Saturday, January 31, 2009

Trend setters, once again.

Gays, lesbians set tourism pace

Studies find it's the first travel market to rebound after economic downturns

It was one of the first travel markets to rebound after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the first to emerge from the spectre of SARS in the Toronto area.

Now the gay and lesbian travel market is poised to be the first to bounce back after the economic downturn, according to the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

The Toronto-based chamber is collecting information from various destinations to gauge the effect of the downturn on the community.

But past experience tells chamber founder Bruce McDonald the gay and lesbian market is unlikely to be put off by the economic malaise.

"It tends to be a market that is somewhat insulated to outside factors and that is probably based on the basics of the market -- a higher disposable income.

"During a downturn in the economy, if you have two employed partners earning a living and they don't have children they might cut back a bit but they will still have more disposable income than the mainstream market."

Indeed, a study published by the chamber in 2007 showed gay and lesbian travellers spent $1,166 per trip, nearly twice what the typical straight traveller spent.

The market, believed to be 1.8 million strong in Canada, spends about $9.5 billion on travel annually -- $5.4 billion in Canada, $2.4 billion in the U.S. and $1.7 billion elsewhere.

And Victoria is well positioned to take advantage of that willingness to travel despite economic uncertainty.

"Tourism Victoria has been really active at it and so has Tourism B.C.," said hospitality-industry consultant Frank Bourree of Chemistry Consulting, noting both destination marketing organizations have been actively courting the market for years.

It seems to have paid off -- Bourree notes Victoria has been included in a list of cities, including San Francisco, Montreal and Vancouver, deemed to be gay-and-lesbian friendly.

"Only particular destinations are effective at attracting that group," he said. "It's down to friendliness, a mix of activities and acceptance of the lifestyle."

Victoria was ranked the No. 4 gay leisure-travel destination in Canada in 2007, according to a survey conducted by Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco-based market research company that specializes in the gay and lesbian market. Vancouver was No. 1, followed by Montreal and Toronto.

Tourism Victoria has spent about $36,000, worked with tour operators and attended conferences to attract the gay and lesbian market to the Island.

This year, the marketing budget devoted to that sector is $15,000, most of which will be spent within B.C.

But none of that sits well with one former Tourism Victoria member.

David Carlos, owner of Royal Pacific Charters and Suites, cancelled his membership over the decision to market to the gay community.

Carlos, who describes himself as a Christian conservative, objected to Tourism Victoria's advertising campaign, which he said suggests the whole city embraces the lifestyle.

"It's not true, we're not all for it," said Carlos. "I don't think there's a lot of people in the business community that are willing to speak up about it because they don't want to negatively impact their businesses.

"Yes, there are some gay-friendly hotels, but Tourism Victoria has really made us all out to be gay friendly. There are those of us with conservative Christian values that think it is an abomination."

Asked if he feared his views could hurt his business, Carlos said some things are more important than money.

"I believe it could [hurt business]," he said.

Carlos also said he felt pushed out of Tourism Victoria by a lack of respect for his religious views.

"Shouldn't it be a neutral environment and not have these political issues in there?" he asked.

Tourism Victoria does not see the lesbian and gay market as a political issue, however.

"To us, it's a sector like any other, like golf, culinary tourism or arts, culture and entertainment," said Tourism Victoria CEO Rob Gialloreto. "We are a marketing organization and we are here to offer the destination to a whole bunch of different sectors. We look at every segment for its potential to bring people to this destination.

"We have over 970 members and we do our best to service that membership, but at the end of the day, it's a business and that's what our bottom line is."

Gialloreto said the gay and lesbian community is by no means a dominant segment of the target market, but has been identified as a market the membership wants to go after.

It appears to be working, as traffic to the "Pride" pages dedicated to the lesbian and gay market on Tourism Victoria's website doubled from 2007 to 2008.

Margaret Lucas is certainly not complaining.

The general manager of the Hotel Rialto -- formerly the Douglas Hotel -- said the hotel has attracted a "tremendous amount" of business from that segment of the market.

"They are fabulous travellers and it is a very lucrative segment of the travel market," she said, noting she sees it simply as another group to attract to the city. "We have a seniors market, a family market, the gay and lesbian market and the outdoor recreation market. I just see it as a very specific group of travellers."

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