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November 24, 2014

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Las Vegas becoming a go-to destination for LGBT events, tourists

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Linda Quackenboss

Visitors stop at the Circus Circus booth at the third annual LGBT Wedding Expo at the Strip resort on Feb. 10, 2013. The expo featured LGBT-friendly wedding vendors, wedding planning tips, a fashion show and giveaways. The event was sponsored by Rainbow Wedding Network.

When Robin Gans helped bring Dinah Vegas, or Girl Bar Dinah Shore Weekend, — one of the largest lesbian events in the world — to Las Vegas last April, she hoped that it would draw enough attendees to fill the dance floor at Paris Las Vegas’ Chateau Nightclub. She expected maybe a couple of hundred women.

But when 1,700 women showed up, Gans had to find a way to accommodate them in the club and its outdoor beer garden.

It’s a scene Gans never would’ve pictured 10 or 15 years ago, when Las Vegas was a destination for gamblers and gawking tourists, not lesbians on getaways.

“Vegas has changed a lot,” said Gans, who has co-produced the event, an offshoot of Dinah Shore Weekend, through her Girl Bar entertainment group since 1990. “I think they’ve realized what the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender market has to offer, and I think they want our business. They’ve created a vibe of: 'Why wouldn’t we want to go?' I think the Vegas frontier is really opening up to our community.”

Gans isn’t alone in her opinion. Since the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority began marketing to the LGBT community in the early 2000s, the city has stepped into the spotlight as one of that demographic's premier travel destinations.

And winning that patronage is important to Las Vegas: According to a 2009 study from Community Marketing Inc., the average household income for gay men and women is $81,500 — about 80 percent higher than that of the average U.S. household. Another recent study by the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce found that LGBT travelers spent nearly twice as much per trip as their heterosexual counterparts and were twice as likely to go on vacation.

Las Vegas consistently ranks among the top business and leisure destinations surveyed annually by Community Marketing, a consumer research and marketing firm specializing in demographic studies of the LGBT community’s economic power. Last year, Las Vegas came in just below New York City and San Francisco as a top leisure travel destination in a survey of 5,700 LGBT travelers.

As Las Vegas holds steady with vacationers, its profile among LGBT businesses, organizations and events is rising. In the same 2012 survey, Las Vegas placed just below Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., as a top business travel destination; in 2009, Las Vegas didn’t even rank.

Since that year, the number of room nights booked by the LVCVA for meetings and conventions serving the gay community has nearly quadrupled, from 6,000 in 2009 to 22,500 in 2012, with a total nongaming economic impact of $30.6 million. 
Those figures don’t include social events, such as Dinah Vegas, which drew about 2,000 visitors, or LGBT conventions and events booked outside LVCVA, such as MGM Resorts International's “Fabulous” weekend.

Aggressive outreach from LVCVA, MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment has led to a number of LGBT organizations expanding and moving their events from other popular destinations such as Palm Springs, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., to Las Vegas. 

Gans brought Dinah Shore Weekend to Las Vegas last year after being approached by Caesars Entertainment. Now she says there’s no looking back.

"Palm Springs just can’t compete at all. In Vegas, we can do what we did in Palm Springs times 10,” she said, citing lower event costs, a more liberal party environment and flexibility from Caesars to expand the scale of the event to accommodate a larger crowd for this year’s Dinah Vegas in April. Gans said last year’s weekend of events drew at least 2,000 visitors to Las Vegas, in addition to a large local showing, and she expects that number to double this year.

To make room, Caesars Entertainment is offering Dinah Vegas use of the Flamingo’s pool for its daytime and opening night parties. But Gans said Caesars is more than just an easy company to work with; more important, she said, is that it’s an equitable company to work for.

“If we’re going to be spending our money there, it’s important that they treat their employees well. They have several top executives who are openly gay. ... They offer wonderful employment packages for gay and lesbian couples,” she said. “They’re pretty progressive, and I’m really glad. Why not? We’re no different than anybody else.”

Caesars Entertainment, which has received a 100 percent score on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index six years in a row, is among several local companies that are working to better serve the LGBT community working in and visiting Las Vegas. Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts also received perfect scores on the HRC’s 2013 Corporate Equality Index; since the mid-2000s, their resorts have established dedicated marketing initiatives to attract LGBT customers.

Before the LVCVA launched its LGBT marketing campaign six years ago, Las Vegas simply wasn’t on the radar of most gay-friendly organizations.

Chris Manley, president of the Orlando-based LGBT event week Gay Days, said Las Vegas never would have crossed his mind as a possible host city for the event until he visited for the first time three years ago.

“It was like a light bulb went off,” he said. “Vegas is over the top as a travel destination, and it’s a little more adult. It beats Orlando on those aspects.”

Manley worked with the LVCVA to expand the event to Las Vegas, signing a four-year contract to host Gay Days Las Vegas at the Tropicana. Last year’s inaugural event drew 25,000 people.

“Las Vegas committed to us. Orlando has never done that. They don’t sponsor or put their names on any of our events,” he said. “That’s a big plus that Vegas gave us. People see that the city wants us to be there.”

For organizations like the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, Las Vegas’ lack of outreach in the past had been reason enough to stay away.

“Ten years ago, bringing a conference like ours to Vegas would’ve been a daunting task,” said John Tanzella, the travel association’s president.

Companies’ support of and outreach to the LGBT community are a dealmaker for organizations like his when choosing one attractive event location over another.

“If it’s a city that’s never been to our convention or doesn’t do anything in the gay market, and all of a sudden they want to bring us to their city, we wouldn’t consider them.”

Beyond ad campaigns, in recent years LVCVA, Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts have proved their mettle by attending events such as the travel association's annual conventions, helping fund initiatives and including the organization on their advisory committees. “We want to support destinations and hotel groups that support our organization. They give, we give back.”

Tanzella said LVCVA’s initial push has had a ripple effect across Las Vegas properties, transforming marketing to the gay community from an exception to a rule.

“LVCVA made an effort to promote our market in the community,” he said. “To everyone else, that said, 'This is why, and you guys need to get your ducks in a row, as well.'”

Today, events such as Gay Days and Dinah Vegas continue to add to Las Vegas’ credibility as a destination for the LGBT community.

“It's one thing to say that you are trying to entice LGBT visitors or that you are LGBT-welcoming. It is another thing to actually have offerings for the community,” said Richard Brower, director of LGBT marketing for Caesars Entertainment.

“Every time Vegas gets a large LGBT event, it gives a little credit to the city's LGBT outreach. When that event is as successful as Dinah Vegas, it solidifies Vegas as a premier destination for LGBT people. We are showing them that they are important to us and that we are committed to making sure they not only feel welcome but have even more reasons to visit our resorts.”

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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