Broward, Keys attracting affluent gay tourists
By Jaime Levy
With reports of South Florida's faltering tourism commonplace since Sept. 11 as would-be visitors choose staying home over tropical getaways, at least one group - the gay market - could be sustaining some tourism, travel experts said.
Managers of Miami's gay-friendly hotels said they still have hope - but gay travelers in significant numbers are reportedly going north to Broward County and south to Key West.
"It's been a very unpredictable market," said Steve Adkins, owner of the Jefferson House on Miami Beach. "We had some business right after the tragedy - tourists from Europe and Latin America were stuck here. Then we had no business for about three weeks.
"The second week of October it began being full through the beginning of November. But it was the first time ever this hotel didn't sell out for the White Party" - one of South Florida's annual AIDS/HIV fundraisers.
For a niche market that consists primarily of what the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau calls "DINKs" - an acronym for the highly valued double-income, no kids market - Miami's inability to lure the gay dollar could add salt to the wounds of a recession.
Surveys by gay magazines "Out & About" and "Passport," for example, showed that their readers were more likely than most people to hit the roads or skies after Sept. 11.
"The economics of the gay traveler are much more affluent than the population at large," said Rolando Aedo, vice president of marketing and tourism for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The gay market is important to this community at all times.
"Any savvy businessperson, including the GMC&VB, needs to pay attention, not just when times are tough," Mr. Aedo said. "Without a doubt, when times are tough, you're going to allocate attention and resources to those who have a high rate of investment. It's more important now than ever."
The bureau allocates between $100,000 and $150,000 of its $6 million budget to marketing to the gay community, Mr. Aedo said. The bureau's post-Sept. 11 "What Makes You Happy" campaign included "gay-specific imagery," Mr. Aedo said, and the bureau distributed 24-page brochures touting Miami-Dade to delegates at the White Party.
But the bureau's niche marketing strategy is distinctly different from that of the visitors' bureau in Broward - and some say the difference is costing Miami tourists.
"Miami needs to be much more aggressive in the markets," said Robert Wilson, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale-based International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association. "I think they've been sitting on their duffs. Pick a market and target it. You can't put an advertisement in The New York Times - you have to put it in the media being read by a particular market.
"Fort Lauderdale and Key West are particularly strong in bookings," he said. "They're unusual places - they have in-depth areas to offer. South Beach could be equally so. I'm not sure whether they're making the push."
Observers said the gay tourism industries in Fort Lauderdale and Key West are more similar to each other than to the industry in Miami. In counties to the north and south, there are significant numbers of gay-specific hotels and guest houses. In Miami, there are only a handful.
Some hoteliers said that's a result of a general atmosphere of gay-friendliness in Greater Miami and that most hotels here are equally frequented by all travelers. Others said the increasing costs of visiting Miami's beaches -airfare, hotel rates and other expenses - could also be sending travelers elsewhere.
"South Beach is getting too expensive," said Carlos Mejias, owner of the European Guest House, 721 Michigan Ave., a property frequented by gays. "It's out of reach.
"In our particular market, we have traditionally a lot of Europeans coming through. They're not coming for the simple reason that the dollars are too high. They're going where they can buy more for their currency."
The Miami area may attract a different crowd compared to Fort Lauderdale, said Francine Mason, a spokeswoman for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"We have a different gay visitor than the one who visits Miami," she said, echoing the comments of hoteliers. "It's an older, more upscale visitor. It's very important because people with higher incomes tend to spend more money while they're in town."
To snag the gay community, the Fort Lauderdale area markets directly using a cooperative ad campaign put on jointly by the bureau and about 30 gay-specific hotels. Also, for the past five years the city has been placing ads in gay publications and websites.
"It seems to have paid off," Ms. Mason said. "When everything else is flat or going downhill, this is a strong market."
Ms. Mason said Fort Lauderdale also pitches to other niche markets, including African-Americans and scuba divers.
"You can advertise in The New York Times to the general market," she said. "But when you're in a magazine specifically read by either wannabe divers or seasoned divers, they're more apt to make the connection between that location as a destination and where they make the decision to go on their next vacation. It's the constancy of seeing a message.
"Generic advertising is fine. We do that," Ms. Mason said. "But in addition to that we look to focus on highly targeted markets where we've seen good results."
At the Greater Miami convention bureau, in contrast, "we are firm believers that the gay consumer is reading The New York Times as much as the non-gay consumer," Mr. Aedo said. "So when we market to The New York Times, it is marketing to the gay consumer."
Mr. Wilson said Miami's marketers could be making a mistake. At the 2006 Gay Games in Montreal, he said, thousands of participants from abroad will be a relatively short plane trip away from Miami.
"You target these people," he said. "They're coming from all over the world - what better thing than to get people to pop down to Miami for a few days via the vehicles people attending these events normally read and see?"
He said Fort Lauderdale won a bid for his travel association's June 2002 convention, beating out Barcelona and Lisbon. The event is designed to bring together travel professionals looking for new ways to market various destinations. Mr. Wilson said Miami marketers had not contacted him about participating.
"One would think that if you're aggressive, you'd be involved as a sponsor. I assure you, that's not being done," he said. "If Washington can do a luncheon and Manchester can do a cocktail party, one would think Miami would build a sand tower in the parking lot and have hurricane cocktails or something."
At least one Miami-Dade hotelier said gay customers may just be getting better deals elsewhere. Venues may be absorbing gay dollars through the recently discounted rates that boutique hotels cannot offer.
"Because they have more capacity, the larger hotels have been able to - or forced to - offer deeper discounts," said Keith Space, manager of The Abbey, 300 21st St., Miami Beach. He said although the property is not specifically gay-oriented, it was mentioned by "Out & About" as attracting a "heavily gay crowd."
"The moment you have Loews offering a $125 rate," Mr. Space said, "it sort of exacerbates the problem."
Although the Doubletree Surfcomber played host to November's White Party, sales manager Mario Casal said the numbers are still off. He said the hotel, at 1717 Collins Ave., had blocked off 100 of 185 rooms for the event this year but only used 50.
"Last year, there was no host hotel - we weren't even part of it and sold out," he said.
"The numbers didn't pick up as we were expecting. "We were expecting the hotel to be sold out for this event. It just didn't happen."
Mr. Casal said the Surfcomber is receiving bookings for a March Winter Party - the compatriot of the White Party.
At Jefferson House, Mr. Adkins said, he expected a decent winter, although his numbers have not yet shown any upswing.
Richard Shindler, owner of gay-friendly Island House, 1428 Collins Ave., said last-minute travelers would likely give his property a boost.
"I think sooner or later when the weather gets cold, people will come," Mr. Shindler said. "It'll be more spur of the moment."