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Chris Jones

Las Vegas Targets Gay Target

6 March 2006

LAS VEGAS – With an estimated $65 billion in annual expenditures, American homosexuals are one of the world's most sought-after leisure travel submarkets.

And Las Vegas, like other cities, aims to snag a larger slice of that pie.

Promoting this city to gays and lesbians requires a different approach than those favored by many competing destinations.

But armed with new research and an advertising campaign that's demonstrated strong multicultural appeal, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority recently unveiled its first gay promotional push.

Within the past two months, the agency funded by room taxes placed print ads in three prominent gay publications: The Advocate, Out, and Out Traveler.

The same ads have been used in nongay magazines -- evidence of the "What happens here, stays here" campaign's universal appeal -- said Terry Jicinsky, the authority's senior vice president of marketing. Still, he said the authority's latest rollout is the next phase in Las Vegas' ongoing quest to diversify its visitor base.

Popular gay getaways such as Key West, Fla.; Palm Springs, Calif.; and Provincetown, Mass.; promote themselves with promises that guests will enjoy a largely gay community.

Las Vegas, however, takes a marketing approach similar to New York's, which urges gays to experience the same art galleries, restaurants and shows that appeal to everyone else.

"We're trying to attract this subculture here to immerse them into the Las Vegas experience," Jicinsky said.

The authority does not plan to create gay-specific ads, but existing ads could be "tweaked" to include same-sex couples or scenarios that gays can easily associate with, he said.

"The 'single guy on the cell phone' ad was one that a lot of the male gay community could visualize themselves being part of," Jicinsky said, referencing a recent "What happens here, stays here" spot.

That television ad showed a young man asking his hotel operator to deliver a wake-up call to his cell phone. He's uncertain if he'll be in his room the next morning.

More TV exposure will follow. The authority this spring will sponsor three episodes of the Bravo cable network's popular "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" series.

The show will film in local casinos, and could produce a "making of" documentary that would later air on Logo, a gay and lesbian-themed television network tied with MTV, Jicinsky said.

Advertising on Logo is also planned.

With the authority's assistance, local businesses have hosted journalists from national and regional gay publications to capture "free media" coverage.

David Paisley, program manager with Community Marketing, a gay-oriented tourism research firm, said Las Vegas ranks among the world's best in the pursuit of gay travelers.

In addition to the authority, he praised Cirque du Soleil and local hotel operators, particularly MGM Mirage, for extending a welcoming message.

"Of any destination that's made progress in the last decade, Las Vegas has made the most," Paisley said.

From its headquarters in San Francisco's Castro District, Paisley's company recently analyzed more than 24,000 survey responses from homosexual travelers.

It reported U.S. gays and lesbians spend approximately $65 billion annually on travel, including 53 percent who dropped more than $5,000 per person on vacations the prior year.

Ninety-eight percent of those polled said a destination's "gay-friendly reputation" factored into their decision to travel there.

Respondents' ranked Las Vegas their second-favorite destination, with a 25 percent score.

That meant one in four gay travelers polled had visited the city within the past year, or planned to come here within 12 months' time.

Only New York (30 percent) scored better, trailed closely by San Francisco and Los Angeles/West Hollywood (24 percent each).

Community Marketing research shows that gay interest in Las Vegas has spiked in recent years as the city added more Broadway shows and gay headliners such as Elton John, who regularly performs at Caesars Palace.

"Gaming is not as important to gays as it is to the mainstream," Paisley added. Among gays, he said, "it's the shows, shopping and restaurants" that attract people to the city.

Homosexual business travel could also grow locally.

Las Vegas is a longtime sponsor of the Gay & Lesbian World Travel Expo, and the authority has actively courted gay-friendly travel agents and trade show producers. Those efforts are led by Mya Lake Reyes, its senior manager of diversity marketing.

"There are gay dentist groups, gay softball leagues. For every group that exists in the mainstream world, there is a gay and lesbian equivalent," Paisley said. "I think that Las Vegas, more and more, is going to go after those kinds of gay conventions."

Local leaders also want Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization promoting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality, to hold a conference or fund-raising dinner here, Jicinsky said.

Las Vegas' pro-gay push could benefit from an increasing celebration of homosexual culture within popular media circles.

The gay community's pop culture profile has boomed in recent years, as evidenced by Ellen DeGeneres' celebrated coming-out party in 1997, the recurring Big Gay Al and Mr. Slave characters in Comedy Central's "South Park" cartoon series, and the long-running success of the NBC television comedy "Will & Grace."

Tonight's Academy Awards show could set a new high-water mark.

The gay cowboy love story "Brokeback Mountain" is nominated in eight categories, including best picture and three of the four acting categories.

"Capote," a biographical look at celebrated gay writer Truman Capote, is up for five Oscars, including best picture and best actor honors for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Separately, "Desperate Housewives" star Felicity Huffman could be named best actress for her portrayal of a preoperative transsexual in "Transamerica."

Jicinsky noted that Las Vegas' marketing efforts predate this year's Oscar hoopla. And gay and lesbian travelers aren't the only demographic category receiving special attention from the convention authority.

Hispanics have been targets of specialized Las Vegas marketing efforts for approximately five years; initiatives aimed at black travelers began three years ago.

A new campaign targeting Asian-Americans is being planned.