Beyond VEGAS INC
The dozen fit, comfortable-in-their-own-(exposed)-skin men lounging around the Blue Moon pool one recent afternoon may not realize it, but they’re in the sweet spot for Las Vegas image makers. The customers at the city’s only gay resort are desirable business targets for a region that continues to suffer the economic devastation of the worst U.S. recession in 70 years.
They can’t legally marry here. Many don’t feel comfortable walking hand-in-hand down the alcohol-powered Las Vegas Strip on a busy evening. But they have spending power—lots of it—and with the liberalization of attitudes toward gay individuals, Las Vegas travel marketers have become increasingly aggressive and nuanced in their outreach to the segment. It’s no longer enough for marketers to simply slap a politically correct multi-colored rainbow flag on print and video ads while their own companies discriminate against their LGBT employees, denying them pay and benefits on a par with their straight counterparts.
Several of the Blue Moon visitors told me they checked the Human Rights Campaign Equality Index to determine which Strip properties they will and—more importantly—won’t visit depending on those companies’ personnel policies toward gay workers. Deny health and life insurance benefits to same-sex partners? You’ll earn a low-score on the index, which can be found via smartphone applications. You’re sure to lose potential customers.
Caesars Entertainment and Wynn Resorts earned perfect 100 scores on HRC’s most recent ranking. MGM Resorts International scored a respectable 85. Scoring zeros were Boyd Gaming; Loews Hotels, operator of a Lake Las Vegas hotel; and discount airlines AirTran and SkyWest.
“We have options. We don’t have to spend our money where we’re mistreated,” said David, a 45-year-old researcher from the Midwest, who despite the evolving era of enlightenment on gay issues, was too skittish to share his last name. “Zero is an embarrassing score for any company in today’s business world. Why would I spend my money with someone who doesn’t respect who I am?”
No one’s certain what percentage of Southern Nevada’s visitor total is composed of LGBT tourists. Statisticians and social scientists have long argued that up to 10 percent of the US population is gay. The figure could be much larger. If that number is accurate, as many as 4 million yearly visitors to the region could be members of the demographic group, but even that’s a potentially flawed assumption. After all, visitors passing through McCarran International Airport aren’t asked to declare their sexual orientation.
The average Las Vegas visitor spends $1,111 during a nearly five-day stay, according to the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, which doesn’t keep separate figures for LGBT visitors. Similarly, there are no good numbers for the earnings and buying power of gay and lesbian tourists. Studies often tout the demographic’s superior income level when compared with the larger US population, but those figures often reflect the fact that many of those surveyed live in urban settings where wages tend to be higher.
“Is gay income higher than the average person who lives in San Francisco? A lot of studies will show that to be the case,” says David Paisley, senior project director Community Marketing Inc., which conducts demographic studies of the economic power of the gay community.
A 2009 Community Marketing study found that the average household income for gay men and women is $81,500, or about 80 percent higher than the figure for the typical US household. Forty percent of gay men reported household incomes in excess of $100,000 annually. Thirty-six percent of lesbians reported household incomes of more than $100,000. A recent study of LGBT travelers conducted by the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce found that members of that market segment spend nearly twice as much per trip as their straight counterparts. They were also twice as likely to go on vacation or leisure trips as straights.
The effort has been intensified by the economic collapse, as businesses throughout the country struggle to boost the bottom line. The push for gay equality has also liberated the business community. Many companies find they’re now free to target a market segment that was somewhat taboo just a decade ago. In the past, US business executives were largely afraid to reach out to gay customers, fearing a backlash from their mass, straight base. Few wanted to take the lead. But the legalization of gay marriage in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa and the District of Columbia; the spread of civil unions; anger over the repeal of gay marriage in California and a generational change that finds increasing numbers of young Americans having gotten beyond the beliefs of their parents and grandparents, finds a multitude of Las Vegas casino operators openly courting gay and lesbian visitors.
Print ads, websites and YouTube spots tout the offerings of Wynn Las Vegas, Paris, Luxor, Mandalay Bay and several other Strip operators that have steadily increased their efforts to lure dollars that reflexively went to the traditionally open-minded resort destinations of Palm Springs, Key West, Miami Beach and Provincetown. The LVCVA produces suggestive ads—two women with shapely legs playing footsie, a pair of fit young men holding hands on a golf course as Wynn Las Vegas looms in the background. They’re alluring images at the start of what Wynn Las Vegas marketer Michael Weaver dubs the “post-gay consumer marketing world,” a period when ad agencies seek to reach individual customers with the promise of luxury, entertainment, good food and sensuality—a classic quartet of offerings on the modern-day Strip.
