Saturday, June 23, 2018
Business

Florida tourism embraces same-sex wedding boom

Seven years ago, Michael Jamrock of New Port Richey co-founded a small tourism website with a big, hopeful name, EnGaygedWeddings.com, dedicated to same-sex-friendly vendors. Back then, advertisers and hits were few; states that legally recognized gay marriage even fewer.

But this month, the former Miami radio and TV personality saw his EnGaygedWeddings site — which has since become one of the world's largest LGBT online directories for same-sex nuptial vacation spots, hotels, venues, you name it — set records for global traffic.

Jamrock's total hits have quadrupled recently, a cyber-kaboom that includes 82,489 visitors in the past month searching for one state and one state alone:

Florida.

On Jan. 6, it became the 36th state to recognize marital equality.

"It's insanity!" said Jamrock, who now lists such major clients as Courtyard by Marriott in Tampa, the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk and Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club as advertisers on EnGaygedWeddings.com. "I just got (an advertising) call for the first time from Walt Disney World. When New York legalized (gay marriage), that was big, but the response in Florida is crazy."

When the Empire State legalized same-sex marriage on July 24, 2011, New York City alone generated some $259 million in spending related to gay weddings in the first year.

Florida tourism insiders and bay area merchants are expecting — and, in some cases, already feeling — the same buzz and burst of business. According to a study promoted by political advocacy group Equality Florida, $117 million could be spent statewide in the first year alone, solely based on LGBT Floridians getting married in Florida — never mind the influx of out-of-towners ready to exchange vows.

That same study also said "up to 2,626 jobs would be created" just to get up with the demand.

Optimism? You bet, although the full economic impact won't be known for a while.

Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County's nonprofit tourism branch, just launched a series of national print and digital ads aimed directly at same-sex couples tying the knot: "To Have to Hold," which gives the gay community yet another reason to sample our sandy shores.

"We've done our homework," said Santiago Corrada, Visit Tampa Bay's president and CEO. "We know the spending power that exists in the LGBT community. They like to travel; they like unique experiences."

For all the excitement, however, there's also a bemused back-patting reminder that Florida, and especially Tampa Bay, has been a gay-friendly vacation destination for a long time. Yes, the fact you can now get your paperwork done here is huge. But let's not forget: We're good at this.

The St. Pete Pride shindig, this year scheduled for the last weekend in June, is one of the biggest LGBT celebrations on the East Coast. Ybor City's Pride Parade & Festival, which Tampa will celebrate on March 28, is expected to draw mondo numbers, as well.

Will Seccombe, president and CEO of Visit Florida, a private-public tourism arm for the state, called the wedding industry in the state "high-yield." His group won't change the way it does business; there isn't a new ad campaign to specifically target same-sex couples. But it will continue to nurture the romance beat for everyone: People of all types get married in Florida, then fall in love with Florida, then keep coming to Florida.

"The weddings market is huge for us, not just in the near-term, meaning the event itself, but the long-term as it applies to the family," Seccombe said. "Florida is a wedding destination for anybody and everybody — and now there's another segment to enjoy that. There's a lot of energy and enthusiasm around that."

In all the happy-happy hubhub, there is caution about coming off as "inauthentic," said David Downing, interim director for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the tourism arm of Pinellas County, which blends LGBT imagery into ad campaigns. "This is a space we've been in for more than a decade," he said. "This is a great place for a gay wedding or a straight wedding. We focus on the experience, not the sexuality."

Keith Overton, president of TradeWinds Resorts on St. Pete Beach, one of the biggest getaway properties in Tampa Bay, said he doesn't plan on doing things differently — but only because he has been ready for this day. "For us, it's business as usual," Overton said. "We've always been an open resort. We've cultivated that segment of business very nicely."

Florida has long been a leader in savvy tourism, and courting gay vacationers is nothing new. Walt Disney World has held "commitment ceremonies" for LGBT couples as part of its robust weddings division.

Still, there's no denying a tangible excitement in the state. On Friday, the Epicurean Hotel in Tampa's SoHo neighborhood hosted a massive group wedding of same-sex couples. On Feb. 21, celebrity chef Art Smith and the James Royal Palm Hotel on Miami's South Beach will host 101 couples for a group ceremony — good business, great publicity.

Anthony Meiring, owner of the gay-owned and -operated Simple Weddings in St. Petersburg, has had to hire 25 percent more staff to handle the swell of new business. Seventy-five percent of his clients are out-of-state couples, gay and straight. But now that certain "local brides and grooms" don't have to go elsewhere to obtain a marriage license, he expects that client ratio to change.

"I wish Florida had been more cutting-edge on all of this," Meiring said. "A lot of our business and revenue has gone out of state for so long. But now I think we could really become a gay vacation and wedding destination. It's good for the LGBT community, local businesses and tourism. I don't see anyone losing here."

Contact Sean Daly at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife.

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