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VOL. 38 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 14, 2014

LGBT travelers offer Middle Tennessee a lucrative demographic

By Stephanie Toone

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The secret’s out. Nashville’s a magnet for all who love music, sports, great food and, of course, the ABC hit musical drama that shares the city’s name.

Less known is Music City’s potential to draw even more of a coveted niche group of visitors – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers.

Though Nashville Conventions and Visitors Corporation has made no specific aim at the gay traveling market, Out Traveler, an online magazine on gay travel, has already caught wind of the city’s growing “it” factor and spotlighted Nashville in the Out Traveler’s destination guide.

Gaining more momentum in gay tourism could mean major dollars for Nashville, considering gay travelers spend about $65 billion a year in tourism expenditures, says John Tanzella, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA).

“Nashville has a lot to offer in the culture and music scene, and there’s plenty to do,” Tanzella adds. “Not every city is San Francisco or New York, and gay travelers are not always looking for that.

“I think more could be done by the [Nashville Conventions and Visitors Corporation] to promote and advertise all that Nashville has to offer to gay travelers.”

Tanzella’s travel association has more than 1,500 members, many of which are major cities’ tourism offices, which would like help marketing to the LGBT community. Nashville’s not currently an IGLTA member, but businesses with Nashville locations –American Airlines, Delta, Hilton, Hyatt and the Marriott – are associated with the tourism group.

Those businesses understand the importance of the gay travel market, Tanzella says. Since gay couples are mostly childless, they spend more money and stay longer on vacation. A Witeck Communications/Harris Interactive study shows LGBT tourists spend more than $2,300 when they travel, versus a heterosexual tourist who spends less than $1,500.

“The LGBT traveler makes up the largest section of all niche traveling in the United States,” Tanzella explains. “I think for Nashville to do more, the tourism office should be a member of our association.

“We help cities to spread the word about cool places to go and things to do for gay travelers, so it would only help the city grow that market more.”

Lisa Howe, executive director of the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce, has plans to give LGBT travelers more to look forward to when they visit Nashville. With the help of the Conventions and Visitors Corp., the GLBT Chamber of Commerce will publish a travel guide for gay tourists later this year.

The guide, which will be available at the Visitor’s Information Center at Bridgestone Arena GLBT Chamber of Commerce member business’s, would offer travelers’ discounts and coupons.

“We don’t have the advertising dollars to draw gay travelers to Nashville, but once they get here, we want to make it easy for them to find gay-friendly places to shop, eat and drink,” Howe says. “It’s going to take a lot of players working together to build the reputations and relationships, but there is an interest in Nashville.”

Leigh Anne Sanders, corporate communications manager for the Nashville conventions and visitors association says: “From the arts and historical landmarks to award-winning restaurants and great nightlife, Music City has so much to offer all travelers, including the LGBT visitor.

“We’re consistently ranked one of the friendliest cities in the country and a great place for anyone looking for a variety of entertainment options. It goes without saying we want to encourage everyone to visit our beautiful city.”

Nashville’s Pride festival has drawn major sponsors – Nissan and Bridgestone – as well as a steady increase in the number of participants, Howe adds. Last year, the event’s attendance neared 200,000 in its 25th year.

The latest survey taken at Nashville Pride shows about 44 percent of attendants were visitors to Nashville.

Even with the impressive Pride figures, Howe says there’s a need for conventions and other GLBT centered events to broaden the demographics of GLBT tourists that come to Nashville.

“A person attending Pride is usually younger, so therefore they may not have as much money or education,” Howe explains. “Nashville’s bidding to host the Victory Fund Brunch (which readies gay candidates for running campaigns), so I think those sorts of events could make the difference in gay tourism in Nashville.”

The CMA Festival and Nashville’s New Year’s Eve celebration are among the many “mainstream” events in Nashville that have drawn LGBT travelers, says Joey Amato, publisher of UNITE Magazine. Even if marketing dollars are invested in drawing LGBT tourism, the best form of marketing will remain word of mouth, Amato adds.

“Nashville isn’t the first choice for many LGBT tourists; they tend to think NY, San Fran, Fort Lauderdale, etc.,” Amato says.

“As more and more people visit the city, word is spreading that Nashville is a gay-friendly destination and has many things to do in terms of nightlife, cultural, culinary and historical attractions.”

Keith Blaydes, co-owner of Tribe, Play Dance Bar and Suzy Wong’s House of Yum, says his businesses, which primarily target the gay community, have seen a major uptick in tourists – both gay and straight. Like Amato, Blaydes says Nashville’s mainstream offerings will continue to be the draw for LGBT tourists.

“Nashville is still a great little secret that people don’t know about,” Blaydes says. “Celebrities go on interviews and talk about how much they love Nashville, and people are surprised by that. In their heads, a lot of people are thinking of Nashville from the 60s.

“I think the draw will really take time and will be more about the universal things to do and see.”

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