Las Vegas consistently ranks among the top business and leisure destinations for the 4,296 LGBT travelers surveyed by Community Marketing. New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas typically hold the top three spots, with lesbians between the ages of 18 and 54 choosing Las Vegas as their favorite getaway. Gay men widely preferred New York City and San Francisco. “Las Vegas is really show-driven and those shows have a very gay spin—Cher, Bette Midler, Cirque du Soleil, Elton John. It’s good for Las Vegas to bring them in,” says Community Marketing’s Paisley.
“Las Vegas is its own animal. It’s true that Vegas doesn’t have its own gay neighborhood like other cities do,” Paisley says, “but from a tourism perspective, Las Vegas is about the Strip. Gays and lesbians are coming to Las Vegas for the same reason everyone is coming to Las Vegas.”
There’s no “gay market,” just as there is no singular “Asian market,” argues a Community Marketing website. “The LGBT communities represent a broad and dynamic variety of interests, sensitivities, preferences and priorities. Those, plus variations in geographical location, age, income, relationship status, gender, sexual identity and more, make it even more important to discover which opportunities within LGBT will help you achieve your goals. Fine tuning your approaches based on highly refined and well-targeted matches within LGBT will make your outreach initiatives more efficient and cost-effective, and will significantly improve your marketing (return on investment).”
A Harris Interactive survey of 2,576 US adults conducted between April 11 and 18 attempted to gauge travel plans between May and August. A total of 331 of those surveyed identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Seventy percent of the LGBT adults said they will take more or the same number of leisure trips by car this summer. Seventy-two percent said their leisure travel would be the same length or longer than last summer. The average amount LGBT travelers expected to spend was $1,321 per person, compared with $1,616 for all travelers. The numbers require a savvy touch for marketers seeking to reach the LGBT community. Just as they must possess when it comes to crafting messages to target Hispanics, African-Americans or members of other distinct social groups, the sharpest message makers seek to avoid overly sexualized messages.
“You don’t want to bounce between cliches, stereotyping and pandering,” says Washington, D.C.-based marketer Bob Witeck, who’s a pioneer in the segment.
Nineteen years ago, American Airlines became Witeck’s first high-profile client to reach out to the LGBT community after the airline received negative publicity for its treatment of gay men returning from a Washington, D.C., march in which they were seeking equal rights. A flight attendant openly raised concerns as to whether the returning marchers were HIV positive. That prompted activists to complain to airline executives, who reached out to what’s now Witeck Combs Communications, which lists the gay and lesbian market among its niches. American Airlines recently produced a seven-minute video in conjunction with a nationwide project for teens struggling with their sexual identity. It was sparked by an autumn column by Seattle-based columnist Dan Savage, the video’s message, “It Gets Better,” is presented by a mix of airline employees.
To be certain, LGBT travelers have always visited Las Vegas. “But people haven’t talked directly to them before,” Witeck says. “But as with any group, it’s foolish to treat members of the segment as a monolith. “If you dumb them down to merely be sexualized or imagine that their interests are only based on same-sex attraction, then you’re isolating them and not treating them like everyone else,” Witeck notes. “Don’t imagine them as just walking money.”
Michael Weaver has looked at LGBT economic figures thousands of times, having spent 18 years with Caesars Entertainment, the company formerly known as Harrah’s Entertainment, a conservative, bottom-line-driven company that has long placed value on slot play rather than the high-risk tables of baccarat. The Caesars experience is generally conservative, low key, drawing upon customers generated by slot club play at its Midwest riverboats. You wouldn’t think of Caesars as a training ground for a man now considered one of the gurus of Strip gay marketing, but that’s exactly what Weaver has become. The “post-gay consumer marketing world” that he speaks of focuses on the wants and needs of the individuals rather than characteristics of demographic groups. Where Paisley’s Consumer Marketing Inc. speaks of travel proclivities of lesbians and gays, Weaver looks to the desires of consumers. “There are unmet needs we can innovate into. Everybody has certain needs. What makes them happy? What brings them joy?”
