The welcome mat is out

Wes Coulter, chairman of the Gay Bowl host committee, said Philadelphia hotels seeking his business for the 2014 flag football tournament were "very, very welcoming."
Wes Coulter, chairman of the Gay Bowl host committee, said Philadelphia hotels seeking his business for the 2014 flag football tournament were "very, very welcoming." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

Gays find Phila. a most hospitable place for their dollars.

Posted: July 15, 2013

As receptions go, this one was surprisingly warm, Wes Coulter recalls.

His host committee was shopping for a Philadelphia hotel for players and their partners for the five-day 2014 National Gay Flag Football League's Gay Bowl, its annual championship tournament. Eight hundred ninety room nights all together.

"We toured the DoubleTree and the Sheraton, and both were fighting for our business," Coulter said, recalling the February visits. So eager were the downtown hotels, he said, that the Sheraton laid out strawberries and champagne, and the DoubleTree offered gift bags and chocolate-chip cookies.

"They were very, very welcoming," said Coulter, 32, a Greater Philadelphia Flag Football League member. "It felt really good we were treated like any other group coming in."

That reflects a sea change in the hospitality and tourism industry. Gay and lesbian groups are being heavily courted by big cities and major hotel companies, including Marriott, Hyatt, and Kimpton, that have properties here and nationwide. (Ultimately, Sheraton got the Gay Bowl bookings.)

After years of tepidly reaching out, being LGBT-friendly is the new trend, said Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News: "The whole tourism industry . . . has gotten the message that gay dollars are as green as any dollars."

Green, and plentiful.

"Gays and lesbians spend more than $70 billion annually on business and leisure travel," said David Jefferys, president of Altus Agency, which works with San Francisco-based Community Marketing & Insights to conduct an annual survey of the LGBT community. "Destinations, hotels, airlines and attractions know that gays and lesbians are very desirable guests."

With the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), more states are moving to legalize same-sex marriage. Pennsylvania's ban is being challenged in federal court. New Jersey legislators approved a same-sex marriage bill last year that Gov. Christie vetoed, saying he opposes the idea but is open to having it decided by referendum.

Cities and businesses are prepping for a potential windfall.

The Four Seasons Baltimore will roll out a wedding brochure in September featuring gay couples for the first time. Maryland legalized same-sex marriage in January.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington bought its first full-page ad in the summer issue of the Navigator, a Philadelphia-based gay tourism guide, to tout an exhibit to gay and lesbian travelers.

The City of Brotherly Love already has a decade's experience. Ten years ago, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. launched a campaign - "Get Your History

Straight and Your Nightlife Gay" - to attract LGBT visitors.

A month ago, Mayor Nutter signed what is viewed as the nation's strongest LGBT rights and benefits legislation. And Philadelphia was the second U.S. city to create an LGBT senior-friendly living center.

"We have more rights than any other city," Segal said, "and as a visitor, your choices are better here than in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles."

That message is resonating with gay groups, which are choosing to gather here, said James Delmar of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, hired in 2012 to focus on the LGBT market.

Over the next two years, Delmar said, the city will be host to a half-dozen annual LGBT sports events generating more than 3,000 room nights and a local economic impact of nearly $3.5 million. They include the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance set for Friday through next Sunday; the first sanctioned gay volleyball tournament in August; and next year's Gay Bowl.

"It was a no-brainer to have our event here," said Jennifer Victor, 43, of the organizing committee for the National Leather Leadership Conference Inc., which will come to Philadelphia for the first time in April. Victor, who lives in South Philly, said the city's gay-friendly reputation had a lot to do with it.

For its day, "Get Your History Straight And Your Nightlife Gay" was arguably the largest coordinated U.S. effort of its kind, with $1 million in funding for three years.

"At the time, it really changed the industry," said Jeff Guaracino, the campaign's chief architect. "It got Philly in the pop-culture conversation. . . . It became a way for us to say, 'Everyone is welcome.' "

In national rankings for leisure tourism among gays, Philadelphia shot from No. 23 in 2003 to No. 10 today. A recent survey by Human Rights Campaign put Philadelphia and Seattle at the top of a list of the 160 most gay-friendly cities in America.

San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group Inc. - which has two hotels here, the Palomar and Hotel Monaco - was among a broad-based coalition of American businesses that signed onto briefs filed with the Supreme Court urging it to strike down both DOMA and Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California.

"We currently have hotels in seven states that allow same-sex marriages, and we have a strong word-of-mouth referral rate," said Nick Gregory, Kimpton's vice president of hotel operations in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and Texas. "We hope to serve as many members of the community with weddings and ceremonies as we can."

A decade ago, Marriott says, it was the first major hotel brand to offer same-sex partner benefits. Last year, it launched its "Be You, With Us" campaign.

"We have been highlighting LGBT travel for several years, with focus first on many popular properties and destinations, including our top hotels in Philadelphia," said Joanna Todd, Marriott vice president of segment strategy.

The Loews Philadelphia Hotel at 12th and Market Streets - in the Gayborhood, where rainbow banners adorn street signs - has put out the welcome mat since 2008.

"This client spends billions a year traveling globally and has some of the highest discretionary income among travelers in the U.S.," said Ed O'Boyle, Loews' director of marketing. "Most of their travel decisions are based on recommendations and a feeling of acceptance and not [being] made to feel isolated and singled out."

That's why Anna Wells, social-catering manager at the Four Seasons Baltimore, took a day of training to learn as much as she could about same-sex weddings. Since January, the hotel has hosted two and has more booked.

"It's important that vendors that want to be inclusive be sensitive," Wells said. "Having as much knowledge about our clients is a good thing."


Contact Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2855, sparmley@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @SuzParmley.

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