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Gaming Guru

Richard N. Velotta

Las Vegas Labors to Lure Gay Tourists

24 January 2005

LAS VEGAS -- Is Las Vegas ready to embrace the gay traveler with open arms?

Tourism experts suggest there are financial rewards for cities that do, and local diversity specialists say Las Vegas is getting better at rolling out the welcome mat for the GLBT market -- gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered visitors.

"It all comes down to having good customer service skills," said Amy Baker, marketing director of locally owned U.S. Rent-a-Car, a Las Vegas company listed as being gay-friendly on major Internet sites for gay audiences.

"If your company has a reputation that it is friendly to the market, it's going to get out there," she said. "It's a huge word-of-mouth network."

But Baker also cautioned that while some Las Vegas properties have a good reputation for welcoming the GLBT traveler, the city itself has some work to do if it wants to take advantage of what experts say is a lucrative tourism market.

Punam Mathur, vice president of corporate diversity at MGM Mirage and a member of the Nevada Commission on Tourism, says the gay marketplace offers financial rewards for companies that approach it with sensitivity.

"Same-sex couples generally have fewer children, have a higher level of discretionary income and travel more than the average tourist," said Mathur, who has made numerous presentations on her company's diversity initiative.

"Ninety-seven percent of same-sex couples have taken a vacation in the past 12 months compared with 64 percent of the general population," she said. "And 56 percent of those couples have taken three or more vacations in the last 12 months."

Planet Out Inc., which offers consumer services to a gay audience through its and Internet sites, says the gay and lesbian market segment has a per-capita buying power of $32,000 -- higher than Asian, black and Hispanic customers.

The company says the gay audience is extremely brand aware and brand loyal with 87 percent of gays and lesbians highly likely to seek out products that are marketed directly to them and 94 percent going out of their way to patronize companies that market directly to them in gay media.

That's one of the reasons why MGM Mirage's New York-New York property decided to advertise its Cirque du Soleil show "Zumanity" in gay publications circulated in the San Francisco area.

The show, considered one of Cirque du Soleil's edgiest, includes sensual performances that some observers say appeal to a gay customer.

"Because these customers display the highest levels of product loyalty, particularly to gay-friendly organizations, it was pretty compelling stuff from our perspective," Mathur said. "(New York-New York) has been been pretty pleased with the response they have received. California is a key market for us and any way we can improve on that is important."

MGM Mirage's efforts haven't gone unnoticed. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority recently named Mya Lake Reyes as its manager of diversity marketing.

Reyes made a recent appearance before the Lambda Business & Professional Association, an organization serving Southern Nevada's gay business community.

She explained that the LVCVA is in the early phases of learning how to best reach the gay customer. Based on her early research, Las Vegas campaigns that have resonated with all tourists appear to have reached the GLBT market as well.

She cited a study published in the gay publication Metro that Las Vegas ranks as the No. 2 tourism destination in the nation behind New York City. However, the study also says respondents called the Las Vegas gay nightlife scene disappointing and that visitors would stay longer if there was more gay appeal.

Still, 94 percent of the respondents said they were satisfied with their visit, 92 percent said they would return to Las Vegas and 93 percent said they would recommend the destination to others.

But some tourism experts dispute the findings.

Las Vegas travel consultant Terry Wilsey of AAnswer on Travel said gay nightclubs in Las Vegas do little to market themselves to tourists and large resorts aren't doing everything they can to make themselves gay-friendly.

"Everybody thinks the bar and entertainment offerings here are underwhelming," Wilsey said. "There's simply not a lot of cooperation among owners to promote themselves to the traveler."

Wilsey also believes the claims that gay travelers are big spenders are exaggerated.

"The perception that all the gay markets are rich, party and love to gamble is a misnomer," he said. "Yes, gay male couples and lesbians frequently have dual incomes and no kids, but they're like everyone else -- they're going to shop for the cheapest price and seek out dollar value."

Wilsey said the biggest thing Las Vegas can do to become more accommodating to the GLBT market is for resorts to train their front-line help to be more sensitive.

An attendee at the recent Lambda luncheon who asked not to be identified said when he first visited Las Vegas that a local resort lost his repeat business when a desk clerk recoiled when he made a request for a single bed in his room for his male partner and him.

"That body language was all it took for me," the man said. "I knew right then I wouldn't be going back."

Wilsey said attitudes about gay relationships are changing for the better in Nevada.

"After the Legislature decriminalized gay sex in Nevada, things started changing quite a bit," Wilsey said.

In the mid-1990s, former Sen. Lori Lipman Brown led the effort to repeal Nevada's consensual sex laws. Until that legislation was approved, Wilsey said, resorts were in a position of catering to suspected or known felons engaging in homosexual acts -- a position that could have imperiled their gaming licenses.

With that legislation changed, resorts were allowed to host gay couples without fear of losing their licenses, but they still had stigmas to overcome. Wilsey believes that can be overcome with hospitality training.