Where the gays are
Florida is a big state with lots of places to spend those tourist dollars. Gay travelers can and do vacation everywhere. Still, some locations are more popular than others. Here are some top gay/lesbian destinations -- plus Orlando, everybody’s favorite theme-park town.
Fort Lauderdale: Once associated almost exclusively with Spring Break, Fort Lauderdale has long been a popular gay destination. It was even named “Destination of the Year” in 1999 by the gay/lesbian travel newsletter Out & About. The city has one of the largest gay communities in America. Some 100 gay-owned establishments -- hotels, bars, clubs and restaurants -- are scattered throughout greater Fort Lauderdale. There’s a large Metropolitan Community Church congregation, a gay and lesbian community center and three gay/lesbian publications. Wilton Drive is considered ground zero and many of the more than 30 properties that cater to the gay/lesbian market can be found there. Four areas along the city’s 23 miles of wide, sandy beach are popular with gays.
The Convention & Visitors Bureau website contains a section for gay travelers with links on where to party and work out. The CVB also maintains an ongoing liaison with the gay community.
Key West: Back in the early 1970s, Key West was just another quaint seaport at the end of the road... until some gay entrepreneurs started buying and refurbishing the city’s historic homes and turning them into guest houses, inns and B&Bs. Hemingway’s former town turned into a primo vacation spot for gays and lesbians and served as inspiration for similar revitalizations in Provincetown, Mass., Fort Lauderdale and even South Beach in Miami. Today, like SoBe, Key West is a tourist melting pot. Straights and gays sit side by side at drag shows and theater productions. Some guest houses cater strictly to the gay trade, either male or female. Some offer nude sunbathing. The Keys’ tourist website (www.fla-keys.com) includes a section on gay travel and offers downloadable brochures in four languages.
Miami: Miami is gay-friendly pretty much everywhere, but South Beach is where it’s at, baby. All the hot people, of every persuasion, gravitate to this ultra-trendy, model-studded, tanned-bod stretch of sand and deco. Many gay-owned or gay-friendly hotels display a pink triangle or rainbow flag, though most any accommodation is -- well, accommodating. The area’s a big party melting pot and few nightspots cater exclusively to a gay/lesbian clientele. SoBe also is home to the highly regarded Miami Beach Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, held annually in late April and early May.
Orlando: This epicenter of the family-vacation universe doesn’t really solicit the alternative lifestyle clientele. Compared to places like SoBe and San Francisco, there are few merchants who cater to the market. Still, the area sports some gay restaurants and clubs. The ViMi District -- Mills Avenue between Colonial and Virginia -- is the address of several gay-friendly shops, restaurants and art galleries, as well as The Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Community Center of Central Florida.
The city also has a gay basketball league and a gay chorus -- even a“gay Publix” that’s become as much a place to socialize as shop.
Mom on the beach towel with a romance novel, Junior learning to surf, Dad and the toddler playing in the sand. Or maybe a cute teen boy and girl with a radio and some sunscreen. If this is the Florida beach scene you see in your head, better adjust your mindset.
The folks on the next beach blanket aren’t so likely to be Annette and Frankie anymore. Annette’s holding hands with her girlfriend and Frankie’s watching the guys strolling by on the shore. Welcome to Florida, gay travel magnet.
Gay travel is “huge, absolutely huge,” says Robert Wilson, executive director of the South Florida-based International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association. And Florida ranks right up there with San Francisco and New York City as a preferred destination.
It’s not a new phenomenon and shouldn’t come as any surprise. Florida“has been an ongoing destination for gay and lesbian travelers for many years,” he says.
And while gays used to frequent certain areas and patronize certain establishments, these days, gay travel has become practically mainstream. What’s different now?
“There’s one reason that makes the world go ‘round,” Wilson explains.“Money.”
We’re talking billions of dollars here. According to some estimates, $1 out of every $10 spent on leisure travel comes from the wallet of a gay or lesbian traveler. That works out to $54 billion a year.
Large companies are recognizing the potential, Wilson says, and marketing accordingly to get their share of the pie. So do destinations. Both Key West and Fort Lauderdale, for instance, both market to gay travelers and include information on their websites.
