When Scott Martin, a gay tech executive from Spokane, Washington, attended his first Las Vegas convention in 1996, he was giddier than a Beverly Hills housewife at an all-you-can-inject Botox party.
But his excitement soon turned to frustration. The only two gay bars in town weren’t anywhere near the Vegas Strip. “I had to take a cab just to get there,” says Martin. When he did, he was weak with disappointment. “It felt like we were still in Spokane.”
Ironically, what happened in Vegas was next to nothing.
That, however, was almost two decades ago. “It’s absolutely changed,” says Martin, who’s chosen Vegas for his big 40th birthday bash later this summer. Along with 20 of his closest friends, Martin is planning an entire weekend jam-packed with a dizzying array of pool parties, bars, and five-star dinning. The highlight of the trip? Tickets to see Olivia Newton-John and Britney Spears. Martin says the odds are they will spend anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 in one weekend. Not bad for a city that until recently wasn’t even on the gay map.
It seems Vegas is placing its biggest bet yet on the gays.
Last month, the city’s Convention and Visitors Authority launched its first-ever gay television ad, as part of its “What Happens Here Stays Here” campaign. The spot, which is running on Bravo, E! and Logo TV, features a man and woman checking into a hotel. As the woman leaves to freshen up, another man shows up, and the receptionist, assuming they’re together, innocently asks, “You gentlemen ready to check in?” The two men give each other a once-over, in a way that suggests, why not?
Even the Chippendales, known for their “Ultimate Girls Night Out!” slogan, are embracing their gay side. Buy a ticket to their show and you might be surprised to see more than a few gay men in the audience cheering and hollering. Back in the ’80s the Chippendales were known as much for their Velcro pants as for their refusal to let men attend their show. “It really revamped itself,” says Jaymes Vaughan, Chippendales’ first and only openly gay stripper. “Vegas is definitely gay, and it’s only getting gayer. I mean, have you seen the sign to the city? It reads, ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.’ I think that pretty much sums it up.” Vaughan has yet to pull a gay man up to the stage for a private lap dance, but he knows it’s only a matter of time. “Gay money spends just like straight money.”
“I think it’s great isn’t it? It’s wonderful!!!” says Olivia Newton John. “Cities are opening up to the reality of it and they’re embracing the whole idea.” Newton-John estimates at least a third of her audience is made up of gay men who have followed her career ever since she donned that pink jacket in Grease. “People are coming to see me from all over the world. That’s love, and I’m grateful for that.”
In the last five years, Vegas has become the go-to place for gay men and women looking for a quick, fun getaway. There are no exact numbers as to how many LGBT tourists travel to the resort city each year, but a recent survey by Community Marketing, a research firm specializing in the LGBT community, shows it’s now the fourth-leading gay tourist destination in the country, beating out established gay Meccas such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Springs. While New York City leads the pack by a few percentage points, Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles are virtually tied for second place.
“Vegas has done an incredible job at marketing themselves to the gay community,” says David Paisley, senior research director at Community Marketing. “They’ve spent far more money on LGBT media than any other gay destination out there.”
And it seems to be working. Big time. “The biggest trend happening right now is that bars and major resorts are all doing a gay night,” he says. “Almost every major gay association out there has held their convention in Las Vegas over the last few years.”
“What we’re trying to do is let the gay community know that Vegas is an all-welcoming city no matter who you are and what you want to do when you come to town,” says Jim McMichael, diversity manager for the city’s Visitor’s Authority. Though there have been other TV ads with gay storylines, (a 2007 ad for Levi's Jeans featured alternate endings with male and female love interests in a telephone booth), this one has been touted as the first major campaign directly targeting LGBT people, rather than using them as a punchline.
“The whole positioning was that Vegas doesn’t make any assumptions one way or the other,” says Arnie DiGeorge, executive creative director at R&R Partners, the agency who created the ad. “It’s the Mystery of Vegas. We don’t tell people how to feel.”
That Vegas is becoming a leading tourist destination specifically now is no coincidence, says Bob Witeck, founder of Witeck Communications, a leading D.C.-based gay consulting firm. “When the economy imploded in 2008, the city made a conscious effort to go after gay tourism.” Witeck points to the fact that gay men and women still have fewer children on average than their straight counterparts, which leaves them more disposable cash for vacations and travel. And just in case you thought it was all chump change, new research by the world’s leading LGBT tourism trade association shows gay tourism will exceed the $200 billion mark this year.
Unlike their straight counterparts, gay tourists don’t come to Vegas for the blackjack. “The reason gays and lesbians go to Las Vegas is totally different than the general population,” says Paisley. “They go to Vegas for high-quality hotels for the dollar. The quality of accommodations you can get for the $100 to $200 range is remarkable.”
And, of course, you can safely wager there’ll be top-notch entertainment. “Vegas has a history of bringing in some pretty gay acts,” says Witeck. “Celine, Bette, Manilow, Cirque du Soleil and, now, Britney and Olivia.”
The move to go after gay tourism is not without controversy. Many in the gay community feel Vegas is double-dealing. On one hand, it wants gays to spend their hard-earned dollars on its hotels and shows, but when it comes to getting hitched, one of the city’s biggest industries, all bets are off. Nevada doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, a sore point for many gay tourists.
“The problem with Nevada is that Vegas is progressive, but we also have a lot of rural areas that are uneducated about this,” says Vaughan. “It’s an unfortunate coincidence that Britney Spears can come and get married for whatever amount of hours she was married, but two people who love each other and could potentially be married for life, can’t. For that I do give our city a big old stamp of hypocrisy.”
As for Martin, he believes it’s a step in the right direction. “They’re making an effort. It gives me the feeling that we’re in it together. They’re welcoming us and in return I’m happy to spend my money there.”
This time, he’s betting Vegas will feel nothing like Spokane, and for him, that’s the jackpot.