramento. Rates start at $185 for a company listing and six lines of text describing the firm, and climb to $2,500 for a full-page ad.

Gehrman said he couldn’t speculate on how the guide would affect San Diego tourism, but if Philadelphia is any measure, it will be positive.

“From the perspective of Philadelphia, once we rolled out the red carpet, we’ve seen a visible increase in gay and lesbian tourists, and we’re also getting great feedback from meeting and convention planners and tour operators,” he said.


Reaching Out

Initially, organizers of the Greater San Diego Business Association and San Diego Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride Association that sponsor the Gay Pride Parade Festival, sought support from within their own ranks.

“During the 1970s and 1980s, these were grass-roots organizations, and there was the feeling that most companies were reluctant to support San Diego Pride unless they were gay or lesbian owned,” said Suanne Pauley, its executive director.

“That changed in early to mid-1990s,” she added. “We also stepped up our outreach, but the climate of tolerance had increased.

“We now have the types of sponsors that were unimaginable 15 years ago, such as Wells Fargo Bank, Domino’s Pizza, and Bud Light.”

Anticipating attendance of at least 150,000 for the July 30 parade, Frank Sabatini Jr., who heads Sabatini & Associates, a public relations firm touting the event, said estimates are that 10 percent will come from out of town.

Childress said he and Roos plan to attend the parade, as they have for several years.

They will to fly into town from Tucson that weekend and stay with an old high school friend of Childress’ who lives with his girlfriend in Mission Valley.

The couples have much to talk about, Childress says, since both are planning weddings.

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