So how come gays are such
a hot property? The average gay or lesbian visitor is better educated and better traveled than the tourist population at large, according to the research. They have good jobs. They make more money and spend more of it, too.
Contrary to stereotype, most gays and lesbians are in committed relationships, Wanzie says. And, celebrities aside, most are childless -- as many as 90 percent do not have children living at home, according to some analysts. So what you end up with is a two-income professional couple with no kids -- and plenty of discretionary moolah.
“It’s a very, very desirable niche market,” agrees Michael Wanzie, vice president of GayDays.com, which coordinates Gay Days, an annual week-long series of parties and theme-park visits in Orlando.
Gay Days, which just held its 11th event in late May-early June, brings 125,000 to town and pumps $90 million into the Central Florida economy, he says. And that’s the conservative estimate. The true figure, he confides, is probably closer to $120 million. “Nothing else brings in that amount of money to the area,” he claims.
One fiscal example: Parties, dances and barbecues during Gay Days -- all organized by independent producers -- can demand $75 entrance fees. There were some 40 events citywide, Wanzie says, though not all required such an outlay of cash.
Forrester Research, an internet research firm in Cambridge, Mass., did a travel study last year that surveyed more than 9,500 North American households. It found that 3.5 percent of people who travel at least once a year identify themselves as gay or lesbian.
“Although gays and lesbians account for only 3.5 percent of online travelers, they represent more than 5 percent of online travel buyers and will research nearly $2.9 billion of travel on the Net this year,” proclaimed the firm’s report on the study.“Travel marketers ignoring this market do so at their financial risk.”
So where do gay vacationers go? Mainstream marketers aside, many still seek out spots that are gay-friendly. After all, vacation is all about relaxing, being comfortable and being yourself.
In Florida, the hot spots are Key West, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, not necessarily in that order. Their appeal is easy to understand -- significant year-round gay populations and establishments that cater to, or are friendly to, their business. Paying attention to their interests helps, too. For instance, the Fort Lauderdale CVB website includes links to places to work out. Tampa and Fort Myers are popular with some. Orlando rates, too, especially during Gay Days.
Why would gays and lesbians want to come to an obviously family-oriented locale like Orlando? Because everybody likes Disney, Universal and Sea World, says Wanzie of GayDays.com.
Other findings include:
Gays and lesbians who research travel online spend $2,467 for personal travel and take 3.5 leisure trips each year -- slightly more than their straight counterparts who spend $2,278 on 3.2 personal trips annually. Weekend getaways, visits to friends and relatives and business travel are pretty much equal among the two groups.
A whopping 41 percent of gays and lesbians have booked travel on the net, compared to 28 percent of straight online consumers.
Gays and lesbians who book online are more likely than their straight counterparts to have graduated from college and work full time. They earn 11 percent more a year and are 38 percent more likely to have annual household incomes of $100,000 or more.
Perhaps because of their higher incomes, 27 percent more gays and lesbians who book online are willing to pay a premium for better service.
The report also predicted that this year, gays and lesbians would spend $1.2 billion online for travel -- 7 percent of total online leisure travel spending -- and would research but not book another $1.6 billion worth of travel.
HELPFUL LINKS TO
GAY & LESBIAN ORGANIZATIONS
“The theme parks are as popular with gays as with any other people,” he says.
And gays have as much right to be there at the same time as everybody else.“We don’t want to be segregated from society,” he says.
The result: Sixty thousand gays and lesbians packed the Magic Kingdom on a single day for Gay Days’ signature event this year.
The Central Florida welcome mat is nonetheless smaller. Many businesses, concerned about offending more conservative vacationers, aren’t open about welcoming gays and lesbians. Baptists, for instance, periodically threaten to boycott Disney because they think it’s too gay-friendly. Their attitude doesn’t seem to have affected the mouse’s bottom line much.
And whatever grumbling may go on behind the scenes, there have been no anti-gay incidents -- indeed, no reason to call the police at all -- in the 11 years of Gay Days, says Wanzie.