Weaver left Caesars to join Wynn Resorts earlier this year, and now the 50-year-old, gay Midwest native speaks of the ubiquitous nature of the travel experience. It’s not necessarily about sexual orientation and all of the demographic data that implies. Rather, Weaver riffs, sounding much like a hip college marketing professor with a willing audience, “People buy psycho-graphically to fulfill a need they have.” If demographics focus on the group, psychographics study the individual consumer. Multiple consumers compose the larger group, he says, but, ultimately, it comes down to the individual, particularly in the digital age, when our personal wants and needs can be fulfilled by the tap of a key pad.
Mya Reyes has worked with Weaver in his old and new jobs, and the LVCVA’s director of diversity marketing might not be familiar with her corporate counterparts new patter, but she’s aware of his past successes. A former Las Vegas television newscaster, Reyes has become a tireless salesperson for the travel and tourism agency. She’s a regular fixture at conventions, trade shows, corporate meetings, conferences and any other local, national and international venues that will lure LGBT customers to the Strip. She’s helped recruit the annual conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the OutServe Armed Forces Leadership Summit for actively serving LGBT military personnel and a Las Vegas version of the Gay Days celebrations that annually draws more than 150,000 people to Disney World, Disneyland and Florida’s Busch Gardens.
She characterizes herself as “straight but not narrow, a gay man in a straight woman’s body.” Her mother was from Belize, her father from Mexico and Reyes believes that lineage gives her an understanding and respect for the needs of the outsider. She’s worked with Paisley’s Community Marketing, is familiar with the nuanced messaging of Witeck’s communications firm and she’s convinced that despite the current prohibition against gay marriage in Nevada, Las Vegas can and will become the center for LGBT honeymoons as New York and a slew of other states legalize the unions. The newlyweds will come here for all the reasons that travelers visit the Strip, and unlike Weaver, she remains focused on the appeal of the larger demographic. “The numbers show that the gay market is a higher educated market—two high-income earners in the same household often with no children. Isn’t that what we’re all searching for? It just makes good business sense.”
Much of the effort can be found in the little things done by businesses of any size: the restaurants that ask whether two men or women wish to sit on the same side or opposite sides of a table, the hotel front-desk clerk who asks whether two men or women checking in together wish to have one or two beds, the cashiers who ask whether two men or women in line together want their items rung up together or separately. Quite simply, it’s a matter of respectful awareness. And those simple exchanges say as much or more about the business operators that offer them as the customers they’re serving. Such efforts also lead to repeat business and word-of-mouth exchanges that will prompt many more LGBT customers to shop, eat and stay at businesses that demonstrate such greater awareness.
Back at the off-Strip Blue Moon Resort, several male tourists sat around the pool debating where Las Vegas fits into the mix of tourism communities that aggressively target LGBT travelers. A voter-approved amendment to the Nevada Constitution a decade ago outlaws gay marriage, but the LVCVA is aggressively promoting gay honeymoons. A significant percentage of Las Vegas’ creative and intellectual power is driven by the gay community; yet, the casino industry was largely built by two anti-gay institutions—the Mob and the Mormon church. While the more enlightened gay getaway of Palm Springs evolved as a very private, residential stop for the Hollywood elite, Las Vegas adopted a much less libertarian approach to questions of sexual orientation. And Las Vegas lost out.
The Blue Moon guests were familiar with the list of popular LGBT destinations: Palm Springs, Key West, South Beach, San Francisco, New York, Provincetown. One couple, two men in their early 60s, were in the final day of a five-day trip to Palm Springs and Las Vegas. John is divorced from his wife. Steve remains married to his, although she knows he’s bisexual. Both withheld their names, not wanting to tip-off friends and co-workers back home about their relationship. They reflected upon their recent travel experience.
“In Palm Springs, it just feels right. That’s the gayest place I’ve ever been,” John said. “So open, so comfortable. Vegas is different. It’s not a gay mecca. It’s a gambling mecca.” Steve jumped in. “Vegas is so out there. But you wouldn’t be comfortable walking down the Strip holding hands. We walked past Palm Springs’ city hall holding hands, but we wouldn’t do that here. This place definitely has a different sensibility.”